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How to Reach Your Goals and Live In the Moment at the Same Time

  • 18 min read

If you had to convey your whole approach to life with one specific character, which one would you choose:

The laid back hippie or the Spartan warrior?

The Roman hedonist or the Zen monk?

The girl who plans every day to the minute or the unpredictable adventurer?

Since most people aren’t completely black or white I’m guessing you picked out at least 2 or 3 of those cliches and then found it hard to decide one that completely described you.

I myself have a bit of all of them in me. And they keep dragging back and forth, screaming for attention whenever one of them isn’t fully satisfied.

I love partying, sitting around in the sun doing nothing. Or indulging in all kinds of bodily pleasures. But I’m also addicted to the feeling of doing something that was still beyond my “skill-level” a week earlier, which requires dedicated training, practice and discipline. I’ve set some really huge life goals for myself and vowed to do all it takes to reach them. But at the same time I find that I generally need a lot less than most people to be happy.

It took me a very long time before I found a way to make that all work together.

For most of my youth I pretty much embodied chaos.  I would hitch a ride or hop on a train to whatever city some private party was rumored to be in, only to worry about how to sneak inside or find a place to sleep when that issue became urgently relevant.  I pretty much kept the party going 24/7 and did whatever I felt would be fun.  

As this went on for years I was convinced I was “carpe-ing” the shit  out of every “diem”. But while I had countless of amazing experiences, a lot of days I was simply just a wandering junkie with no real clue where to go. While all my friends where already focusing on their career those other 5 days of the week.

At some point I realized that I had all these big goals and dreams but was just running in circles, going nowhere fast. So I totally overcompensated and started living like a monk for months to read, practice and work 80+ hours week.  As you can imagine this turnaround wasn’t very fun for my girlfriend who suddenly only started to ever see me after 11PM.   It also pissed off some of my lazier friends and while I really needed to go through that phase to get a lot done and learn a lot about myself, I was missing out on much of life itself.

I kept swinging back and forth between these extreme ways of living until I found some kind of balance by creating a daily structure for myself that allowed room for shredding through my to-do list while also having high amounts of fun.

But this quickly became boring, because it lacked the element of spontaneity.  I always knew up front when the “work” or the “play” part came so I missed the call of adventure in my life.

When 2016 started I did a little experiment.  I decided that I already trusted myself to have enough discipline to get shit done and ditched the idea of planning altogether (though I did keep track of what I had done at the end of every day out of curiosity).   From now on I lived purely on intuition, led by my emotional impulses.

When I didn’t want to work, I didn’t.  If I felt like I wanted to play some music, l started to practice, but without any kind of structured practice routine.  When I asked someone out I usually asked them out for that same night or the next day, never up front. And when I went to the supermarket I didn’t bring a grocery list but simply picked the produce that looked particularly delicious that morning.  

Interestingly, this approach seemed to work better than planning my work days.  I reached all my goals faster during this period compared to working with any kind of structure or planning.  Until a major flaw of this philosophy became apparent:

One day I felt a little sad. In response, my intuition started leading me to unproductive coping strategies and lazy habits for a few weeks in a row. So I kind of fell off the wagon and had to rethink my life again while finding a way to get all the work done I had ignored the past weeks.  Once again, a life strategy that didn’t work.

I think it’s clear by this point that taking your way of life to any kind of extreme – while fun for a couple of days – always becomes a major weakness in the long run. That exactly what extreme means: unbalanced, leaning to much to one particular side. It’s an unstable stance to take on.

Everyone loves pleasure. But extreme hedonism can turn you into a fat addict with liver problems and an impressive collection of STD’s.

Being too goal oriented on the other hand makes you restless and never satisfied. While being way too Zen and “okay with things” can make you okay with shitting your pants in public without feeling the desire to change them.  (Not judging if that’s what you’re into, of course..)

Every extreme philosophy can learn a lot from the wisdom of its polar opposite, and I think it’s worth it to temporarily explore a few one of those extremes to experience the pros and cons of each perspective. But in the end you should strive to take whatever you learned from those experiences and integrate it into a more nuanced way of life tailored to your own personality and desires.

While I’m not the perfect example of a balanced individual yet (I still go out too long, too many nights for example) I have found a few principles that allow me to have the best of each of these worlds. To reach my goals while carpe-ing that diem at the same time:

1. Prioritize Your Goals

When you’re working, spend most of your time working on the stuff you’d want to get done first if you were to die a year from now. Get this done before you check your e-mails or start “tweaking your website to make it better”.

Then ask yourself if you like your girlfriend more than checking your e-mails or not. And if you do, maybe they can wait till the end of the day and you should love her brains out first.  (Yes, I’m talking to my younger self here 😉 )

A lot of work seems very important until you take a good honest look at it.  You can ask yourself these questions to find out what is and what isn’t:

Is this absolutely essential?  If so, why? What’s the real impact of doing this?

Is it urgent as well?  Would it be on my top 10 list of most urgent things to do if I were to die soon?

Perfect.  That means it’s a genuine priority and you should do it RIGHT NOW.

Once you know what your priority tasks are, do them the first thing in the morning, the first day of the week and the first week of this month until they are finished.  This way these tasks won’t get in the way of some really fun spontaneous opportunities after you just spent most of your week doing stuff that only seemed important.

2. Make Your Plan a Guideline, Not a Hard Rule

Planning your days in advance is definitely a must even if you like to live in the moment.  When in the morning you tend to be a bit less clear-headed and are inclined to stay lazy, a plan can be exactly what you need to motivate yourself into action taking momentum.

When is the last time you had a day that went a 100% according to plan though?

Human beings are simply not made to execute plans and scripts for 20 hours a day.  That’s what machines are for.  Like all life-forms, we are made to stay aware of our inner and outer environments, adapt to any unexpected changes and make use of all external or internal resources given to us in the best way possible to increase our chances at survival and replication.

That’s why you shouldn’t push yourself to execute every plan to the letter. But instead allow yourself to get sidetracked when something more important presents itself or you realize your heart is elsewhere.  If you were to stick to the plan exclusively, you wouldn’t even have time to deal with any setbacks or opportunities that came up.

A quick tip here: If you randomly stumbled upon it on the internet, it probably isn’t more important than what you planned on doing.  Except for reading this blog of course 😉

To allow yourself to do this without drowning in to do lists (read that sentence again and imagine how beautiful it would sound when spoken by a rapper), you can plan out only 40-60% of your time and set deadlines that give you a couple of extra days for everything.

This way you still have time to procrastinate when it is really worth it. And if all goes well you can get more done than you expected, which is a great feeling.

It’s amazing how much difference this actually makes and your future-self will thank you for it.  It may be important to never procrastinate on reaching your goals. But the work you did when you stayed at home on the night of your best friends’ birthday party won’t be your most treasured memory either, that much is certain.

3. Stop Seeing “Work” and “Play” as Different Things

They are not exclusive to each other.  A lot of work is actually fun once you stop seeing it as something “you have to do”.   If you minimize distractions and allow yourself to fully immerse yourself in the work until you achieve a state of flow, work can actually be really fun. (Just as some fun can actually be hard work, as I experienced 2 days ago on a Bungee Run Bouncy Castle. )

Work also doesn’t have to mean sitting in your office wishing you had a day off to go outside today.

If whatever you’re doing really needs to be done today and is important but not very pleasant, why don’t you just go outside and do the work over there?  

Take your laptop with you and make the hammock your office if that’s what it takes to enjoy it more.

If your boss doesn’t allow that:  Fire your boss and get a smarter one 😉  Seriously, they’re out there.  At my last job they understood the importance of creating a fun work environment to the extent that my work days were actually something I looked forward to.  As a result everyone who works there is extremely loyal.  If a “corporate culture” like that exists, then why would you ever settle for less?

4. Stop Seeing All “Play” As the Same Thing

When you divide your activities into two simple categories like “Work” and “Play”, you can still sometimes end the day feeling a little unfulfilled even when you “had enough of both”.  This is because not all play is the same thing.  Sometimes a day on the beach can be exactly what you need, other times the idea can seem utterly boring.  Sometimes you’d rather go party or do something really intense and challenging. Others you just want to spend all day in bed. Or in the shower. Or on the kitchen table.

I think a major aspect of “having fun” is expressing parts of your personality without with any other purpose than self-expression.  That’s why I started this post mentioning some “character types”.  We all have different aspects to our personality that desire to be expressed on a regular basis.

I found that if you rely on a specific activity for your fun (going out, playing video games, hanging with the same people every night) you never get to express all those parts of your personality.  That’s because the real fun is not about the mechanics of the activity, it’s about what you allow the activity to bring out in you.

Something that helped me a lot to keep living in the moment is that instead of asking myself “What do I feel like doing?” I now take a moment to feel which parts of my personality want to express themselves. The worker bee? The joker?  The lover? The master? The laid back hippie?  The adventurer/explorer?

When you do this for a while your emotional awareness increases and you get very good at detecting what kind of “fun” you’d enjoy and with whom.  As you get better at this you will even notice that often it is possible to just amuse yourself wherever you are without really needing anything from anyone.

I think when you start thinking about how you desire to express yourself every moment instead of what kind of activity could “give you fun”, you feel a lot more happy and fulfilled at the end of the night. Even when deviating from your original plans.

5. Become More Process Oriented Than Results Oriented

I’m all for giving up short-term gratification in favor of long-term well-being, but that doesn’t mean working towards your ideal future should require your present reality to be unpleasant.  Happiness should be a by-product of being on your path, instead of just a reward you get after 10 years of slaving away.

Because what if that day never comes? And even if it came, would those 10 years of denying yourself to enjoy the moment be worth it?

It may sound like I’m speaking against having any long-term goals at all here. But that’s not my point.  What I mean is that it’s important to enjoy the work it takes to get there just as much, even if in the end the rewards you hoped for would never come.

Yes, you have to keep your eyes firmly on the prize and stay on course.  But never get so attached to a certain outcome that it would make you suffer if your actions didn’t produce the desired result.

Maybe you do exactly what you need to do, but you get something different than what you hoped for.  That’s okay.  You aimed to the best of your ability but missed the mark.  It happens. But who knows?  Maybe you accidentally hit something else that is even more fun. Or you can use your mistake as useful data to point out where you need to step up your game next time.   That’s the whole point of having fun learning something.   It’s pure excitement if you allow it to be. It’s perfectly possible to take your dreams very seriously and see life as a fun game at the exact same time.

If that sounds like a hard thing to teach yourself, don’t worry.  You already know how to do it:  

When you have sex, do you enjoy the whole thing or just the climax?  

When you watch a movie, do the first 2 hours feel like something you need to sit through just so you can see the ending?

Of course not, or we’d all hit fast forward every time. And movie theaters would go out of business.  No, you like the whole process of those things.  Similarly, there wouldn’t even be a point in competing for anything if you already knew upfront you were going to win (unless you have a really unhealthy need for validation).  It’s the whole journey that makes it fun.

It’s also that “still working on it”-part of the journey during which you feel like you’re really living. Not that 5 second moment at the end when you get the reward.  If you stay aware of that, you are automatically living in the moment.

The best part of it all?  Caring more about the process than the result will actually help you reach your goals faster.

If you find it hard to believe that giving less fucks about the achievement of your goals increases the chances of reaching them, here’s an example to illustrate how it works:

Imagine you have been preparing all year for an audition for a part in your favorite movie. And today is D-day.  Getting the part means the world to you, so in a way you are threatened by the possibility your own performance not being enough.

If you don’t do this perfectly from the first second all the hard work, blood, sweat and tears will have been for nothing.

How relaxed do you feel in such a moment?  Probably not a lot.

How will that impact the smoothness and natural feel of your acting performance?  Probably in a bad way. You’ll seem stiff, less confident and less controlled.

On the other hand, if you cared less about the outcome but still managed to enjoy the process of working towards it, you’d just be yourself and make it work.  You might be a little more tense. Because this time it’s for real. But you’ve done this a million times before while preparing, so you’ve got this.  Since you’re enjoying it this much you’re spreading positive emotions to person you have to deal with during the audition as well.  Seems pretty clear to me that’s a more ideal situation.

If after that you don’t get the part, then that’s a setback. But you can take all that you learned with you for the next opportunity to reach your goal.  It was an fun ride none-the-less so you feel no regrets on your part.

6. Practice Gratitude

While dissatisfaction with your current situation can be a great motivator (that, or it will turn you into a whiney bitch if you let it), learning to appreciate what you already have right now is much more powerful.

The source of our unhappiness, more often than not ,is that we spend our present time wishing we were more like somebody else, had something else, were someplace else, or were doing something else.

Simply put: if your expectations of life are higher than whatever you are experiencing right now, you will be disappointed with it.  That doesn’t mean you should lower your expectations.  Never lower your bar or settle for mediocrity.  It’s good to dream up an ideal future and work towards it. But at the same time, always stay aware of how much you already have right now that you shouldn’t take for granted.

Something as simple as writing down three things you’re grateful for at the end of every day can be a step in the good direction. Or writing down any magic moments you experienced that day.  It’s great to have a list like that.  Just imagine being on your death-bed and reading that list instead of spewing out predictable “I wish I had”‘s!

Another thing that works wonders for me to stay grateful is to just stay really present during every moment and really feel what it does to me. How amazing it is to be alive.  In the past I used to have way more fun than they realized. And I only started to appreciate the magic moments in my life for what they were when they were already over. When I’d find myself looking back on them in sadness because those were “better times”.

If you’d do that, you’d be setting yourself up for the exact same thing in the future. Because you are denying the value of the present moment in favor of past memories you weren’t even fully appreciating for what they were when they were still the present.

Instead, whenever you find yourself not having the time of your life, ask yourself:

“What’s really awesome about this moment?” and don’t rest until you’ve found at least 10 answers.  They’re there, and they’re right in front of you.  All you need to do is change your focus just a little.  

If you’re currently in a negative state of mind, I know that sort of thing my seem like “trying to trick your mind” . And if you’re like me, you may think your brain is too smart to not realize how “bad” the reality is. But take it from one of the biggest ex-pessimist I ever met (myself): it’s worth suspending your judgment and practicing this anyway.

If you really, really can’t find anything, start by feeling thankful for the fact that you’re still alive and kicking while many other people aren’t.  There’s really no use in complaining. You’re already a winner.  You’ve always been ever since you took that gold medal for first place in the sperm race.  Now go celebrate, put these things into practice and get ready to win some more 😉

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