Here are a few recent emails I’ve received. From Connie:
Over the last few years, I’ve taught myself to play acoustic guitar and lately I’ve started writing a lot of songs. I’d like to record them and share them with others and maybe eventually start playing concerts, but every time I think about it, I want to do something else. It just seems so big.
I liked your article on emergency funds. I want to get started on my own, but I really don’t know where to start. It seems like I spend all of my money before I get around to saving it.
Could you write a step-by-step post about how to get a garden started? I’d love to have a big vegetable garden and I even have the spot picked out, but I don’t know where to start. It seems like a HUGE task.
I started writing responses to each of these emails, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that most of the points I was making in my responses were the same from person to person. In each of these cases, the reader is intrigued with a big goal, but the big goal seems too big and thus out of reach.
There are a few keys to unlocking any big goal you might face in life. Let’s walk through these key steps, using Connie and Andy and Zelda - and myself - as examples.
Define That Goal Clearly!
Most people have big dreams. I know I certainly do. I have dreams about publishing a series of novels, seeing them in bookstores, signing copies regularly, and seeing a short story of mine published in The New Yorker. Zelda wants to have a big garden. Andy wants to build a six month emergency fund. Connie wants to record an album and play a concert.
While it’s fun to daydream about these things, they’ll never happen unless you establish what exactly it is that you want. The key is to get started, and getting started means knowing clearly where you’re going.
I’ll start off with my goal. I want to write fiction. But what exactly does that mean? What I really want to do is tell a long-form story that really touches people. That, in the end, means writing and publishing a well-promoted novel that has a chance of being read by a wide audience. Doing that fulfills many of my wandering daydreams. Since I have little control over the publishing process, my main focus should be on writing a great novel and preparing for publication by getting other, shorter pieces published.
Zelda’s goal is to have a big garden. But what does that mean? Does she want vegetables? Herbs? Flowers? From her description of the situation, she likely wants a vegetable-focused garden. Where will it go? She has a spot picked out for it. What plants will she plant? That’s a decision Zelda needs to make - what grows well in her area, for starters, and what vegetables does she most enjoy?
Andy wants a big emergency fund. The key here is to define a dollar amount. How much does Andy spend each month? How many months’ worth of living expenses does Andy actually need? Also, where will Andy be saving the money?
Connie wants to record an album’s worth of music and play a concert. What exactly does that mean? Is Connie shooting to self-release an album? Does she want to play a concert in a small coffee shop or is she dreaming of a big arena? The best goals rely mostly on you for success, so Connie might want to shoot for recording her own album and playing a very small show in a local venue - perhaps any concert will do, or perhaps she can set a goal of an audience of fifty people. She could easily converge the two goals - perform a show with fifty people there and have copies of her CD on hand to sell to the audience.
The key is to change your dreams into something specific and something that relies mostly on your own behavior and not on the behavior of others. Connie, Andy, and Zelda (and me) should spend some time adding details to the big goal, making it as clear as possible what that goal entails (and thus making the steps to get there that much clearer).
What is your goal? You’re dreaming about something right now. Write it down. Tear out the pieces that require reliance on someone else. Then, make it specific - what exactly are you dreaming about?
Figure Out the Big Steps
Once the goal is concrete, it’s time to figure out a plan to get there.
For my goal of writing a novel and some short stories, I need to bone up on my fiction writing. This means prescribing to a steady diet of two things: reading good fiction (to learn technique and style) and practicing my own writing. Thus, my plan should revolve around a steady diet of reading good fiction each day along with focused fiction writing, starting with short stories and later growing into longer pieces.
Zelda needs to start off by developing a garden plan (what will she plant and when), then developing a calendar of the tasks that need to be done over the spring, summer, and fall months.
Andy needs to open an account for his emergency fund and set a specific target for saving each week or month. I recommend making each saving target lower than planned, simply because it’s easier to get into a routine of clearing small hurdles than to struggle at big hurdles, fail, and get discouraged.
Connie needs to get into a routine of writing new music and performing it, building towards a collection of songs that she’s satisfied with which she can record. Home recording is probably the best option here, as it only requires a microphone and recording software.
What is your plan? What steps go into achieving the big thing you want to achieve? Start breaking down the big dream into smaller and smaller pieces until they begin to feel like things you can handle.
Figure Out the First Step
When starting a big project, I often find it useful to set aside a block of time to accomplish a big first step. This way, you can feel an immediate sense of accomplishment as well as some personal investment in the big goal.
For me, this could mean spending a Saturday afternoon churning out a complete short story and reading a certain number of short stories written by others. I’ve been reading quite a few short stories as of late by swapping for short story compilations on PaperBackSwap and hitting the library.
Zelda might want to spend a Saturday afternoon preparing her selected area for gardening. This means calling a few days in advance to make sure she can till there, renting or borrowing a tiller, then turning over the land. She might also spend some time developing her plans as to what she intends to plant, as well as making a stop at the local gardening store to pick up seedlings.
Andy can get started by gathering up his receipts and statements and figuring out exactly how much he spends in a month - and what he can easily afford to save each week or each month. Then, he can open up a high-interest online savings account and then set up an automatic savings plan with that account, automating his savings in that account.
Connie might simply want to seek out a venue where she could play for free or for a low fee (like a local coffee shop) in order to get her feet wet with performing. Then, she could devote some time to developing a set list of what she considers her best songs and practice running through them several times to get the butterflies out.
What is your first step? What could you do on a Saturday afternoon to really get your feet wet with your big goal? Think about it, then pick a day where you can devote several hours to making a real start.
Once the ball is rolling, it’s vital that you give your project the regular upkeep that it deserves. One effective way of doing that is to set microgoals - very simple goals that you can accomplish in a few days or a week that move you ever closer to your bigger goal.
For my goal of writing, I’ll commit to a diet of reading ten short stories a week, writing a strong first draft of one, editing an old one to bring it into better shape, and sharing some of those edited stories with friends and family who can provide some solid feedback.
Zelda can set her microgoals by simply making a detailed gardening calendar and sticking to it. Each milestone of planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting is a small goal in itself.
Andy has ready-made microgoals with his automated savings plan, but he could push himself harder by making microgoals of finding additional ways to save a certain amount each month - say, $100. This encourages him to focus on clever ways of saving money and living a bit more frugally.
Connie should make it her goal to run through her complete set list in front of at least one audience member each week, then gather feedback when she can. She should also devote at least a bit of time each day to practicing those songs and developing new ones, with a goal of a certain amount of practice and song development each week.
What are your little steps? What can you do each day to move you closer to that big dream, now that you have a nice start? It only takes a little step to get further along on your journey, after all.
Set Aside the Time
Many people tend to fall behind on such big goals because they can’t seem to find the time for them. My feeling is that if this big dream really is a priority in your life, then it’s easy to find a way to free up half an hour or an hour each day to devote to that project.
For me, I’ve simply set aside half an hour each day to read a short story and half an hour to write a new one or prod an old one. I found that hour by simply getting more focused in my reading. On a normal day, I would spend two hours or so simply reading for pleasure - now I just have one hour of free reading and an hour devoted to making myself into a good fiction writer.
Zelda might find that her gardening project is well served by devoting a few hours each weekend to maintaining her garden. This can easily be found in many people’s lives.
Andy should consider doing much the same as Zelda - spending a few hours each weekend seeking out ways to reduce spending. One great way Andy could do this is by completing a few one hour projects each weekend for a few months, keeping track of what those projects actually save, then increasing his automatic savings by that amount.
Connie should just set aside practice sessions a few times a week, then devote some time on the weekend to playing a full set - perhaps on Saturday afternoon at a coffee shop or on Saturday evening at a local music establishment. One good place to harvest extra time is from entertainment sources - turn off the television, play fewer video games, or stop going out quite as much.
When will you do it? Look for places in your own life where you can free up a few hours on the weekends and/or a half an hour or an hour each day. Cut back on the television intake. Don’t go out after work as often. Reduce your involvement in some activities and friendships that aren’t really fulfilling to you. It’s easy to find that time if you want it.
A Few Final Tips
Here are a few additional little things to help you along.
Let the project provide the joy - don’t reward yourself. When you achieve a microgoal or reach a little milestone, it will feel very good. Enjoy it, but let the joy flow from the project, not from some artificial reward you give yourself. Don’t buy yourself something or do something out of the ordinary because you’ve made it this far - instead, simply revel in what you’ve accomplished to this point.
Share what you’re doing. Start a blog about it. Send emails to your friends about it. Talk about it in conversation. The more you share it, the more support you’ll get from the people around you, the more you’ll think about the progress you’re making, and the more inspired you’ll be to stick with it.
Failure should result in changing your plan, not quitting. Everyone fails on the journey to a big success. The winners are the ones that don’t use it as an excuse to quit. Instead, they use a failure as a tool - an indication that the game plan may be a bit off, that more practice is needed, or something else. When you fail, don’t blame it on the “impossibility” of the big goal. Instead, look for a different route up the mountain.
The Simple Dollar chronicles a man's road to recovery from "total financial meltdown." As author Trent Hamm puts it, "The Simple Dollar is a blog for those of us who need both cents and sense: people fighting debt and bad spending habits while building a financially secure future and still affording a latte or two." We'll post a couple of entries a week, but you can check out his writing daily at www.thesimpledollar.com