I’ve recently had a big shift in how I look at, prioritise and spend my time.

I’ve always liked the ‘shoot for the moon’ approach, I like the feeling of being fired up and really going for something, and the thought that even if I miss, ‘I’ll still land in the stars’. And once I’m fired up about something, usually sparks fly out to connect all sorts of other elements, that then create a big interconnected web of dreams. It’s not just that I like this way of doing – I like myself when I am in this way of being. I feel vibrant, energised, and connected to myself and the world.

But, at least, in my current situation, this isn’t working for me any more. I’m in a pattern in this phase of life where I get fired up, enthusiastically pursuing goals, dreams and plans, and then something happens to interrupt me or completely obstruct me (eg Covid-related isolation etc). Then when it’s time to start again I have to find a way to cope with disappointment about what I’ve lost (time, opportunities, leads, momentum, fitness), pick myself up and re-create those things I lost, so I can get back to where I was and continue forward. This can be overwhelming, exhuasting and demoralising.

“Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing.”

Barry Finlay

When something is not working I like to take action. So I tried to come up with a solution. Maybe closing the gap between my aims and what actually happens. But how? By lowering my expectations? Containing those sparks to keep things smaller and manageable? Learning to accept the space between my hopes and reality, and cope better with my disappointment? Re-designing my situation? There were no ideas that I felt I could really accept, know how to work with, or that didn't sound demoralising and depressing in themselves. So, I took my problem to a coaching session with a colleague, and found a new perspective that transformed things without having to lower my hopes, end the pandemic or give up my children.

Peru: home to some out-of-this-world mountain views

The new perspective is: Swap ‘shoot for the moon’ with ‘climb the mountain’. In other words, building up from the ground with small steps. It sounds so obvious and simple when I write that but just like I've seen so many times when sitting in the coach chair, sometimes something small, powerful and previously unknown needs to unlock before you leap from totally stuck to epiphany. Keeping things manageable but keeping the goals the same. In practice this means restraint when writing weekly or daily to-do lists, so that if I end up spending a day traipsing round getting the car repaired, or collecting the kids because the school is shut for 2 weeks, I am more likely to be able to keep going with those small steps. And when things return to normal, it’s less overwhelming to try to catch up. Then on days when nothing unexpected happens, I can complete my planned steps and go a little further, or use the time for something completely different.

"You can't jump to the top of the mountain, you have to climb. It's the tiny steps that will get you to the top.” 

Dee Dee M

For years I have spent a lot of time and energy relentlessly writing and re-writing to-do lists – on paper, on my laptop, my phone, in my head. Short term, long term. Never realistic. Always more than I can possibly achieve. But it was part of shooting for the moon, and anyway I never felt like I had a choice, or if I took things off my list I wasn’t honouring my desire for a productive and fulfilling life. I would be settling. Some things on the list were essential duties and obligations; some tasks were about making life easier/ less stressful in the long run; and other things are just important like helping someone or exercising. Basically everything was essential and urgent, but I couldn’t possibly do all those things, no matter how much multi-tasking I did, so I was setting myself up for disappointment. Because these lists were complicated and affected so much by the unpredictable demands and events of the day, investing time reorganising the evolving lists seemed like the only way I could keep my head clear about what I needed to do, and therefore do it. Yes I know about 'SMART' goals but it just seemed to make sense to throw everything in and see what I could manage - depending on what happens in the day, things get moved around in terms of what's possible. Even in the midst of this I often reminded myself of Rimmer from the Red Dwarf series. He kept failing the exam required to fulfil his goal of becoming an officer, partly because he spent too much time making his study timetable. By the time it was ready, he had less study time before the exam so had to re-do the schedule - again and again until the time of the exam. So I kind of suspected I was making a mistake, but I didn’t know how to get out of it.

Looking back from where I've come

Somehow, with my new mindset shift, everything clicked into place. Surprisingly I feel like I actually achieve more now. Part of this is that I’ve gained some time that used to be spent wrangling with my to-do-list. And with the new perspective my attention has moved from things undone, to things done. Which means cause for celebration rather than disappointment, and it’s much more motivational.

The combination of freeing myself from the unrealistic to-do-lists and shifting my perspective from that far-out long-term goal to the more immediate step-by-step has also allowed me to do something that I don’t think I’ve really been comfortable with for a very long time: spending time on things that are not obviously productive or do not directly contribute to achievement and goals. And THIS means being more creative. For example, I have started to write scraps and snippets of scenery, characters, dialogue, with no particular order, connection or plan, that are varying degrees of fiction and fact, and that may or may not form some kind of finished product in some decades time. The idea of me writing a novel is ludicrous - an aspiration that I wouldn’t even have bothered to have a month ago. I can hardly manage my current goals and dreams, let alone take on new ones. And time spent on something that is not a goal is not productively spent. This makes it liberating. There is no structure either in the content or the process. It’s something I pick up and put down whenever. Months could pass in between writing and it doesn’t matter at all. But although there is no formal purpose to this writing, there are lots of potential and actual positive outcomes from it, including increasing my positivity, energy, creativity and motivation; which can be applied to the actual to-do list or goals.

So somehow this very small, but transformative, obvious but previously elusive, shift is allowing me to be more productive, more fulfilled, more relaxed, more creative. I am sure I will return to the space flights again, but right now, taking the mountain path actually feels more adventurous and exciting to me.