It’s okay if you don’t do everything

People often tell me that they feel frustrated because they don’t have the time to explore their interests or build new skills. I understand where they’re coming from. I have many interests. I like digging into new topics and new skills, feeling the concepts start to click together. There are many, many more things I want to learn than I have the time to do in one lifetime. There’s everyday life to deal with, too.

One of the most useful things I’ve learned is how to not be discouraged by the limitations of time. We set ourselves these deadlines (“I want to be a millionaire by thirty!”) and we get frustrated because we aren’t getting there fast enough because of all the things in the way. An oft-repeated piece of advice is that your goals should be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. While time-bound goals are useful in many situations, they’re not the best fit for everything. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the possibilities and frustrated by the fact that you can be in only one place at one time, paying attention to one thing and forgetting others. If you have too many goals, you don’t have any.

It’s good to know when to let that go. It’s good to give yourself permission to explore in a general direction but not necessarily force yourself to arrive at your destination by a specific time or date. Then any obstacles in your path just mean that you’ll take the scenic route, and sometimes you might discover interesting side-paths along the way.

I know that I may not get to do everything, but I can do the things that matter the most, and I can slowly explore other interests in the time and space that I have. It’s like the way that I think about savings. I may not be able to buy everything I want, but I can save up for the things that matter. If something is more expensive than others, that simply means that it will take me a little longer to save up for it. Likewise, I may be curious about what it’s like to have certain kinds of skills or experiences, but I can probably get there even if I go slowly.

It’s a different kind of ambition, perhaps. For many people, ambition is about getting somewhere. My goal is to have a good journey along the way, and to share that with others.

Letting go of deadlines makes it easier for me to scale back some things in order to make space for other interests. I keep a list of things that I say “no” to in order to make space for this I want to say “yes” to. My mother observed that I haven’t been writing about sewing lately. It’s on my “no” list, just as playing the piano is. Both are good hobbies and many people enjoy them, but I’ve moved the time and focus to other things at the moment, and that’s okay. Right now, I’m focusing on writing, drawing, and learning how to develop mobile applications.

Frugality helps a lot, too. If I don’t spend so much, then I don’t need to earn so much, and I can work less and use the extra time to experiment. The other approach is to earn more so that I can free up more time in the future, but that can be dangerous. Work can be addictive, and postponing exploration means missing out on some things that are better when they mature over time. A hybrid approach that’s working out well: work less and earn more, then use the extra time to learn how to make things even better…

There’s time enough for the things that matter, and a little more for exploring.

  • I’ve often wondered how you manage your time / priorities, so I’m glad you took the time to expound on this subject.

    I like your “SMART” acronym, but there is one other factor that I use to evaluate a goal: Independence. Can a goal be achieved without relying (too much) on outside influences? “Install and learn a Linux OS on my old home computer” has a high Independence factor, since I already have the computer to play with and obtaining a Linux distro and a tutorials is relatively easy. However, “Install and learn a Linux OS on a file server at work” has a lower Independence factor because I might not be granted permission to tinker with that file server.

    Another idea…. I think we have modern versions of Leonardo da Vinci walking around us. You’re probably one of them. da Vinci was brilliant, of course, but he also had a Patron, so he didn’t have to work for a living, cook his own meals, or worry about laundry as we do. The best we can do is get a job with enough autonomy that allows us to learn / explore Emacs Lisp or Lua or the next computer paradigm.

    (Ahh, and now to figure out the dreadful captcha…)

  • Mom

    Since “attainable” and “realistic” seem to be synonymous, you could change one or the other to inject a new meaning. I like that Tom Hopkins’ phrase for “A” is “ardently desired,” because that reminds me to choose a goal that I will not mind working hard for, because I ardently desire it. There is extra energy from the ardent desire to change an arduous task to an easy or pleasant one.

    Re your friend’s comment about having a supportive “infrastructure” (not having to work for a living, cook his own meals, or worry about laundry”) to allow him to realize his goals – let me share my own insight.

    I don’t think that’s what he needs.

    I have all that support. Living here in the Philippines allows me to be surrounded by people who will attend to my menial tasks (and even some of the important ones), but I find that I am still behind in setting and meeting goals. I do write them down, and make sure that my goals are SMART, but I don’t seem to have the same energy, courage and confidence as you, your sisters or your papa.

    Papa does not follow this acronym, or any of the goal setting “lessons” but when he sets his heart to do something, it’s as good as done. He would have beaten Nike to the punch if he had patented his motto “Just Do It!” when I first heard it from him in the 1970’s. :)

    Papa and I have the same support system, but I don’t achieve as much as he does. And look at you – no maids, but you are into a lot of things I only still wish for – cooking, baking, freezing, canning, gardening, carpentry in addition to programming, doing business, writing, sketching etc. etc. etc. (how many etc’s am I allowed to write?) ;)

    So, what’s the secret? JUST DO IT! I think there is magic in beginning something. I did not have the confidence that I could write a comment on your blog, or on your friend’s comment, but I began it, and look at this – 3 or 4 paragraphs already. :)

    That’s my new mantra. BEGIN. This reminds me, I owe a writer-friend an edited version of my conversation with him on the Business of Photography. I guess I also have to add another mantra. FINISH. :)

    Much love,

  • Raymond: Many people think that work and everyday life get in the way of the things they really want to do.

    One of the things I’m learning is that I actually enjoy the chores and the paperwork. I’m lucky in that W- is right in there doing the housework with me. We chat while cooking, watch movies while folding laundry, and banter about who gets to empty the cat litter. In terms of business paperwork, I like learning about accounting and law and all those other things that are part of having your own business. Because I can transform chores into social activities and administrivia into learning opportunities, I don’t mind them so much. Chores become a way for W- and I to bond even more, and paperwork becomes a way to dig deeper into something new.

    Maybe someday these things will lose their lustre, but it seems like there’s always something to learn. For example, I made another four pizzas again yesterday. This time, I quartered the pepperoni to see what the effect would be like, and that was nice. Little things to experiment with.

    Mom: Yup, you just need to give yourself permission to begin. =)

  • I agree with Mom where she wrote, “I don’t think that’s what he needs” (referring to me having a Patron). Thanks so much for taking time to comment!

    I have many other reasons why I’m not a modern day daVinci. (One day I’ll write about that, but not here.) I guess was generalizing about others.

    I also agree about enjoying chores. I’ve read about some people who carry out chores almost as a spiritual path. The trick is to give the chore your full attention as in meditation.

    • I’m reminded of that Oscar Wilde quote: “Be yourself, everyone else is taken.” ;) You don’t have to be a modern day daVinci. You just have to be as Raymond Zeitler as you can be.