How to get a sense of direction and start a big project with purpose

Part 1 - Get out of a mental rut now!

Last time I wrote about mentally surviving a period of lockdown by starting a major project. (Read it here if you missed it.) I proposed that doing such a project would provide the sense of change and adventure needed to counter the excessive 'sameness' and enforced security produced by this temporary incarceration.

Although I gave a few examples of what would constitute such a project, I didn't explain how to find the right project to start or how to overcome the inevitable obstacles that we all meet. And this advice isn't just for the coronavirus lockdown period … it can be easy to find yourself lost without a sense of purpose or trapped by some mundane situation that seems to run your life and leave you directionless and feeling unable to change the situation.

Some people already have a sense of direction, which can come through bringing up children and/or a rewarding career where they can progress up a steady ladder. But others may be without either of these. Their job may be a mundane day job that they do just to bring in some income or they may have no job at all.

I was in the lucky position of being able to retire at an early age. But as I pondered what retirement meant, I started to want something more. Certainly, I could have lived out my days sitting at home watching TV, reading books or spending time in the garden with the occasional trip out to meet friends or relatives. But that felt like it was somehow the end of the line … just hanging about until ill heath eventually ensued. I needed a sense of direction, something to build on and give me fresh, new inspiration each and every day.

Whatever your personal situation, if you also need that sense of direction and reason to get out of bed each day, then this article aims to help you achieve that.

But where to start?

Just about any motivational book, article or video will tell you to start with a goal. (Incidentally, one of the best motivational videos I've seen, which is only 7 minutes long is one given by Arnold Schwarzenegger. There's a link to the video at the bottom of this page.)

However, it's not always easy to set a real goal. The sort of goal you may want to set seems totally unachievable or you have set goals in the past but never had the motivation to fulfil them or maybe you don't even know what goal you want to set … often when stuck in a rut, nothing appears to be of interest.

In this and future articles, I will deal with each of the above points (although not in turn) and can absolutely assure you that you will be amazed at what you are able to achieve if you decide on just one thing, whether you need an entirely new sense of direction or just something additional on top of what you already have.

So what is the one thing that you need to decide?

The only thing you need to decide is the fact that you will do it. Do what? That doesn't matter at this stage … just decide that you will commit to starting towards a goal, taking on a project without necessarily knowing what the goal or project is at this stage.

If you do make that decision with total commitment, then do not worry about whether you will find a goal or whether you have what it takes, including the time, ability, money or motivation. Just take it, on faith if necessary, that the rest will happen.

Of course, it won't just happen of it's own accord but I will provide you with everything you need to make it happen through this and subsequent articles. There will certainly be hiccups and periods of uncertainty along the way but this is a normal emotional feeling. I will explain the different reasons why these things happen and how to overcome them.

The first step – a simple piece of paper

Back in the 1980s, I had a boss who asked me to write down an idea I had. I can't remember now what the idea was but remember telling him that I didn't think I needed to write it down as I could state it in one simple sentence. He told me to go away and write it down on a piece of paper. I looked at him perplexed. He then told me that if you write something down you know more about that one thing than anyone else.

What he said may not be entirely true but the point he was making was a good one. Writing things down does tend to focus the mind more and I'm very well aware, from subsequent experience, that when I think I know how to explain something well, putting it down on paper is an additional challenge.

When something has been committed to paper, it also gives it additional solidity. A thought can be superseded by another and disappear into the forgotten depths of unrecalled memory. But the written word is there. It needs a strong gust of wind to remove it from your line of vision or some deliberate act to file it away somewhere it cannot be seen.

For these reasons it is important to start the process by actually taking a simple piece of paper and writing something down. But what?

At this stage, just write down two headings in two columns:

To the second heading you can add (or the lives of others) if you choose.

Do not worry at this stage what possible projects to include. Just make sure you write the headings down.

As an example of the type of things that might count as a project, here is a list that I made for myself:

And here is a list that someone who likes to work with their hands might make:

And here is what a piece of paper might look like, if you've really no idea or can't be bothered:

Don't worry if you can't think of anything yet. (If you really can't be bothered, you're unlikely to even write out the headings.) Or it may be that you already know what project you want to undertake but you're just not sure how to go about it. We'll come back to how to go about it but first, I want to concentrate on getting the right project.

Why does it have to change my life?

The reason a project needs to be life-changing is two-fold. Obviously to undertake any project of size is going to require an amount of motivation. (And we'll come back to more on motivation in a later article in this series.) However, suffice to say at this point, there has to be sufficient reason to want to continue with the project through the times when setbacks may arise.

But secondly, and more importantly, it gives a reason to want to get up in a morning. Even if you're not working on the project that particular day, there is something going on in your life that gives you a reason to look to the future ... something to look forward to ... and a reason for being alive and continuing to be alive.

But the sort of thing that might change my life is totally out of my reach!

It may be that you've looked at one of the lists above and thought, for example: Yes, I'd love to be able to paint or draw but I can't ... I was always bottom of the class at art and I just can't do it .. so that one's totally out of the question!

Well it isn't. It really isn't.

Just about anyone can learn any just about any skill; not just to a basic level of competency but to a high level of competency. It's our brains that control what we are and are not able to do. But all our brains are made of the same cellular structures ... neurons that operate by the simple movement of lithium ions. How they develop over time is what differentiates us. But YOU ARE IN CONTROL OF HOW YOUR BRAIN DEVELOPS.

The only chains locked around you mind are the ones you yourself put there. There are probably good reasons why you believe your abilities are limited. Maybe you were told at school that you were bad at art or bad at maths and you could never get the hang of the subject and consequently you started to hate it.

In her book Mindset Dr. Carol Dweck dispels all the common myths about ability and accomplishment. Certainly there are those who are gifted enough to be able to demonstrate some skills without much effort at all. But correctly taught these skills can be learned by just about anyone. She gives an example of a group attending a five day course on drawing where they are invited to draw a self-portrait beforehand. All of these looked like something a three-year old might have done and show no apparent artistic ability at all. But then, after they have been taught properly the components of drawing they repeated the exercise and the drawings all look truly professional.

Confidence or rather lack of it (sometimes called fear) is what really holds back most people in life. I'll come back to this subject again. But for now when you start to think about what possible projects you might want to undertake, do not be held back by how difficult or challenging they may seem at this stage. If they really do turn out to be impossible they can always be struck from the list at a later date. But very little that is worthwhile is really that impossible!

What if I can't think of anything?

It's likely many people who could really do something worthwhile for themselves and others will not be able to think of anything to begin with. Staring at a blank sheet of paper wondering how to form ideas and inspiration is a common occurrence.

This is because ideas cannot be calculated like adding up the prices on a shopping list. Ideas have to form. They come from other thoughts and often well up from the subconscious. So if you've written your headings on your piece of paper and haven't written anything else ... do not worry ... don't sit there staring at a blank piece of paper. Instead, tell yourself out loud that you have your piece of paper ready to write down your ideas when they come.

They will come.

Keep your piece of paper somewhere close at hand and near your bed when you go to sleep at night. (Many ideas come when the mind is clear of other clutter which may be just when you go to sleep or when you wake up.)

Why list more than one thing?

It's not really necessary to list more than one thing if you've got a really strong conviction about what you want to do.

However, if you're uncertain and you're just looking to start to come up with an idea then you may not want to pursue the first idea that comes into your head. Writing down a few gives you time to mull things over and think to yourself: "Is that what I really want to do? Will doing that become boring or am I really interested in the every aspect of it? Will it give me something to look forward to each day, even if things don't work out exactly as I planned? If there are really difficult hurdles to overcome, am I still interested enough to look to find ways to overcome them?"

The ideas still aren't coming. What do I do now?

What we think about is based upon our experiences. Memories of past thoughts, what we see today on the TV and what our friends, acquaintances or work colleagues are telling us. Changing any of these things will have an impact on your thoughts.

I would strongly suggest looking at what you read. If you don't read much then do start reading books, especially books that tell you more about the lives of others and how they've overcome poverty, lack of education, lack of personal contacts and gone on to make great successes of their lives. At the time of writing this, I've listed three such books I would recommend in my Book reviews page and I'll add more later.

Remember, the cost of many books is no more than a packet of cigarettes or a couple of pints of beer. Download the Amazon Kindle App to your phone and ask for Amazon vouchers for your birthday!

Coming later ...

In Part 2 of this article, I go into more detail about confidence. In future parts, I'll cover motivation and staying on track.

Published 11th May 2020


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References and credits:

Arnold Schwarzenegger video

Man stuck in a rut image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Brain unchained image by 3D Animation Production Company from Pixabay