The 3 Mistakes That Keep You Struggling

Are you finding your dreams a struggle?

You know that your future could be enjoyable, fulfilling and profitable. You probably even know what you have to do to make it happen.

So why is it that when you start moving in the right direction, you hit a slump, fall off of the wagon, and find yourself at a standstill wondering what went wrong.

I know that feeling. I know that frustration, and I know how it feels to work really hard to achieve something, only to be confronted by the disappointment of not being able to keep it going.

I was watching some geese a few years ago their wings were flapping madly, legs pushing awkwardly, paddling hard across the lake as they tried to get into the air.

And I thought “that’s me”.

We know that take off’s a struggle, but if we can push hard and keep going, then some day – just like the geese – we’ll reach a point where we get free of the water and then we’ll fly. Isn’t that how it feels?

The problem is that it doesn’t happen like that: start struggling now, and you’ll be struggling later; it’s an un-sustainable approach, and that’s why we end up slumping back into the water rather than climbing into the sky.

Through my consulting work with senior executives I’ve come to realize that the people who do succeed – in all senses of that word – don’t struggle their way to success.

And they don’t struggle, because they aren’t making the same mistakes that most of the population is making, the mistakes that I made.

1) Are you trying to use unhappiness as motivation?

I’ll stop being unhappy when I lose 14lbs; I won’t be satisfied until I get that raise; I’d better not miss the deadline. Yes, it’s the ‘BIG stick’ school of motivation, and it’s the way that most people get themselves out of bed in the morning.

Unfortunately, when thinking about the goals you’re aiming for makes you feel bad, you *will* stop thinking about them so much. It’s just less painful that way.

And if you have to make yourself feel bad in order to get things done, I’ll guarantee that at some point you’ll find some really creative ways to stop that feeling: distractions, denial, busy work, facebook? We all have our favorite ways to avoid cattle-prod motivation.

For success without struggle, we have to be happy with where we are now, while being drawn forward by a breadcrumb trail of challenges and rewards. Have you seen Steve Kamb’s TEDx talk about how he plays his life like a game?

Only when you can stop using un-happiness and dis-satisfaction as tools, will you be able to enjoy sustained motivation and success.

2) Are you insisting on a ‘direct route’ to success?

The lives and careers of the uber-successful twist and turn in unexpected ways, and that’s fine with them.

They don’t struggle against the powerful currents at play in the world, but equally they don’t abandon the direction they want to go. Like Neil Gaimon, they pick a goal, a distant mountain, and work their way towards it.

They don’t insist on the direct route, or count it as failure when they have to deviate from ‘the plan’. They take what opportunities came their way, they use the currents, and they move forward. Success without struggle.

3) Are you trying to change everything at once?

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation… We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit” – Aristotle

To achieve success without struggle, we need to form really great habits. People who struggle either don’t know this, or try to ignore it.

They believe that they’ll be able to ‘will’ themselves through the day, learning 20 new habits at a time, and making sweeping changes, all while motivating themselves with dis-satisfaction (sounds like a fun life huh?)

Unfortunately, habits aren’t like that, and life isn’t like that. Roy Baumeisters experiments have shown pretty conclusively that ‘will power’ – the ability to override our natural default reactions – is a limited resource, a bit like physical strength.

So if we want to change a specific habitual behavior, we need to focus what little strength we have on that habit, rather than fritter it away across 20 different changes.

People who struggle take on too much in parallel. They try to lift weighty personal changes all day every day, and wonder why they are struggling when it comes to moving the important stuff.

* * * * *

Of course these mistakes are related. Motivating yourself with unhappiness makes you desperate to solve all of your ‘problems’ as quickly as possible. It encourages you to struggle, to force, to push, which in turn leads to planning and clinging to a ‘direct route’ that you’ve created in your imagination. You ignore the real world, ignore the left-field opportunities, and struggle on.

And when the changes don’t come fast enough; the rewards not frequent enough; and the motivational threats get too much to bear; distraction, denial, and deception provide a welcome rest (and a productivity slump) Before you’re ready to start struggling again.

I saw the geese again the other day, and I realized that were no longer struggling. They’re enjoying themselves. They run across the water laughing, focusing on the moment they spread their wings, and catch the wind. It is a game, and I think that they have as much fun running along the lake as they do flying. I wonder if they knew the secret all along?

Resource Box

Jason Bates writes at ‘The Groove – Success without struggle‘, where he helps his clients find pain-free success with positive motivation, gamification, agile living, and a little ancient wisdom (no sanskrit required). Drop by, and find out more about The Groove.

Photo credit: ‘Mistake‘ by Big Stock


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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