It's always better to look at actions than words. If someone says that they're committed to being healthy, but then they order a fat stack of pancakes... well, maybe they're not so committed after all. Recently I've been thinking about this truism in terms of goals and priorities. Your priorities are what they look like.
When you ask someone what his goals are, especially a young person, you'll probably end up hearing a bunch of talk about making money, traveling the world, getting healthy, learning some big skill, or contributing to the world in some way. Great goals. But if we examine people's actions, do they line up with these goals? Sometimes, but very often they're directly contrary to their goals.
The average person eats unhealthy food, spends a lot of time at a job he doesn't like, engages in junk entertainment like TV or video games, maybe drinks some alcohol, and then goes to sleep. Is he getting closer to his goals? Is he getting farther away from them? What can we conclude about the intent behind his goals?
Maybe the most interesting question would be: what goals is he moving towards? I'd say that he's moving towards comfort. Not decadent comfort like a hammock on a pristine beach, but the comfort of not having to think or exert himself. The comfort of mediocrity. And to be clear-- if someone says that comfort is his only goal, I'd have no criticism of these actions. I have different goals, but even I'm not arrogant enough to judge someone by my own goals rather than his own.
I don't say all this to bash other people, though. I offer it as an introduction to a technique you can use to objectively decide whether you're on track with your goals. Ask yourself what someone who watched ALL of your actions would guess that your goals are. Think about this for different time periods-- one day, one week, one month, one year. Don't just think of actions that people could reasonably see, but also consider actions hidden from everyone but you. When your boss isn't watching, do you slack off because you won't be caught, or do you keep hammering away? If no one's there to judge you, do you order dessert?
I began thinking about this when I was on the side of a mountain in Peru. I was there by myself with no power, no wifi, and no connection to the outside world. If you had asked me what my number one priority was, I would have told you that it was SETT. But how true can that really be when I've put myself into a situation where I can't possibly work on SETT? Even after getting off the mountain and into a hotel in the small town of Aguas Calientes, I was too destroyed to work. If someone watched me for that week, they wouldn't put SETT anywhere near the top of my priority list. They would probably guess that my goals were to find adventure and push myself.
Through this lens, it could be argued that I shouldn't have gone to Peru. I'm mostly glad that I did-- I had a really great experience that I'll never forget, but at the same time, if I had stayed home and worked, I bet I wouldn't have regretted that either. Earlier this year my friends went to Burning Man. I didn't really want to go, but I'm sure that if I did go I would have had an awesome time and not regretted it. That week ended up being one of my most productive weeks of the year, and I wouldn't give it up for anything. So just because I'm glad I went to Peru doesn't mean that it was the best choice.
On the other hand, if someone were to look at my actions for a year, he would, without a doubt, say that SETT is my number one priority, and that blogging, learning, health, and self development are other lesser priorities That's what I want my priorities to be, so I'm happy about it. And I'm not beating myself up about Peru, either. Even if it wasn't an optimal choice to go, it was still a good one. I got a bit of contrast from my normal life, learned some things about myself, and got a good blog post out of it. Even though I didn't get a huge quantity of work done, I managed to knock out some of my highest priority problems on the train rides and flights I took during the trip.
Looking through this prism of apparent priorities at different angles can give you different insights. If a reasonable person watched your average day, what would he guess your priorities are? When you're about to commit a significant amount of time or money to something, ask yourself what sort of priorities that commitment signifies. If you haven't reached your goals that you've set, examining which of your habits are aligned with those goals and which aren't may provide you with a clear path towards getting back on track.
For San Francisco Area Readers: it's last minute, but if you're in San Francisco, join me and a couple other readers at Moya on 9th and Minna tonight at 7pm for dinner.
Photo is of the new SETT International World Headquarters (also known as an unused bit of office space donated to us by an anonymous business). My favorite place to work has always been an Eames Lounger.