This was me, a little over half a year ago:
I had tons of goals, and I was determined to achieve them all, even if I had to work every free moment! I wrote cover letters for job applications and typed blog outlines in between tasks at work. Every evening at home, I filmed and edited video content or worked on a website for my boyfriend’s family. Obviously this was in addition to my daily adult responsibilities.
To the casual onlooker, I seemed like a kick-ass, productive woman. After all, I was always working! But at the end of the day, if I was honest with myself, what was I actually accomplishing?
After a couple of months, I still didn’t have a new job, couldn’t finish blog content I was happy with, and hadn’t launched the café site.
Not only that, I was so overloaded that I was actually going backwards in areas of my life I was already successful in, such as healthy cooking and a consistent workout routine.
Turns out that I can’t actually “do it all”, at least not all at once. But that leaves the important question:
When you have multiple goals that are vitally important to you, how do you achieve them all without burning out?
To those of you who are into personal finance, this entire scenario might sound a little familiar. Have you heard of Dave Ramsey’s Snowball Method for paying down debt?
Basically, let’s say you have three debts:
● Debt A: $3,000 at 2.5% interest
● Debt B: $10,000 at 6% interest
● Debt C: $20,000 at 4% interest
Fiscally, it makes the most sense to pay down the highest interest debt first, and make minimum payments on the others in the meantime. You save the most money in the long term that way.
But when you toss human emotion into the equation, the debt payer often gets frustrated when they feel that they’re throwing away money into a $10,000 or $20,000 abyss with no “reward”. They lose steam, burn out, and fail to pay off the debt quickly, if at all.
So instead, the Snowball Method suggests that you pay off Debt A (smallest) first. Then use the extra money gained from getting rid of that debt to make bigger payments on Debt B and knock that debt out faster, then use the extra money and momentum gained from paying off both Debts A and B to make large, more satisfying payments on Debt C (biggest).
In this way, you get the reward of completing the smaller accounts early, which is both gratifying in itself and means you don’t have to expend any more anxiety or money on Debts A and B while you’re focused on the Goliath Debt C.
But did you know that you can use the Snowball Method for non-financial goals too?
I’ll use myself as an example:
● Goal A: Get a new job (one major, but finite task)
● Goal B: Website for my boyfriend’s family’s café (one major, finite task, then infrequent upkeep)
● Goal C: Make regular content for Victorious Attitude (ongoing effort for the foreseeable future)
In this case, the limited resource you have isn’t money, it’s time and mental energy.
Even if you are great at multitasking, you cannot control the number of hours in a day. After subtracting out sleep, your work day, commute, and necessities like cooking/eating, chores, etc, you might only have 4 total hours max to work on 3 projects, excluding any relaxation.
Then there’s the mental side. There are very few people, if any, who are better at actively focusing on multiple tasks than a single one. Think of it like a computer: it runs faster when there’s one program running, rather than having several up in the background. And once you’re overloaded with tasks, you freeze!
Just like tackling the high interest debt C first, when I focused on the big, ambitious project that I was most interested in (Victorious Attitude), then I could only make “minimum payments” on the other two goals by submitting a job application every couple of days, and maybe a single page on the café site every week or two.
The pro is that I would get to make immediate, if limited, progress on all of my goals, especially the biggest one. But what would happen until I could clear Goals A and B in the “background”, or until blogging became a strong enough habit that it could run without 100% focus on my part?
Let’s say it only takes a year to accomplish both A and B. That’s a year where I would be anxious because I had other tasks lingering in the back of my mind, and projects probably wouldn’t be completed at their highest quality (It’s hard to build a cohesive website when you work on it 10 minutes at a time, for example). It’s like voluntarily living on only instant ramen to get that extra push towards loan payments. Sure, you’re making more progress by pulling resources from other parts of your life, but is it worth the cost to your quality of life?
In my case, I realized that I couldn’t keep going that way. It was bad for my mental health and self-esteem, and an inefficient use of time. So I took a step back and prioritized in the same way that you would for a snowball. Except in this case, it was by the lowest amount of time/effort required, not dollars.
Since, unlike the other two, job hunting has a definitive finish line, that was my first project. I completely stopped working on Victorious Attitude and the café website. But with all of my time and energy free to focus on that single task, it was less than two months before I accepted a new job, moved cities, and started work! On top of that, since I had the time to complete multiple full applications per day, I felt much more accomplished and happy on a daily basis even before I was offered the position.
With the job hunting pressure off, next up was the café website, since it was one big project and just a quick update each week after that. With full attention on that, it only took about two weeks to finish the design, and to fix bugs and sloppiness that I had created while trying to frantically edit it in my free time before. That was much quicker than I had predicted based on the work I had already done, so I felt reassured that the plan was working.
Now, as I type this post to restart Victorious Attitude, I feel refreshed! My mind is free from guilt and clutter, and I feel like I have positive momentum. Similar to how you can pay off Debt C faster using money freed from A and B, being able to fully focus on this single goal is allowing me to write and plan in a more organized and stress-free way that will (hopefully) lead to better, more regular content. If nothing else, my happiness and confidence are much higher than a few months ago, which is equally as important!
To put it simply, the key to success is:
Don’t just take Ron’s word for it, scientists agree. Your brain is wired to reward you with dopamine when you experience success (i.e., when you finish a task). It’s the same reason that checklists with small, attainable goals and gamifying work are generally so successful. Not only is this rush of dopamine a good feeling, it actually improves your brain’s ability to learn from experiences and accomplish tasks in the future.
But what will people think if I suddenly “give up” on a goal?
Don’t be afraid to advocate for your own goals. Work, school, personal health, chores, maintaining relationships, and other inflexible, necessary parts of your schedule obviously get prioritized first. But after that, it’s your life!
When I started Victorious Attitude, I was very public about it among my friends. So when I stopped producing content, many of them asked me why, or when I was going to post again. At first, I was embarrassed and didn’t know how to answer. They were well-meaning, of course, but people noticed that I was failing!
However, once I got over that initial knee-jerk horror, I realized that it’s my life, and I am the only one who knows the full scope of my goals, my resources, and my struggles. I am the only person who has to live my life day to day, or feel the consequences of my choices. Therefore I am the only one with the tools to make the final decision about what my priorities are, and the timeline on which I’ll operate.
The personal finance buff may scoff at the Snowball Method because you end up paying more, but why should that matter to you, if it’s the best way for you to succeed? Even if someone did think my blog failed, or thought I was a slacker or flaky for taking a long break, who cares?
I’m the only one who can define “success” and “failure” as it pertains to my personal goals.
As long as I held on to my conviction that Victorious Attitude was paused, not stopped, and I was personally OK with the timeline for resuming it, that’s all that mattered!
Help people reframe reprioritized work as an act of determination rather than failure by communicating clearly. If you absolutely must back out of an existing commitment to someone else, do it respectfully and in the least disruptive way possible. If you feel passionately about your goals, tell people what you’re up to, don’t just ghost. And of course, the best way to show them that you’re serious is to be serious, and to work hard to get that goal completed.
I directly said, “I’m sorry, I can’t work on the café website yet because I’m focused on job hunting. I want to make the best site I can.” And then I followed through, getting a new job and then making the best site I could directly after that.
It’s OK to tell people you can’t go on a night out because you want to save money for loan payments, or pass on Happy Hour because you’re serious about getting in a workout tonight. (Though do be sure to get in a day off now and again. We’re not here to burn out!)
The less supportive members of your circle may be irritated, but as long as your basic needs (housing, food, income, etc) remain unaffected, and you feel that you’ve chosen the path that makes you happiest, that’s enough! Yes, opening the door fully for one goal may close the door on certain other opportunities or relationships, but standing and waffling between the doors means you probably won’t make it to either of them! That’s why it’s important for you to fully consider all of your options and commit to a path.
Ask yourself as often as you can, “What is my single most important goal at this moment? In this month? How about this year? And what are the concrete things I can accomplish today to reach it? Are there any non-priorities taking up a disproportionate amount of my time?”
So take a few minutes today to identify your goals and prioritize them. Commit to just one specific, short-term, achievable project, make a plan, and give it everything you’ve got!
I hope this post has helped you! I would love to know: what dream are you working to achieve? Or, have you hit a road block and lost your direction? Let’s chat about it and help each other in the comments, and feel free to subscribe to keep the conversation going!
Also published on Medium.