Why your life never seems to change:
A few months ago I was talking to a life coach I recently met about how he got started in the coaching business. He told me how he completely changed his career and life and I was a little blown away by it all. My life seemed so static by comparison, even though I had actually given much though to the topic. How is it that some people can change completely while others get stuck?
After a while the conversation steered towards me and my future plans. I was a little unprepared for this and I started rattling off a few ideas. After about 30 seconds he stopped me and said:
“Write these three words on a piece of paper: Vision, strategy and tactics.”
I did as he instructed.
“Now, these idea you have, tell me which categories they fall into.”
I thought for a minute and told him they all fell into the category of either strategy or tactics. Not one was a vision.
“Exactly! You have to get clear on your vision first, and then you design the strategy and tactics to achieve that vision. Once you have the vision usually everything else becomes obvious.”
Vision(why) →Strategy(what) →Tactics(how)
Well, I now know why he is the coach and I am not. It was such a simple thing, obvious in retrospect, but that subtle shift in thinking is profound. The vision always comes first. The vision is a manifestation of your dreams and goals. It is the most important question because it is the why.
Why am I working towards this goal?
In essence, this shifts perspective from the trenches to the 30,000 foot view. Both are necessary, but only one will let you know if the war is being won. I realized that many times I was picking battles because they looked easy or seemed important at the time, but I had no idea if they were helping me win the war. Heck, sometimes I didn’t even know why I was fighting.
I realized this was the story of my life. I often had no idea why I was doing the things I did.
Focusing too early on strategy and tactics will limit your vision. It will turn big thinking into confined thinking. Implementing a strategy before defining a vision is risky because it can lead to complacency and a satisfaction of “doing something”, even though it is possible the vision is not being fulfilled. In a war this is analogous to spending resources taking a position even though it is of no strategic value.
This is why we don’t change.
As I let this sink in for the next few hours I realized I just stumbled upon a concept that would change the way I think forever. It is so simple and easy to understand, and absolutely correct. I had been focusing primarily on the strategies and tactics and hoping they would bring me to my goals, although I had never thought about my vision.
This is partly why so many self-help books and “life-hack” and “10 best ways to do whatever” articles fail to actually help us. They are tactics and strategies without the context of a vision.
Implementing change is hard.
Your brain hates it even if it will make your life better in the long run.
Remember that voice in your head? (Yes…it is still there mocking you) She doesn’t like change and will tell you 10 more reasons why the change won’t work – unless you knock her upside the head with a vision roundhouse kick.
Vision Roundhouse: Pixabay
First my definitions, as I will be using these terms often:
- Vision: A desirable future outcome aligning with ones goals and values.
- Strategy: Course of action designed to make the vision a reality.
- Tactics: Specific actions within a strategy.
Let’s use the example of saving money:
Vision: “I will achieve financial freedom by age 50 so work becomes a choice and I will have complete autonomy to follow my passions.”
Strategy: Save more money.
Tactics: Maximally fund 401k plan, IRAs, pension plan, health savings account.
Strategy: Earn higher net returns.
Tactics: Read about asset allocation strategies and tax efficient investing. Lower my investment fees.
Strategy: Earn more money.
Tactics: Moonlight. Be the best at my job and ask for a raise. Start a side business. Sell unused possessions.
Strategies and tactics get a little blurred together so don’t fret too much about definitions or if something is a strategy or tactic. Sometimes tactics within a strategy will become a whole new strategy themselves. This is OK; things can get a little messy.
Notice how all of the strategies and tactics are designed to fulfill that vision. There is no ambiguity. Every action works to get closer to the goal. This brings clarity to thinking which is critical to success. There is no longer need to spend energy deciding if the strategies and tactics are worthwhile. All the energy can be spent on actually implementing the strategies. This is not to say strategies and tactics never need to be reevaluated. They do. All strategies and tactics should be periodically monitored for effectiveness, but this is always through the lens of the vision.
The reason we get stuck and can’t seem to change is we don’t use the right process. Tactical information on saving money is unhelpful unless you know why you are saving the money in the first place. It is not motivating to save 25% of your income in your 401k without vision because at this stage it is all sacrifice with no reward. The voice will tell you other better uses such as a deluxe spa treatment, expensive cocktails or herbal shampoo for your pet hamster.
But if you lay down the vision “I will achieve financial freedom by age 50 so work becomes a choice and I will have complete autonomy to follow my passions”, the voice will quiet down. Every time it starts to act up, just calmly repeat your vision. Treat that voice like a 4 year old child. Repetition is the essence of learning. Now the money has a purpose. The purpose of saving now is to fulfill your vision of financial freedom by a certain age.
Every action you take will get you closer or further from your goals, and can now be viewed through this lens.
You can have more than one vision, and sometimes they will conflict, but eventually, with enough practice, you will develop laser like focus on which ones are most important. You will subconsciously prioritize your life.
Get out a piece of paper and write your vision on the top. It should ideally answer the question why. Why do I want the future to look like this?
Using the above example:
Vision: I will achieve financial freedom by age 50 so work becomes a choice and I will have complete autonomy to follow my passions. (I purposefully left it a little vague here, but go ahead and be as specific as you can about the details of what your vision looks like).
Be creative and don’t hold back. Maybe your vision is: “I want to travel all over the world, quit my job and trail run 300 days a year!” You may find that by writing out your vision, strategy and tactics that it will take less work than you originally thought. In other words maybe you don’t need to be financially independent to start a new traveling coaching business teaching trail running! (Hey, that actually sounds kind of fun). You won’t know if it’s possible though until you start writing and thinking about it.
Anyways let’s assume financial independence is the vision here.
Next make two columns. On the left we will list strategies (leave a few spaces before adding the next one), and on the right we list tactics to support those strategies. Use plenty of paper. Don’t worry about neatness at this point because we will refine it later as we clean things up.
|Save more money||Maximize contributions to my 401k, IRA, HAS
Start putting money into brokerage account
|Earn more income||Ask for a raise
Start a business
Get another part-time job
Switch to a higher paying career
|Pay less taxes||Take advantage of tax deferred savings
Learn about the tax code
Move to a lower tax state
Anything that requires more detail put on another page.
|Ask for a raise||Become more productive than other employees
Spend 15 minutes each night researching how to effectively ask for a raise (blogs, videos)
Determine my true value in the marketplace by applying to other jobs or researching salary data
|Move closer to work||Make a map of neighborhoods near my work I would like to live in.
Determine cost to rent or purchase price
Write down what I desire in a place to live
Call a realtor and look at one house or apartment a week
You get the idea. The more specific the tactics the better. Specific tactics are more actionable. If your vision is to buy a house then “Meet with a realtor by Friday and look at least 1 house a week that meets my criteria” is better than “Look at houses”. The first tells you exactly what to do; the second is vague and could mean anything from driving aimlessly to looking at every house within a 50 mile radius.
The next step is simple (but not always easy). Start implementing tactics. Just take action! There is no right order to do things but I would recommend starting small and doing one thing at a time until it becomes a habit. If you try and do everything at once it’s often too taxing, too much energy and the voice in our head starts sounding reasonable. We have incredible capacity for change, but we don’t like it so going slow is best.
Personally I like starting with the item of highest impact. In the above example, I would focus on paying off high interest debt first. After I made this a habit I would look for ways to cut out big chunks of spending (stop eating out 4 times a week, sell the luxury SUV and buy a used minivan, find an optimal place to live). I would then determine the best ways to invest the extra money (depending on the situation it may be best to invest in paper assets like stocks, buy a rental property or invest in my future earning potential by learning new skills or investing in my business).
Keep plugging away and remember to repeat your vision any time things get tough. Remind yourself of the higher purpose to your actions. Vision roundhouse kick, remember?
The final step is to measure and re-evaluate. Financial independence is easy to measure. Every month assess how much debt, savings and investments there are and if they are going in the right direction. If things are getting worse find out why and change your strategy and tactics. Discard things that don’t work, add things that do. Be fluid and flexible. Every now and then make sure your vision still aligns with your goals and values. We all change, and there is no rule that our vision cannot change with us.
Another variant of this method is what I call the vision brainstorm, for use when you are facing a major inflection point in life. It could be a career change, the decision to have children, moving into the empty nest phase of life, divorce, etc. These are times that call for radical and deep reflection. Don’t just ponder these changes and muddle through; they require analysis.
The human brain is pretty good at deciding if something is life-threatening like a rattlesnake, sabre-tooth tiger or band of marauding pirates. The appropriate chemicals pour into your bloodstream, bathe your brain in neurotransmitters and force you to act. The brain is particularly shitty at assessing long term happiness though, and this is why we need to journal this stuff and actually see it on paper.
There is something magical about seeing your own thoughts outside your head on a screen or paper. Do not underestimate this seemingly trivial thing.
Write down your perfect day – your perfect life. In this you will find the things you value. Then write out different scenarios you are contemplating. Write out the different actions you could take. Put nice big circles around the things that get you closer to your goals. Put a big ‘X’ through the things that take you further away.
More likely than not, what actions to take will be obvious. There may be trade-offs. Life is messy and imperfect. Keep writing and revising until the decision becomes obvious. Keep reflecting. Keep refining. You may be stuck on something right now in your life; unable to make a decision or change. Do the simple steps above and watch things change.
If you found this article useful, please consider sharing it with someone who can benefit. Share your experiences with how you made meaningful change happen in your life. Tell me what worked for you!