Overcoming fear to begin with the end in mind and stay present in the middle

When exploring Stephen Covey’s first habit of Highly Effect People, I realized just how hard it can be to set real, meaningful goals and commit to acting on them.

Covey’s first habit is worded “begin with the end in mind.” He’s saying when we look at our end goal and name where we want to be, we can use that ending to direct our actions and decisions in the present.

Stephen Covey wasn’t the first to think that this was an important habit to live by. In Stoic philosophy, momento mori (“remember death”), is a keystone habit espoused by Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca.

In Buddhist philosophy, there’s a meditation called maranasati, which is a meditation on your own death. And in yoga, we take savasana (corpse) pose, to get rid of our current labels and realize our true reality.

Beginning with the end in mind is about more than death, but meditation on this ultimate end sheds a light on how we can use this habit to create positive action throughout our lives.

When we examine the “end”, whether it’s an end goal in your business, your health, your home life, or your own mortality, we are thrust out of ambivalence and into a state of clarity. Examining the end is creating a decision, literally cutting out other options. It takes us from a state where we’re trying to do everything to a state where we’re focused (something that is SUPER important particularly for those with vata dosha [ link vata ]).

Stating our end goal holds us accountable to it. If you KNOW that you want to run a marathon, you also very clearly KNOW that skipping your workout for bottomless brunch takes your further from the state you want to achieve. We clarify our vision, and as such, give ourselves a blueprint to achieve it.

Are you already feeling a little nag of fear creeping in?

I hear you…decisions can be scary. We’re taught to keep our options open, and to always have a plan B. Naming a target can feel like a recipe for failure and disappointment. It seems much safer to just keep on business as usual.

Unfortunately, that thinking is what also keeps us feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled. Without a clear forward marker, we don’t progress towards *any* goals, or we progress towards goals that aren’t meaningful to us. By creating our own vision, we have the chance to achieve our own vision.

That’s a barrier to creating a goal, so let’s talk about a barrier to acting towards achieving that goal. A fabulous illustration of this concept comes from Ira Glass, who has a favorite quote about the creativity gap:

Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?

A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.

And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase — you gotta know it’s totally normal.

And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work — do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?

The same thing happens when you set an end goal. When you see where you want to be in the future, by definition, you’re not there yet. And so it can feel really disconcerting when you see that gap. Once again, it becomes easier to not set a goal, so you can be satisfied with your current reality.

I have an antidote to the creativity gap, though.

An antidote to the fear of not reaching your goals

  1. Set a wildly audacious goal that you’re excited about.
  2. Map out milestones along the way to achieving that goal.
  3. Write down the daily actions and habits that will lead you to that goal, including the actions and habits you’re going to stop doing.
  4. As you take each action or habit, see how it’s just a small puzzle piece of your larger goal.

Let’s use an example.

1. We’ll pretend that your goal is to run a 5K at a 7 minute mile pace, and right now, you don’t even run regularly.

2. So first you set some milestone: running for 1 minute and walking for 30 seconds, alternating for 30 minutes. Running for 5 minutes and walking for 1 minute, alternating for 30 minutes. Running for 15 minutes and walking for 2 minutes, alternating for 30 minutes. Running for 30 minutes straight. Running at a 10 min/mile pace for 5K. Running at a 8:30 min/mile pace for 5K. Running at a 7 min/mile pace for 5K.

3. You create daily actions and habits: running 3 times per week, doing yoga 3 times per week, and doing plyometrics one day per week. Eating more vegetables, and cutting out sodas and cookies.

4. Then you recognize how each habit is a facsimile of your larger goal: Each time you run – see how you’re *running*. Not at your goal pace, but you are RUNNING! Each time you eat healthy – realize that you’re building healthy cells in your body and making your next run easier. Each time you go for water instead of soda, recognize that you’re nourishing your body to achieve your goal.

You’re not at your goal yet. You’re not sure exactly when you’ll achieve it. But each daily action is an imprint of that larger goal. It’s a small piece of what you’d like to achieve. And that’s what will keep you going, even when the going gets tough.

Beginning with the end in mind doesn’t tell us anything about the middle – how do we get through that gap of where we are and where we want to be. So instead, let’s begin with the end in mind, and mindfully acknowledging our middle. With that, we have the endurance to get to our goals.

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