The Most Valuable Thing You Can Do Right Now: Author Yourself


This piece was originally published at The Mission

I consider myself a pretty ambitious person. There are things I want to accomplish, people I want to influence, and places I want to see. But it is easy to get overwhelmed between all of the options on the table and overwhelmed with trying to get from A-to-Z in my big goals.

TL;DR — I tried out “self-authoring” this summer on a whim and found it to be the highest payoff thing I did. I am more focused, more alert, and more productive towards the achievement of my goals than before. The program is available here.

I used to dismiss goal setting tools and workshops. When asked why, I would hide it behind a veneer of looking down on something that was “too self-helpy” or something that too many people talked about doing. I imagined that goal setting and explicit plan making were really only things that losers did because they did not have the willpower to keep track of their goals on their own on a day-to-day basis.

Then I actually tried it. At first, I tried it in a workshop that I attended in March and was surprised by how much more detail I got on a few things that I had struggled with before:

  1. What my next, immediate action items are. I knew what I wanted to get at and I knew some of the things I had to do to get there, but sometimes I would find myself struggling to find what the next highest-leverage action items were.
  2. What I was really trying to aim for. In the trenches of day-to-day life, it’s easy to lose sight of what you actually set your goals for. Maybe you want to earn $50,000 next quarter…but why? What is that going to bring you? Knowing your reasons makes your striving for these things easier when things get difficult.
  3. The resources I had available to make this happen. Often, people think about their goals or ambitions passively. They go about their day-to-day hoping that things will align for them to get closer to their goals. Actually sitting down, thinking about these goals, and writing about them forces you to get clear about the resources you have available right now.

Had I actually taken the time beforehand to seriously sit down and write out what I wanted for myself and what I wanted to achieve, I would have spent considerably less time on projects and opportunities that did not get me closer to my goals. I would have spent more time on productive activities and would have thereby been happier. If I had been happier, I would have been more productive.

Much like meditating, goal-setting is something that seems like it shouldn’t make the impact it does. “I can calm myself down through the day, why take the time to actually meditate?” Goal-setting is like meditating on your goals, pulling forth parts of your mind that do not usually focus on these goals, and bringing resources to the fore that you didn’t even realize you had.

I took the time a few weeks ago to try out the Self-Authoring Suite developed by the clinical psychologist, Jordan B. Peterson, and his colleagues. I realized some of the benefits of explicit goal setting and self-inventory in the spring and thought it might be worthwhile to drop $30 to try out what is essentially a guided journaling program.

Peterson and co. developed the suite with their students at the University of Toronto and tested it on them, with surprisingly positive results. Students who participated in the course were less likely to drop out due to lack of focus, improved their grades, and were overall happier. This corroborates with an old apocryphal Yale/Harvard study about the success of graduates over years with written goals.

I figured $30 is about the price of one or two good books, so might as well as try it out.

What Do You REALLY Want?

Most people have aspirations. They want to accomplish something. They may want a family of a certain kind, a job of a certain type, or just to live their lives in a certain way.

Rarely do we actually sit down and ask ourselves “why” do we want these things. These desires and aspirations may be inherited from past epochs of our lives where we developed them for entirely different reasons than we would develop them now, or they may be inherited from other people, forcing us to live out lives of which other people would be proud, but not ourselves.

A particularly useful part of the suite in the Future Authoring program asks you to design achievements and goals for yourself as if you were somebody you cared about. Take an inventory of something you can improve on right now (to gain momentum) and then take a step back, set out the goals, and say why you want to achieve those goals.

When setting the goals, be specific and set deadlines. This allows you to track your progress and your failure and focus on where you need to improve in order to really succeed.

Then, sit through and think about what will go into the achievement of these goals.

How Will Your Life Change?

How will achieving this goal change your life? How will it change your relationships with people you know? Will it actually make your life harder or worse off?

Being clear about these questions is vitally important. When people fail to take proper action on opportunities in front of them, a main cause is that they are conflicted about whether or not they really want it. My go-to example to illustrate this is somebody who has one part of themselves tugging at them to get married and commit to an individual whom they love but another part of them terrified of the commitment and wanting to stay a bachelor/bachelorette. They are conflicted about what they want so they fail to take proper action.

Getting clear about what you actually want is a powerful way to capture the effectiveness that you need to succeed in your life.

What Are the Obstacles?

The Future Authoring program also asks you to be clear about the obstacles you will face in the achievement of your goals. If you are actually forced to think about what can go wrong in the achievement of your goals, you can anticipate these problems and minimize them before they crop up.

Maybe you want to achieve a promotion by the beginning of the year. But this is a unique promotion that can only go to one of five employees in your group. Jon across the hall is also up for the promotion. Might he sabotage you? Will you have to play office politics? Will the achievement of this promotion actually undermine your ability to manage your team?

Anticipation is the key to leadership. The Future Authoring program does a solid job at making you make explicit the things which you must anticipate in order to achieve your goals.

How Can You Get There?

Then, take the time to ask yourself what will go into the achievement of this goal. What will you have to get better at? What habits will you have to develop? How often should you take an inventory of your progress?

This is similar to the Ambition Mapping tool I advocate for hereYou take what you want to achieve (and when you want to achieve it) and work backward from there to realize what are the smaller goals that you must achieve first in order to hit this bigger goal.

Each of these smaller goals is then broken down into two distinct categories:

  1. Habits you can develop. In order to achieve ambitious goals, you must develop helpful habits. If you want to write a book, you need to schedule in time for writing. If you want to lose weight, you need to schedule in time for exercise. What are the habits you can develop that will help in the achievement of this goal?
  2. Things you can do right now. There is something you can do right now to get you closer to the achievement of your goal. That could be sending an email, calling a gym, or sitting down to get to work. What are those things?

This plan of attack (as well as your due date) is not set in stone. The power is in the exercise of thinking about the specific things you can do towards the attainment of the goal. Once you explicate these ideas — many of which are sitting implicit in your mind right now — you have a list of things you can do to get yourself moving.

The Self-Inventory

The suite also includes Present and Past Authoring programs. These programs can be completed separately from the Future Authoring program but are based on the Big Five psychological index and help you figure out what your best traits are and your worst traits are and how you can improve upon yourself by leveraging these.

In the Present Authoring — Virtues, you make an inventory of your best traits by choosing from several lists of traits that fall on the OCEAN/Big Five spectrum. You choose traits that relate to:

Openness — Your openness to trying new and different things.

Conscientiousness — Your disposition towards order.

Extraversion — Your disposition towards other people.

Agreeableness — Your disposition towards disagreeing with people or going along with them.

Neuroticism — Your disposition towards emotional stability.

For example, my best traits tend to lean towards moderate openness, high conscientiousness, high extraversion, low agreeableness, and low neuroticism. You then re-rank these traits as your best traits until you get to a handful. Then, you take an index of these traits and think about how they’ve helped you in the past and how you can use them to help you grow in the future.

This combined with the future authoring program provides a powerful jumping-off point for your personal development. You get an idea of what your strengths are and how you can play to them. You get an idea of what you want to achieve and how you can achieve that. Combine these and you know what points to leverage for the highest payoff in the achievement of your goals.

Present Authoring — Faults follows a similar trajectory and helps you identify the areas in which you need to improve. Past Authoring asks you to divide your life into epochs and sort those out in the narrative of what you are trying to achieve.

Taking the time to “self-author” is like a meta exercise. You can take a class or read a book about learning a specific skill, but if that skill is not leveraged towards the biggest payoff point for what you want to achieve (or you have no idea what you want to achieve!) then the skill is not being used in the best way.

Go work out what you want. Get a plan for achieving it. Sort yourself out.

You can learn more about the program here.

You can purchase the individual programs or the suite here. As of 8/25/17, the 2-f0r-1 suite special is still going on, where you can get 2 suites for the price of 1 ($29.99).

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I'm Zak. School should have taught you how to succeed at work and build a great career. Instead, it taught you that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. Thankfully, I teach what school never taught.

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