Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Molly Gordon from Shaboom.
In my 20 years as a coach, I’ve helped countless clients stop spinning their wheels on important creative projects or life changes. Hey, in my 61 years as a person, I’ve done plenty of wheel spinning myself. Today, as I reflect on what it is that keeps people from getting traction on the things that really matter, I want to discuss one of the chief causes I see: people’s preoccupation with finding the shortest or most direct path to where they want to go.
The chief problem with trying to find an optimal path is simply that you can’t know what you don’t know. Whenever you set out to create or accomplish something, you project yourself and your desires into an unknowable future. There’s no end to the possible permutations to be considered at every step. Beyond a certain point, the effort you invest in optimizing the path actually sends you backwards.
Then there is the fact that a path is not merely, perhaps not even chiefly, a means of reaching an objective. The nature of what you create or achieve is inextricably wrapped up with the way in which you create or achieve it. A path shapes both the outcome and the person you will be when you get there.
For example, I’ve spoken to many entrepreneurs who emerge from high-adrenaline, “diamond” business-development programs having met their stretch goals, but also having exhausted their mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual reserves. How does it help if you meet a stretch goal but leave yourself behind?
If getting traction isn’t about finding the shortest or most direct path to your objective, what is it about? Here are four keys that have served me and my clients well when it comes to getting traction on an important creative project or life change.
Make a Decision to Begin
Traction begins when you make a decision. That may seem obvious, but I’ve seen countless folks stalled at the starting line because they haven’t decided to begin the journey. The Latin root of “decision” means to cut off or cut away. When you make a decision to begin, you cut off second-guessing. You cut away the creeping tendrils of analysis paralysis. And here’s something to notice: oftentimes you have to cut away those tendrils before you can see. In a very real way, clarity comes after you make a decision, not before.
Take Baby Steps
One reason people don’t get traction is that they try to go too far too fast. A far better approach is, in the words of the old Zen saying, to chop wood, carry water. Far from being a prescription for rote performance, this injunction asks us to show up each day for simple action, treating each iteration or task as if it were new. By identifying and implementing simple daily actions in a mindful way, we can notice, in real time, shifts in our own energy and in the feedback we are getting from the world around us. This noticing enables us to course-correct promptly and with grace.
Assess the Surface Before You Put Your Foot on the Gas
Sometimes putting your foot on the gas propels you out of a rut. Sometimes it digs you in deeper. Which it is depends on the surface beneath your wheels. When it comes to getting traction with a creative project or life change, take time to read the inner and outer landscape before you decide to push harder.
On the inside, notice your inner dialogue, energy level, and mood. The feeling that accompanies pushing through will tell you whether or not it’s a good idea. If the idea of pushing through generates a sense of possibility and liveliness, go for it. If it is oppressive, the time is not right.
On the outside, monitor feedback from the world around you. Look for ways to align your efforts with what is already unfolding or to work around obstacles. When you see openings and sense support, it’s a good time to push harder. When you see blockages and sense resistance, it’s time to reassess.
Bottom line? When you run into resistance, look for ways to change your approach or your environment.
Hold Your Goals Lightly
Goals are tremendously useful. Because they provide a static focus for your attention, they help organize your thinking and direct your resources. But that very static quality turns goals into liabilities if you hold them too tightly. As I said above, when you set out to create or accomplish something new, you project yourself into an unknowable future. You can’t know at the time you set a goal how you and the world around you will change as you move toward that goal.
When a goal falls out of sync with your inner or outer landscape, pressing forward almost always creates problems. If you push on when a goal no longer aligns with your heart, your actions lose authenticity and vibrancy. If you push on when a goal is in conflict with reality, you set yourself up for resentment and resignation, and even heartbreak.
The key to setting goals that support traction is to remember that you made them up. They are templates, not temples. When they come into conflict with your heart or with reality, you get to change them. No harm, no foul.
Traction Comes from Engagement
The common denominator in these four keys is engagement.
You create engagement by making a decision to embark on a creative project or important life change.
You develop engagement when you take baby steps toward your goal.
You maintain engagement by assessing your internal and external landscape before pushing harder.
And you affirm engagement by holding goals lightly, tweaking them as needed to bring them into alignment with your heart and with reality.
Finally, when you engage deeply with life, what you do is valuable for its own sake in the moment that you do it, not in the moment that you do or do not reach your goal. That deep engagement is the ultimate key to traction. (Click to tweet – thanks!)
Marianne Jones says
This is good stuff! Before we gallop off in all 4 directions we need to examine ourselves and ask “Why am I pursuing this? Is this what I really need/want? How will it affect me if I don’t get it right away?
Molly Gordon says
Exactly, Marianne. Just imagine the difference between putting energy in four directions and putting energy in one. It’s easy to see where traction will and won’t happen.
Anne Mentz says
WOW! The wisest mouthful in three plus pages I’ve come across in a long time. Excellent. Traction – suddenly the mud really sticks to my work boots. How often do we not assess the surface and end up sliding unproductively towards failure in any case? And lastly, engagement. Do we ever stop to think about the real meaning of what we’re doing, and why we’re doing what we’re doing, and how well we’re doing it, and is there not something else we should be doing, or is there a better way of engagement? – and lastly thinking about the fulcrum of the real value of engagement – not at the end, the middle, or somewhere in between, but at the moment of engagement itself. Just that shift in understanding allows me to increase the caliber, solidity and muscle of my engagement. Really thought provoking. Thanks!!!
Molly Gordon says
Thank you for your comment, Anne. I love how you use the image of the fulcrum to describe where engagement has the most meaning and value. I’ll be mulling that over for some time to come.
Soumya Roy says
Molly, I really liked this article and I completely agree on the points. I am a recent entrepreneur, a bootstrapped entrepreneur. And I strongly believe that making decision is the first step we take towards something special. Decisions can be wrong but even if it is wrong then too we learn great lessons on how to strategize our decisions so that we won’t fail again.
Taking small steps mitigate the chances of a collapse and making a shorter goal and longer vision is also important in any field especially in case of startups.
Molly Gordon says
Thank you, Soumya. I think what you say about startups is correct. We need to know what we want to create, but we need also to be able to course-correct in real time, which sometimes includes revising our vision.