Why do we wait until January 1 to begin living our lives “better”? Almost 50 percent of Americans set New Year’s Resolutions—yet only 8 percent actually achieve those goals. In fact, over 25 percent of people who set New Year’s Resolutions drop off before the end of the first week. Institutions dedicated to self-improvement exploit this instinct: gyms report a rush of new members around January, most of whom will never walk through the doors on a regular enough basis to make a difference in their lives.
The Root Of Procrastination
Why is this? Why do we set goals only to drop them? One critical thing getting in our way is procrastination.
The bigger the change or project, the more likely we will procrastinate and for longer durations. Consider the simple example: If there are only a few dishes in the sink, it’s easy to just do them. If the sink is full, we avoid the kitchen. The act of the dishes filling up in the first place is a reflection of procrastination. Like debt, the longer you push the needed work into the future, the harder it becomes to face it.
Procrastination can help explain why people persist in jobs they hate and stay in broken relationships for years. It can explain why people postpone their highest aspirations, only to one day ask, “What might have been?” As Harold Hill has said: “You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays.”
According to Margie Warrell, an expert on brave leadership, a fundamental cause of procrastination is fear—fear of change, discomfort, the unknown, success, failure, and other people’s opinions of us. The justifications we tell ourselves and others when we’re afraid sound like this:
- “I’m too busy right now.”
- “I don’t have enough money.”
- “It seems way too stressful.”
- “It’s too risky.”
- “There’s no guarantee it will work anyways.”
- “I’m not experienced enough.”
- “I’m too old now.”
- “I’m too young.”
- “That would be too disruptive to everything going on in my life.”
Only rarely are these reasons actually the root cause of our putting things off . More often, these obstacles reflect our priorities—and the story we tell ourselves.
Why You Want—And Need—More Fun And Play In Your Life
Oddly enough, procrastination often manifests itself in workaholism. While we put off things we know we ought to be doing, we often counterintuitively bury ourselves in busyness. Even worse, we deceive ourselves by feeling important as a result. Our ‘busy-bragging’ epidemic has made being busy into a badge of honor in which moaning about one’s schedule has become a mark of social status.
Take for instance the anecdote from the New York Times article, “In Silicon Valley, Millionaires Who Don’t Feel Rich. Gary Kremen, founder of Match.com, speaks for his peer group of the nation’s wealthiest when he confessed to feeling pressured to work 60-80 hours a week just to “keep up.”
Sadly, the idealization of an insane workload also has the effect of trivializing and minimizing play. Indeed, “The only kind [of play] we honor is competitive play,” says Bowen F. White, MD, a medical doctor and author of Why Normal Isn’t Healthy.
Despite the increasing disinterest in play among American adults, Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, has studied the “Play Histories” of over six thousand people and concludes playing can radically improve everything—from personal well-being to relationships to learning to an organization’s potential to innovate. As Greg McKeown explains, “Very successful people see play as essential for creativity.”
In his TED talk, Brown said, “Play leads to brain plasticity, adaptability, and creativity… Nothing fires up the brain like play.” There is a burgeoning body of literature highlighting the extensive cognitive and social benefits of play, including:
- Enhanced memory and focus
- Improved language learning skills
- Creative problem solving
- Improved mathematics skills
- Increased ability to self-regulate, an essential component of motivation and goal achievement
- Team work
- Conflict resolution
- Leadership skill development
- Control of impulses and aggressive behavior
By almost all accounts, play is an essential ingredient to your happiness and well-being. And what’s more, play does not have to be disconnected from your work or life ambitions. On the contrary, the more your life pursuits can become a playful adventure, the more enjoyable—and likely more successful—they will be.
For example, Charlie Hoehn, well known author and keynote speaker, reported struggling with his workaholism just a few years ago. Working as Tim Ferriss’ assistant on a number of projects—including “The 4-Hour Body” and the Opening the Kimono event—Hoehn worked insane hours at a manic pace. In order to work multiple days straight without sleeping, he resorted to a powerful nootropic; a brain drug intended to enhance cognitive functioning. Inevitably, he experienced an extreme burnout. Of his workaholism, Hoehn said:
“I was addicted to my work. You see, I liked to think of myself as busy and important, so I tethered myself to the Internet seven days a week. I communicated with everyone through screens. I spent all day long sitting indoors. I drank coffee all week, and drank alcohol all weekend. I only stopped working when I was sleeping. And then I stopped sleeping. I just couldn’t stop myself from working all the time. It didn’t matter what else was going on in my life or if I started feeling sick; work was everything to me.”
After stepping away from his busy routine, Hoehn said his perceived lack of productivity, lack of money, and an unknown future created intense feelings of fear and anxiety. It took over a year to have an emotional breakthrough where he felt he could finally breathe again. The cure for Hoehn’s anxiety and the facilitator of his best work turned out to be play. He chronicles his entire story in his book, Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety. His is now on a mission is to help people learn how to play for a living.
Your Bucket List Will Get You Out Of Survival Mode
Like Hoehn before his personal intervention, most people’s lives are filled to the brim with the nonessential and trivial. They don’t have time to build toward anything meaningful. As Ryan Holiday put it, “This is a fundamental irony of most people’s lives. They don’t quite know what they want to do with their lives. Yet they are very active.”
Most people are in survival mode. Are you in survival mode?
It was social and cultural to live our lives on other people’s terms, just one generation ago. And many millennials are perpetuating this process simply because it’s the only worldview we’ve been taught.
Our attempts at breaking this broken cycle through incremental goal setting and New Year’s Resolutions is not helping our cause. A radically different and more aggressive approach is needed. Specifically, our current approach to goal setting is problematic in four ways:
- Our goals perpetuate and intensify our own busyness
- Our goals are not positioned in the context of our deepest ambitions in life
- Our goals fail to ignite excitement leading to urgent action and lasting change
- Our goals are too serious and lack the whimsy of an epic adventure
A bucket list, on the other hand, is a list of things you want to experience or accomplish before you die. This life list is the essence of what really matters to you; and the legacy you wish to leave behind. So, take a look at your life and ask yourself:
Is every aspect of my day taking me toward my ultimate aims?
Are there activities I often engage in that have no logical connection to what I really want out of my life?
This level of honesty with yourself is hard and even frightening. When I took the time to assess my daily pursuits compared to the ambitions listed on my bucket list, it was clear large portions of my day were drained on things I didn’t care about.
Our lives are like a garden. If we have not purposefully cultivated and planted, weeds will have grown in excess. The initial weeding out process can take months, as was the case with me. Often, vigorous interventions are required to reclaim control of our unkempt gardens. My recent weeding-out experience involved quitting my job, pulling back on multiple projects at school, quitting pursuits that were not intrinsically motivating, and reframing my entire daily routine. Now I’m in position to cultivate the life I truly desire.
Our lives take continual work not only to keep the weeds out, but to plant the experiences, relationships, and characteristics we seek to harvest. But one truth can not be denied: What you plant you will harvest.
What are you planting?
Getting Out Of The Rat Race And Into Your Epic Adventure
If you are reading this article in the first place, I suspect you are a goal-oriented, driven, and focused person. So ask yourself an honest question: do you have a bucket list? And if you do, are you pursuing the things on your bucket list or are you too busy pursuing your goals?
Pursuing items on a bucket list feels more like play; whereas pursuing goals can often feel like drudgery and put you on the track of “working” 60-80 hours per week to “keep up.” For my own part, I’ve stopped traditional goal-setting per say and instead focus my energy on the real outcomes I’m seeking.
How have I done that? The best approach for reframing your goals is “begin with the end in mind.” For instance, if you are currently running a few miles a day, but one day dream of running a marathon—stop focusing on running a few miles per day. Start training for that marathon. Make that your goal, design a strategy for its accomplishment, and set a timeline for its completion by signing up for a future race, today.
When you weed out the garden of your life, and focus exclusively on the outcomes you feel define your life mission, you’ll be less busy and stressed. You’ll be more congruent and authentic. You’ll have more purpose and less apology.
What you’ll discover is attaining your ambitions is far less difficult than you initially imagined. Most people’s dreams and ambitions are far beneath their potential. When you knock something off your life list, you’ll gain greater confidence in your ability. Your vision will expand for what you can do and become. Consequently, you’ll set out to achieve bigger dreams while gaining stores of motivation and momentum along the way.
Turning Bucket List Items Into “Quests”
Chris Guillebeau, author of “The Art of Nonconformity” and “The $100 Startup” recently published a new book, “The Happiness of Pursuit.” The book explores his personal quest of traveling to all 193 countries in the world over a decade. More specifically, the book is a framework for helping anyone discover and live their own personal quest.
To Guillebeau, people undertake quests because they feel discontent and long for something more in their life. The goal is to find meaning and purpose along the way. But a quest is not the same thing as a hobby. A hobby may be to play golf 2-3 time per week. A quest may be to play golf at St. Andrews in Scotland. A hobby may turn into a passion, and then ultimately a quest.
What makes a quest unique? Well, for one thing, it has a defined beginning and an end. It has various stages and levels, like a video game. It can’t be easy. Challenge is the essence of adventure, and thus, the essence of a quest. A quest must be attainable. For example, Guillebeau didn’t set out to visit every planet in the solar system, but to visit every country in the world. To borrow Napoleon Hill’s adage: you must be able to conceive and believe your quest is possible—even if no one else does. Lastly, it must be something pulling deeply at you. If you didn’t do this thing, you’d regret it.
Certain quests are audacious, like Martin Parnell who ran 250 marathons in one year, or John Francis who took a 17 year vow of silence. Other forms of quests are less outrageous, but still maintain the sense of adventure. For instance, Robyn Devine is questing to knit 10,000 hats before she dies. She started by making 100 hats in a year for her friends. She loved it so much she determined to make 1,000. However, after some consideration, she decided to increase the personal challenge, so she bumped it up to 10,000 hats. Similarly, certain religious mission trips can be seen as a quest.
Designing Your Life Around Your Highest Ambitions
Guillebeau recently gave a talk at Google discussing “The Happiness of Pursuit.” During the question and answer section of the talk, one of the Google employees asked, “We all have these great ideas. But at the same time, we have responsibilities and mortgages, and whatever. What is your advice for people who want to go out and pursue certain things, but there are certain limitations we deal with? I can’t just walk away from my condo today and walk across the country. That wouldn’t work out well for me.”
Guillebeau responded with a question, “Well, do you really want to walk across the country? Is that your aspiration? We should define our aspirations, and then craft our life around them.”
The choice is yours: You can choose to be busy like much of world—caught in the thick of thin things and procrastinating that which matters most. Or, you can detach yourself from the noise and live consciously and on purpose.
You are responsible for your own fate. You are the designer of your destiny. You have the power—this instant—to change everything in your life.
Start now by creating your bucket list. Then design your life around your highest ambitions.
What you plant, you will harvest.
Why not plant the fun and engaging adventure brewing up inside you?
Benjamin Hardy is the foster parent of three children and the author of Slipstream Time Hacking. He’s pursuing his Ph.D. in organizational psychology. To learn more about Mr. Hardy, visit www.benjaminhardy.com or connect with him on Twitter.