How to Achieve What Matters Most

For most of my life, I have impulsively jumped into new projects. Ideas about things I want to accomplish are constantly swirling in my head. I want to learn to cook, take improv classes, and workout regularly.

I want to do it all. Mixing this inclination with a lack of follow through led to a long list of unfinished goals for me a few years ago. I excelled at getting started. When the motivation faded, I would quit a project and shift my focus to the next shiny project.

The frustration from this cycle propelled me to make changes. Over the next few years, I developed the habit of focusing on one goal at a time and making massive progress in one direction.

“Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be” – John Wooden

Focus on the most important thing

About five years ago, I had a long list of projects that I was working on at the same time. The list included improving my personal finances, eating healthier, studying for my professional designation, and reading books regularly.

I didn’t make meaningful progress in any direction. I didn’t study consistently enough to pass my exams. I started working on my finances every few months but didn’t follow through after the first couple of days.

I was producing many “Incomplete” grades in my life. I was trying to do too many different things. Every goal was my highest priority. They were all a level 10 in importance. I didn’t prioritize or push off any projects for a later date.

Our society sends us a constant stream of messages that tell us we need to do it all now. We need to consume more information, check more email, and work longer hours.

We can combat the pressure to do it all by consciously taking a step back to look at the big picture. We can design our lives in a way that facilitates the achievement of what we want the most.

Our mind is scattered when we try to do too many things. Our thoughts are dispersed, our energy is diffused, and our actions are all over the place. We make small progress in many different directions.

When I decided to make significant changes in my life, the first step was to figure out the most important thing. Not the five most important things. This was a big change for me. I started going deep on one goal at a time.

Make massive progress

When we focus on our highest valued goal, we consciously decide to ignore many other interesting opportunities. We direct our attention to what matters most to us. We make massive progress in one area.

After my change in mindset, the first goal I tackled was eating healthier. I read many articles and several books about nutrition. I created a detailed plan that included a list of foods to cut out as well as a cheat day that helped me stay committed in the long run.

Eating healthy was the most important goal in my life for an entire year. Today, eating healthy most of the time is effortless due to the habits I developed. Once eating healthy was on cruise control, I tackled the next most important goal, which was improving my personal finances.

I achieved my most important goals by diving deep on one goal at a time. When we fully commit to a few goals and put off other goals, we can follow through more effectively and with less friction.

When we finish the goals we are currently working on, the other ones will still be there. We can pick them up at the right time.

Making consistent progress on our most important goal propels us to continue to take action. It fuels and motivates us. This cycle of action, progress, and motivation drives us to achieve what we want. We can’t make that consistent progress if we’re juggling too many projects.

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.” – Steve Jobs

Reap lasting rewards

We continue reaping benefits years after accomplishing most goals. Four years ago, I focused on improving my personal finances for three months. My finances are still running smoothly and automated with minimal effort. I’m still reaping the rewards from the three months of work I did years ago.

By focusing on one thing at a time until crossing the finish line, we take advantage of the cycle of success. It seems like highly successful people have more hours in the day than average achievers. It’s like they unlocked cheat codes that allows them to get more done. The reality is that each time they achieve a goal, they learn lasting lessons and skills.

We don’t learn these valuable lessons if we leave most of our projects unfinished. Instead of growing, our lack of progress would lead to doubt and frustration. We would have cycled through many projects without producing changes in our routines, beliefs, and results.

In the road to accomplishing goals, we build habits and mindsets that make it easier to accomplish the next goal. We gain skills that equip us to reach the next level. At each new level, we have more tools, strategies, and tactics we can use to overcome obstacles. The rewards from focusing on the most important thing last a lifetime.

How do you focus on doing the right things instead of trying to do it all?

My Transformation from Corporate Hostage to Full-Time Traveler

It’s two years since I made the decision to change my life. Two years since I took a leap from the supposed security of an executive career and comfortable home. Two years since I started prioritizing happiness and began changing my life for the better.

My story is a pretty typical tale of pursuing the American Dream. After my university education, I entered the workplace and stepped onto the first rung of the corporate ladder. I fell in love, got married and bought a home. My husband or I earned various promotions or received job offers to move to other parts of the country, or in one case across to the other side of the world. We bought bigger homes and newer cars and acquired all the other trappings of success.

I was particularly ambitious. I found my work style especially well-suited to my chosen career in strategic marketing and I rose up the ranks. But as I climbed higher up the ladder and as the corporate landscape changed after the financial crisis, I became increasingly disillusioned. I found companies became focused on short-term thinking with an insatiable appetite for instant gratification and sales promotions, rather than good strategy and strong execution. Their expectation was that my every waking (and sometimes sleeping) hour should revolve around them. But I had a California-sized mortgage and matching lifestyle to pay for – so it seemed I had no choice. I felt trapped in the corporate world.

My respite from this was my love of travel. For vacation, we would rent apartments in fun places and pretend to live like locals if only for a week. We fantasized about leaving all the corporate nonsense behind us and having the time to visit all the national parks we had read about and to travel the world and experience different cultures. Then a lightbulb came on and we realized it wasn’t our jobs that were stopping us living the life we wanted, it was our financial obligations. Without the costs of a mortgage, property tax, condo fees and running two cars, we could afford to earn considerably less, and stretch our savings to travel long term.

It was like a reset in our thinking. We thought our desire to travel long term was hampered by our need to have a full-time salary to pay for our house but realized that if we traveled then we didn’t really need a house. Our desired lifestyle actually fit perfectly with the idea of selling our home and most of our possessions. The deal was sealed. We put our house on the market, we got rid of most everything we owned, I quit my job and we bought an Airstream Trailer and hit the road.

We now split our time between traveling in the US and renting apartments in other places in the world. I work part time to supplement our savings, but our lifestyle is so much less expensive than it used to be, we hardly notice the reduced income.

So how do I feel about my new life?

I am a much more mindful consumer: Traveling light and living small have taught me to appreciate everything more. When living off the grid I am acutely aware of the weather, wondering if the sun will shine enough on our solar panels to charge our batteries or if the incoming storm means I have to hunker down and secure our home. I only buy things that have more than one purpose, don’t use too much water or electricity or generate too much waste. When we travel overseas we pack light and make sure our clothes and shoes are practical and meet a variety of climates.

I have better relationships: The pressures of my work could make me irritable and short-tempered with people who didn’t deserve to be treated badly. On the other hand, I also had to work with people who I didn’t like, who were jerks or who were just a negative force. I am now lucky enough to be able to work with who I want and quit working with people whose values I don’t share.

The quality of my work is better: It’s a strange phenomenon but now that I work as a freelance consultant I am less concerned about career progression and I am less vested in a single product or company. I have an outsiders view which allows me to be less emotional, more candid and I provide impartial direction to my clients that I may have been intimidated to bring to the table as an employee. Also because my schedule is flexible and my plate is not as full I am more responsive than ever

I feel in control: When you talk about selling everything and quitting your job, many people question how you could leave that security. But with a mortgage, a stagnant economy, and the fact that I’m getting older, i.e. less employable, I didn’t feel I was leaving much behind. Now I can turn my life on a dime. I can adjust my expenses easily by locating myself in areas with lower costs of living, I can take more work if I need to. I feel fully in control of my life and I’m not beholden to an employer for my financial stability.

I am excited about the future: My nomadic lifestyle always gives me something to look forward to. It’s hard to be bored when you move a lot. You are either experiencing new things, or you are planning what you are doing next. Sometimes you are just relaxing and enjoying where you are. It’s almost impossible to not be filled with optimism if you have endless possibilities in front of you.

I am making great memories: Many people talk about how quickly time passes, I used to be that person. Time does fly when you do the same things day in day out. But now when people say “can you believe it’s March already”, I say I can’t believe it’s only March. In the last 6 months I have traveled to 3 continents, I have hiked in national parks, kayaked in mountain lakes, and tried to communicate in a language I don’t understand. I’ve done so many things I can’t believe that I fitted it all in. I am a great believer in the ethos – if you want to lead a memorable life you have to do things worth remembering.

I am so much happier: Full time travel is not all plain-sailing and it certainly isn’t a permanent vacation. It can be uncomfortable, unsettling and frankly sometimes just a pain in the ass. Finding somewhere to do laundry, dealing with cultural confusion and wondering if I’ll ever have a decent haircut again are just some of my first world problems. But I would never trade my old life for the happiness I feel and the freedom I have to schedule my own day to decide where and how I want to spend my time.

So do I have any regrets from the last 2 years? Do I miss the executive title, salary or expense account? Do I regret selling my home and most of my possessions? Absolutely not, it was the best decision I have ever made and it’s hard to imagine living any other way now. My only regret is not doing it sooner.

Not all life changes have to be quite so drastic. What changes have you made that have made you happier? What do you think would bring more happiness to you? Why do you think we prioritize things over experiences in our society?