Apparent contradictions can hold such wisdom. “Less is more” was popularised and advocated by the minimalist designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Fellow architect Frank Lloyd Wright retorted “…only when more is too much.” Both these two ideas have validity in building our lives.
For many, this is the season for starting afresh: New Year resolutions, goals, intentions, aspirations – whatever terminology one cares to choose they all share a message of making changes in life. As I wrote last week, the Roman God Janus straddles the past and the future. The New Year, however arbitrary, does give us a chance to reflect on where we find ourselves and to begin again in some respects. For some people, the goal setting process adds projects to a life – bringing purpose and meaning; for others, adding projects and goals can actually be a saboteur to fulfilment.
This came up for me last weekend as I sat down to work on my annual life review. I normally complete this process in mid to late December, but a combination of personal plans over the festive break and the knowledge I was teaching a day-long retreat the first weekend in January meant I delayed until then. The theme of the retreat day was “Reflect, review, renew” – and although I was leading the day, I found the mindfulness practices (particularly in the group atmosphere) an excellent way to rest with how my life presents itself.
Now for some disclosure – the ‘delay’ in doing this process this year-end was perhaps indicative of some underlying resistance. And it was only when I sat down on Sunday – when I had promised myself some time to follow-up my reflections from the retreat the day before – that I noticed a deep discomfort.
There was a physically felt tension when I tried to express my intentions within my personal, spiritual and relational life areas.
I literally ‘sat’ holding this tension, letting it be there and waiting for my intuition to guide me. It became clear that the tension was primarily betweenknowing my intentions and then translating them in to measurable goals. It was straight-forward to write goals and actions in the professional and health life ‘compartments’ – my career path is exceptionally clear to me right now, and I am well-versed on what keeps me sound in body and mind (although following it through is a challenge sometimes!); so tangible goals make sense. But, as evidenced in this experience I report here, sometimes it can be helpful to step back and live life from a less mind-dominated and structured mode.
I am not suggesting we don’t have goals – as a coach helping people live a more fulfilling life, a more productive career or a more connecting relationship, I am a strong advocate of the process. Yet there is some point in the goal-setting process where we can fall in to a trap – the one of adding more.
When I sat down to reflect on 2014, I celebrated my successes of the year – I had indeed done a lot that I was very pleased with; I had also been fortunate to have some wonderful experiences with friends, family, loved ones. Yet, I also noticed that there was a ‘felt-sense’ of not being completely IN some of those peak moments. On paper? Great; yet inside? Something lacking. I had lived with too much speed – which had brought me a lot of accomplishment…yet is not the way I would choose to live my life on a long term basis. I had been guilty of adding more and more in to my days, weeks, months. So, 2015 was to be different – one of the first things that came up in my aspirations for this year was to live with more spaciousness. But as I realised – maybe that is something best not made in to a GOAL, but left as an intention with which I would guide my activities.
I’ve been trying to explain this to people, and the only way I can conceptualise is like this – intentions are like the container that hold the goals within. They describe a way-of-being that oversees the doing, the actions.
Cutting through the need for speed
Going back to where we entered this post – “Less is more…only when more is too much.” You may feel you are doing too much. Yet it is hard to make a goal per se to “do less”. The verb contradicts the adverb somehow. Similarly, we can’t “do being”! So how do we bring more space to our busy lives? Working with coaching clients, I have found two exercises useful.
- List the 10 most important roles or activities in your life. Rank them in priority, and then (this is the tough part!) resign at least the bottom two. Stop seeing a friend that leaves you feeling drained; stop attending an evening class you had hoped would energise you but is one too many thing at the end of a busy day; accept that maybe you can’t be a musician, a good cook, a dedicated yogi AND well-read.
- The other way to do this is to start from a blank canvas. Starting with a blank page, and literally nothing in your life plan, slowly add things back in. What can you NOT live without. Can you stop at 10?
Which of these routes is best to take will depend on the individual. Both are hard exercises, and even harder to execute – but it could be harder…read this article on “Warren Buffett’s 5-Step Process for Prioritizing True Success“. Here are a couple of tips I often pass on to clients if they are struggling to release enough items or roles:
- with the item you are considering – allow yourself to go to the extremes for 10 minutes at a time. Find a quiet place you can do this exercise. Firstly, make the decision to drop the activity. Allow yourself to completely let it go. Spend the 10 minutes completely immersing yourself in the decision to say “no” to it. What does it feel like? Then, go to the other extreme; the same 10 minute period but this time saying an unequivocal ‘yes” to the activity. What does whole-heartedly adopting this activity feel like?
- a way to deepen this experience is to do the same two-stage exercise with an item you are struggling with, but in the 10 minutes allow yourself to consider the consequence of dropping / adopting the item: in one week from now; in one month from now; in one year from now; in 10 years from now. How does this influence your decisions?
For some people, it is entirely appropriate to use this time of year to set goals, to take up activities, projects that they hope to use to stretch their limits, to help them overcome inertia and live life to its fullest potential. But for others, that potential can only be accessed by slowing down and making space. I hope this post has given some useful techniques, but at the very least some food for thought. I’d love to hear your views on this
Could you do with some help in compiling your top ten? Contact me to book a 6 session block of coaching.