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How to (finally) take action on your dreams

NB: Before we begin: this is the latest article in a series on modern leadership mastery. The series overview and links to previous articles can be found here. 

It’s seductive to tell yourself, “I’m going to change EVERYTHING in one fell swoop. I’ll do a hard reset on my life! I’ll start exercising, stand up to my boss, reignite the passion in my relationship, and give back to my community. Starting now, I will finally be the man or woman I’ve always wanted to be!”

Tons of personal development writers and speakers claim that massive overnight change is not just possible, but also the surest way to make a real difference in your life.

Only one problem: it’s complete BS. Sustainable change happens slowly and steadily. The way to make true change happen is by moving the needle, not flipping the switch. This is true whether you are trying to change yourself, your team, or your community.

The first step to creating any sort of meaningful change is to find your true path and start walking.

It all starts with a brain dump

We are told to value quality over quantity. And quality has it’s place: I’ll take five great friends over 500 acquaintances every time.

But when you start the process of translating your dreams into reality, the first step is to come up with as many ideas as possible, regardless of how good they are. This is called a brain dump.

An example: a dream of mine is to become a rock star. However, I don’t (currently) have much musical ability.

My task then becomes figuring out how to find the path from where I am right now to where I want to be. Again, the first step: come up with as many ideas as possible, regardless of if they are good or bad. For example:

  • Start learning an easy instrument like ukulele
  • Hang around professional musicians and pick their brains about how they got to where they are
  • Dedicate all of my time for the next two years to studying music
  • Commit to 20 minutes of practice per day
  • Go to live shows to get inspired
  • Do lots of drugs (rockstars do drugs, right?!)
  • Read biographies of famous rock stars
  • Read books about musical theory
  • Get an internship at a venue to learn more about the industry
  • Trash the next hotel room I’m in
  • Call my friends to see if they want to start a band

Again, the aim is to get as many ideas out of your head as possible. Quantity, not quality.

When you go through the process of brain dumping, keep doing this until you’ve completely drained yourself of all the different ideas you can come up with. You can do this during one intensive session, or spread it out over several days.

If you’re leading a team you will create significant emotional buy-in and synergy if you begin your project with a brain dump. Get everyone on your team to come up with as many ideas as possible for achieving your collective vision. Write each idea down, ideally on a big white board or black board and continue following the steps below.

Next, take a break

After you’ve gotten all the ideas out of your head, shift your focus to something unrelated. Have a cup of coffee, go for a walk, sleep on it, whatever.

This is important for two reasons:

  • It gives your mind a chance to continue working on the problem
  • It will give you emotional distance from the exercise and better equip you for the next step, which involves evaluating your ideas

Now start judging

Now it’s time to start judging the ideas you and your team came up with. Eliminate the ones that aren’t you, aren’t realistic, or you’re unwilling to do.

After that, you’ll be left exclusively with ideas that are actionable.

In the example above, I would eliminate doing drugs (not my thing), closing Ignited Leadership, and trashing a hotel room (seems fun, but not really my thing…).

So I’m left with:

  • Start learning an easy instrument like ukulele
  • Hang around professional musicians and pick their brains about how they got to where they are
  • Dedicate all of my time for the next two years to studying music
  • Commit to 20 minutes of practice per day
  • Go to live shows to get inspired
  • Do lots of drugs
  • Read biographies of famous rock stars
  • Read books about musical theory
  • Get an internship at a venue to learn more about the industry
  • Trash the next hotel room I’m in
  • Call my friends to see if they want to start a band

The path forward becomes clear

You’ll notice that if you consider the remaining ideas with a soft focus, a path will emerge. You don’t have to use all the ideas that remain. Instead, focus on the ones that resonate with you. In the example above, I wouldn’t seek out an internship (though it’s not a bad idea) and I would pick up an easy instrument and commit to practicing it a bit each day.

Some of your ideas will be more immediately actionable than others. Start with those. From there, line up your ideas in a sequence where one leads to the next. If there is a gap in the sequence, brainstorm specifically for that gap.

You now have your path forward.

You don’t have to stay on this path exactly – in fact, I hope you remain open to serendipities – but this is a solid start. Think of it as sailing by the stars. You have the broad strokes while still allowing room to improvise.

The secret to taking action: baby steps

As you begin taking action there are two temptations to avoid:
1) Believing that you don’t need to start today, that there will be a time in the future when you’ll be better equipped to start (hint: there wont be. Start now, even if that just means scheduling time in your calendar for the next step).

Realize this: nothing much is going to change in your life until you take action.

2)Believing that you can change everything all at once. We already talked about that. It’s seductive, but unrealistic. It’s not how our lives or brains work.

Instead, walk the line between the two. Commit to making small changes and small steps forward each day or each week. Figure out what you can realistically do, and commit to doing that. Hold space for it. One hour per week every single week will add up quickly. One hour per day will feel like lightening.

Three ways to maintain motivation (and one strategy I don’t like)

As you work towards bringing your project into reality, it’s inevitable that motivation will flicker and flame.

This is normal. We are humans, not robots. Some days we wake up flooded with energy and excitement. Other days, we wake up wondering, “Why bother with this shit?”

However, if your motivation issues are exceeding the normal ebb and flow of your temperament, there are a few different strategies to use.

  • Do less. One of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, stops writing when he knows he could write more. This preserves his inertia and makes him excited to start work the next day.

    If you’ve been working for three hours per week, scale your commitment down to one or two hours per week. It’s always easier to make a small commitment than a large one.

    In fact, a nice trick to maintain motivation is to commit to slightly less than you’re capable of. Say you could be putting in three days a week. Commit to two and a half.

    This is an easier arrangement to make and it will keep you excited (while also avoiding burnout). Ideally, you and everyone you’re working with will be chomping at the bit to move forward.

  • Rewards and punishments: a popular strategy that I used to suggest is to create a system of rewards and punishments for yourself. I mention it here because it works really well for some people even though I think it’s misguided.

    The idea is simple: if you achieve the things you’ve committed to doing, you get a reward (a piece of pizza, 30 minutes of cute puppy videos on youtube, an evening of video games, whatever). If you fail, you have to endure a punishment (you pay a fine, have to do chores for a friend, publicly admit that you’re lazy, whatever).

    But truthfully, I think this is a misguided approach. If the project you’re working on is a true reflection of you, then the rewards will be intrinsic.

    And also, I’m weary of self-inflicted punishments. I’d rather someone treat themselves with compassion and understanding.

    Beyond all of that, if you give yourself the time and space to flourish on your own terms, you’ll be far more effective than if you are motivated by a strict time line and a series of punishments.

 

Nothing changes until you take action

So far, we’ve spent a lot of time laying the groundwork. You should have a vision, a few people willing to work with you, a mentor, etc. That’s nice, but realize this: nothing in your life or on your team is going to change in a meaningful way until you take action.

You’ve gathered kindling. Now it’s time to light the flame.

My wish for you is simple: take the first step now. Delay your next commitment, close your computer, and take the first step forward.
Maybe it’s a brain dump. Maybe it’s a phone call. Maybe it’s research. Whatever. Take that first little baby step now, and create time in the next few days for the second step.

Once you’ve completed the second step, schedule the third. Keep doing this. People will begin marveling at how quickly you have succeeded. In fact, you’ll likely surprise yourself.

But realize this: nothing changes until you take action

Additional reading

None. You already have everything you need to take the first step towards your dream as a leader and an individual. I promise. To continue reading about how to do this would be a passively sophisticated form of procrastination.

Homework 

Take your first step forward as soon as possible, ideally today but definitely within one week. After your first step, figure out when you’re going to take the second step, and so on and so forth.

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4 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “How to (finally) take action on your dreams”

  1. Wendy November 5, 2015 at 10:12 pm

    AMAZING article!

    The entire series on modern leadership mastery is a most read!

    • Jason November 6, 2015 at 12:00 am

      Thank you, thank you!

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