You get home from a tiring day at work and you find out that the dishwasher is broken. Your dog, Scruffy, still needs to go see the vet and you still need to make yourself dinner. You pick up Scruffy and get into your car only to realize it’s making a funny clicking sound when your driving. After you call the repairman and microwave yourself some dinner, you plop in front of the television, frustrated and tired, wondering where the day went.
Most the people I have met in my life seem to have one common problem that really prevents them from improving their life. They are trapped within the minutia of it. All the little problems and challenges that spring up absorb their time until, surprise, there is none left. Drained from these mindless problems and expenditures of energy, they collapse in bed exhausted only to drag themselves out of bed once more at the infernal klaxon blast of the alarm clock.
Then when you hear some motivational speaker or stumble into a blog entry such as this, they cringe hearing a speaker proclaim how you need to set goals, get organized and work harder. Work harder? You were already working your ass off just to keep up with life, working harder seems impossible.
So the real question in trying to get going is how you can overcome those little things? How can you overcome all those little daily problems that suck your energy, bring you down and keep you from moving to the next level? How can you overcome the tedium of an average life and transcend to something more? Is it even possible? Stay with me, because I believe it is.
A Look Inside Your Brain
I know it may seem hard to believe, but the real problem isn’t all the little things. It is something much deeper, a greater underlying issue that prevents you from escaping all the tedium. Without understanding this deeper issue, you can’t possibly improve.
The real issue is that you assume that problems are in a fixed quantity. You have the unconscious assumption that when you fix a problem, you have one less. That makes sense doesn’t it? When you fix the dishwasher, take the dog to the vet or call the mechanic, that is one less problem, right?
Unfortunately this isn’t how your brain works. The truth is that you have an infinite amount of problems. You always have problems, challenges and goals that your brain is trying to solve. When one gets solved, another just comes up in it’s place. As a result you end up spinning around constantly solving problems as new ones continue to crop up in there place.
This happens because problems don’t exist in the world, they exist in your head. Think of your mind like a container that can hold problems. When it is full, no new problems can enter it. When one leaves, it leaves a vacuum from which a new one can enter. So you can never really get rid of all your problems (or ‘challenges’ if you want a more positive word).
Now you might be feeling a little pessimistic. If you can never solve all your problems, without more coming up, what are you supposed to do to escape the tedium of minutia?
Find a Greater Quality Problem
The truth is you don’t really want to solve all your problems. The brief instants of your life in which problems have been vacated and not refilled are for a time very enjoyable and satisfying but quickly become boring and painful. The brain finds challenges because it needs them.
This picture represents the state of someone who is struggling to overcome the minutia in life. Continually cycling from problem to problem it is very difficult to make improvements. Perhaps this person knows a lot of things that they should be doing to improve their life, but can’t seem to find the time or energy to make it happen.
As you can see the circle simply loops in on itself time after time. A person trapped in this cycle can never improve simply because they are stuck an equilibrium level of problem. They continually face the same quality of problems over and over again, and so they never improve.
Ironically the way to overcome all the little things is to find one big thing to overcome. When you find a greater quality problem that really pushes and challenges you, the cycle breaks. You shift up to a higher level.
This exact process has happened to me many times. In my own life I would get stuck in a rut where it seemed like all my energy was being consumed simply to stay where I was. Improvement and growth seemed farfetched because I was putting in most my energy just to break even.
The way I overcame this position each time was to find a new challenge that inspired me enough to push to the next level. In June when I was at the pinnacle of my vertical growth efforts I was waking up at 5:30 AM with a morning run, working on this website and other projects for several hours a day, on top of school, teaching swimming lessons, coaching two teams of minor soccer, completing several speeches in Toastmasters and exercising every day. All of these big challenges I experienced pushed me incredibly hard and broke my circle of problems to get to a new level.
I think most people assume that creating bigger challenges would simply make their life more stressed and difficult. While, technically, this is true, the stress from a higher quality problem is quite different from simply handling the same quality of problem. Often called eustress, this ‘good stress’ from pushing yourself leaves you feeling immensely satisfied and fulfilled.
Finding Your Challenge
In order to take on a new challenge, you need to find the motivation.
I don’t believe in the idea of motivational speakers. The emotion of motivation can come from a hyped up speech, but a rock concert will do the same thing. Actual motivation can only come from within. All a speaker can offer you is ideas, any motivation yielded is temporary and fragile. That being said, how do you find motivation to take on a greater challenge, especially when you are feeling drained just by current circumstances?
I think finding your challenge is part passion and part optimism. Whatever you choose as your next challenge, it needs to be something intrinsically valuable and inspiring to you. If you aren’t passionate about something, it is impossible to motivate yourself. Everybody has their own deep desires that can become a greater challenge.
Unfortunately passion isn’t enough. If you don’t believe that it is possible to succeed in taking on your challenge, you will suppress your intrinsic motivation. You need to unleash your optimism on your next large challenge. Getting certainty that you can succeed in something is critical to coming up with the motivation to achieve it.
For my regular readers this might seem like a complete 180 degree opinion shift from my article, When to Quit. Some people read into the article that I felt being ‘realistic’ was important when determining whether to continue. In fact I was saying almost the complete opposite, that you need to base your decision on whether or not you are passionate and enjoying the challenge, not whether success is likely, so I think these ideas fall in line nicely.
Goal setting is an excellent practice to find and create your challenge. By setting a goal you are basically creating a higher quality problem for yourself. Nothing feels better than working towards a higher quality of problem and breaking the cycle of monotonous problems that plague most people.
Higher Quality Doesn’t Equal More Work
Of course, some of you incredibly busy people might be seriously questioning the practical possibilities of working more than they already are. With work, taking the kids to soccer practice, errands, cooking, cleaning, keeping family order, etc. how can you possibly work harder?
This is very special type of problem where instead of tackling a greater quality of problem, you simply keep stuffing more and more little problems into your life. As a result you don’t ever break the cycle I mentioned previously, you just keep circling through it faster and faster.
Taking up a greater challenge means you need to actually ignore some of the little things that you would normally try to solve. Get past the false notion that you need to keep up with Jones’s, and find a quality of problem that is worth your time. More and more little problems won’t really help you grow, they will just make you more and more drained and stressed.
Stop looking to solve all your problems. Find a better challenge. Find something that will really push, inspire and stretch you and start working on it. It will be hard and it will definitely cause some stress. But when the day is over you will fall asleep happy with the work you have done and wake up with the vigor of knowing you are getting the most out of your life.