Staying the Course: 7 Powerful Questions That Help Me Keep My Life on Track
The myth of life turning around in a single moment is just that—a myth. There’s no big payday, dream job, or location that will flood us with happiness and drive away all our troubles.
Life is the result of myriad tiny events (and the occasional surprising/shocking ones). As design expert Scott Burnham said, “Put together a lot of the micro and you’ll get the macro.”
Just like they can make your life better, micro events can also make your life worse. You might not even notice that you’re just two degrees off course. But over the span of a few years, you can land in an unexpected (and unwelcome) soup.
Life will make you deviate from your optimal path. But like a pilot flying a plane from California to Hawaii being off course 99% of the time, it’s important to keep course correcting. Otherwise, you could lose track of where you’re going.
My personal course-correction mechanism is to ask myself seven questions.
#1. Am I a consequence of others’ opinions of me?
Like everyone, I want to be happy. However, I didn’t know how to achieve it for a long time, so I let society decide for me. My thoughts, actions, behaviors and goals got dictated by others.
But such a life took me in the opposite direction. The more I tried to match others’ expectations, the unhappier I became.
True happiness comes from feeling good about your life, from pursuing goals that feel right to you. You feel in control of your life because of a sense of ownership. You don’t rigidly cling to beliefs or goals; you can modify them without feeling guilty when the reasons to preserve them are no longer valid.
Hence, each time I plan for the week ahead, I ask myself whether what I’ve done and what I want to do are based on others’ expectations or mine? What falls in the second bracket will let me control the quality of my life and discover my authentic self.
I came across this question in one of Sadhguru’s talk. The next one is also a result of one of his talks.
#2. Is my mind working from memory or from awareness?
Our memory — our ability to recollect — is the reason why we have science, technology, and civilization. Without it, we would have to reinvent the wheel all the time. Yet, this same memory can become the cause of bondage.
Our experiences shape our perception of good and bad, and our likes and dislikes. Such experiences form our memories which, in turn, become the lens through which we see the world. Such a view is distorted; it’s not really how the world actually is.
When the volume of our memories increases, we form thick walls that appear like boundaries. We might feel secure, but our sense of self is relatively impoverished. We start avoiding life and instead, stick to our comfort zone. Life becomes repetitive and automatic. Its most beautiful aspects — spontaneity, creativity, and curiosity — get severely limited.
To experience life, we should make our mind work from awareness — the state of consciously observing and perceiving situations for what they are.
Hence, at random points in a day, I check whether I’m working from memory or awareness. Are my perceptions making the current situation pleasant or unpleasant? Or am I seeing the situation for what it is?
#3. How am I complicit in creating the conditions I say I don’t want?
The first half of 2021 was good for me. I made my first solo trip, started a podcast, put my personal finances in order, and became fitter and stronger. But in the second half, I lost all my momentum.
Things stopped going my way. Feeling miserable was the default state, and what made it worse was I couldn’t tell why. But when I sat down to answer the question Jerry Colonna asked (“How am I complicit in creating the conditions I say I don’t want?”), the answers revealed themselves.
I didn’t keep landing in bad situations because of luck, but because I was complicit in creating them. There were things I didn’t like doing, situations I didn’t like being in, yet I stuck to them.
For instance, I had lost momentum on my goals because I was spending too much time on the phone. I was forever distracted and simply went with the flow even when it wasn’t helpful.
It’s easy to feel hapless when life doesn’t go as planned. But you can stop being a willing participant in the downward spiral if you just ask yourself, “How am I complicit in creating the conditions I say I don’t want?”
Now, if I had a poor work session, this question helps me identify and remove/reduce the causes of distraction. If I’m upset over someone’s opinion of me, I remember that the feeling is futileBecause the only aspects I can control are my perceptions, actions, and willpower..
#4. What has to be done?
It’s common to ask ourselves, “What should I do now?” The mind, which wants to avoid discomfort at all costs, will give answers like “check your email,” “schedule meetings”, or just “watch Netflix.”
These activities will keep you busy alright, but they won’t let you progress. You’ll run hard, but in circles rather than forward. I found a better alternative in Peter Drucker’s book, The Effective Executive. He wrote:
“The first practice is to ask what needs to be done. Note that the question is not ‘What do I want to do?’… Failure to ask this question will render even the ablest executive ineffectual.”
We don’t fail to reach our goals because we lack competence. We fail because we lack consistency on what matters. If you can keep asking yourself, “What has to be done?”, it becomes easier to stay focused on important tasks and let the unimportant ones slide.
When I was working towards the goal of gaining muscle mass in 2021, I kept asking what had to be done. The answers were eating the right quantity of the right food, training the right way, and giving my body enough rest.
The result? At the age of 38, despite a high metabolism, I gained 20 pounds (75% of which was muscle mass) in five months.
#5. Why do I want to avoid this task?
We often don’t want to do tasks for one of two reasons: it feels like a waste of time, or it pushes us outside our comfort zone. If we’re not careful, we’ll ironically end up doing a lot of the former while feeling hollow.
In the second half of 2021, I swapped tasks in the second bucket for ones in the first. The boredom, combined with the guilt of avoiding what’s important, made me miserable.
Like most people, I’ve been imbibed with the conventional wisdom that we are obligated to doing the things we don’t like because that’s how life is. But that’s not true. The actions we should take are the ones that make us uncomfortable, because discomfort also fuels growth.
Think of working out at the gym. If you stick to the same weights, you’ll tick the “exercise” box, but you won’t reduce body fat. If you keep raising the bar of the weights you lift, on the other hand, you’ll reduce body fat and increase muscle mass.
When you challenge yourself, you become better, and you have less time for what you don’t like.
Once I made the actions that make me uncomfortable an integral part of my daily schedule—writing, reading, work, learning the classical guitar, and training at the gym—I had little time for social media, Netflix, or talking to people who don’t help me improve.
#6. Is this a dream or a goal?
For many years, my goals list rarely changed because I tried doing everything at the same time. I was moving a millimeter in 10 different directions without making meaningful progress in any of them.
Until I heard Paul Levesque (Triple H) say:
“A dream is something you fantasize about; it’ll probably never happen. A goal is something you plan for, work toward, and achieve.”
My goals list included may dreams as well, which made it three-pages long. Revising my understanding of goals and dreams helped me revise the list. For instance, visiting Iceland is a dream (for now), but restoring my modern classic motorcycle is a goal.
Each time I want to do something, I ask whether it’s a dream or a goal. If it’s a goal, I work towards it. If it’s a dream, it can go on a different list until I’m ready to turn it into a goal.
#7. What can I salvage out of this day?
One day, I tagged along with a friend who had been asked with taking pictures of an expensive car for an auto magazine. We spent four hours, but he didn’t get any good shots. We were upset and exhausted. To make matters worse, the light began to fade.
Then he said, “If we can get just 2-3 good shots, we’ll have salvaged something from this shitty day.” Instantly, I also felt a change in my mood. We found an open spot, got a few good shots, and went home feeling relieved that we got something done.
I have days when nothing goes according to plan. Tempers flare at work, my attention is all over the place, or events pan out opposite to what I’d hoped. On such days, it’s tempting to mope or binge on Netflix. But such behavior only worsens my mood.
A better approach is to ask myself the question, “What can I salvage out of today?” I look for one pending task I can close. It could be chalking out a plan to resolve the conflict at work, completing one task that doesn’t demand much attention, or connecting with someone I’ve been meaning to reach out to for a while. Or I could write a short LinkedIn status updateGoing on a long walk helps figure this out..
No day is over until you’ve called it a day. Regardless of how bad it was, you can take one tiny action to salvage something meaningful. You may still not feel good when you wrap up, but you don’t feel like crap either. Plus, the small win gives you a tiny boost to face the next day.
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