Mase is a storyteller based out of Seattle, Washington. Oddly Exceptional explores experience design, goal deconstruction, and intentional living.

Step Outside Yourself

Merely thinking about it makes your heart race. It looms over you, like a shadow. 

"How can I possibly...? Where do I even begin?"

For days—nay, weeks!—you deliberate. The problem never gets smaller, never becomes more manageable. Instead, quite the opposite: the more you dig into the details, the more there is to worry about. More choices to be made. More people who might be hurt or offended. 

It swirls around in your head, a dark cloud following you wherever you go. 

"How can I possibly...? Where do I even begin?"

Solving Other People's Problems

Out of the blue, your best friend calls you. He's at a crossroads in his life. Does he take a lucrative new job out of state, or stay where he is and push through his current frustrations? The pressure to decide has driven him to crisis mode. It causes him to lose sleep. The lost sleep is making him edgy, which only elevates his levels of frustration. He's trapped in a vicious cycle of indecision. 

You meet up for drinks to talk about it. You ask about his long-term goals. You talk about lifestyle non-negotiables—those principles or practices which he wouldn't give up in order to meet those goals. You talk about the obstacles standing in his path, and the things that he could do to start to knock them down. You talk about what makes him happy, and what stresses him out. 

Four drinks and two hours in, the stress gradually disappears from his face.  By the third hour, worry is replaced by nervous excitement. The answer—which was clear to you a mere five minutes into the conversation—is now obvious to him. The night ends joyfully. He knows exactly what he has to do. As you hug and part ways, you make him promise to take the first step as soon as he gets home. 

Walking back to your apartment, the glow of the evening fades away as your own pending decisions creep back into your mind. 

"How can I possibly...? Where do I even begin?"

Answering VCR Questions

Mark Manson calls these VCR Questions:

VCR questions are funny because they appear difficult to anyone who has them and they appear easy to anyone who does not.

The culprit is fear. We fear embarrassing ourselves. We fear hurting others. We fear missing out on opportunities. 

The unspoken, unrecognized, and untrue understanding is that as long as we linger in indecision, we defer all possible negative outcomes. We don't have to make explicit trade-offs. But if we wait long enough, the decision often makes itself, and the trade-offs happen anyway. This has the effect of freeing us from accountability. However, we also lose all positive control. 

Fear makes small problems appear large. It puts blinders on our eyes, binds our hands, and sews our lips shut. Friends and loved ones look on and think, "I wonder why she doesn't just do it."

Stepping Outside Yourself

The trick to overcoming these self-imposed limitations is to temporarily step outside yourself to gain the most objective view possible, and then apply a consistent working method. 

Pretend you're someone else—someone on the outside of the decision, looking in. Then, as the calm, rational actor, ask your other self the following questions:

  • What is your goal? This should drive every decision. It should be a S.M.A.R.T. goal. 
  • What are your principles or desiderata? These should act as polarizing forces when faced with a decision, guiding you either toward or away from some action.    
  • What are the obstacles currently standing in your way? Enumerating these is critical, especially if you're someone who suffers from analysis paralysis. Shifting your mindset to removing blockers allows you to make forward progress even if you haven't convinced yourself of the correctness of a specific overall plan. 
  • Which ones do you have the most control over? Sometimes the list of blockers can be as or more intimidating than the goal itself. Recognizing which obstacles you have the most immediate control over and attacking those first can help build momentum and confidence, giving you the fortitude necessary to attack the larger ones.
  • What habits do you need to become the person who could and would do this? There are some things you simply cannot do... yet. But that doesn't mean you can't become the person who can over time. I strongly recommend reading The Power of Habit to explore how you achieve dramatic results through small, gradual changes. 
  • What extraordinary actions are necessary to achieve this? Some things require bold actions—quitting a job, moving to another city or country, country, etc. These dramatic environmental shifts can help reset priorities, clear room in your schedule, or open up new possibilities. 
  • What otherwise intuitive action is not necessary? However, it's important that you don't confuse unnecessary-but-bold action with progress, or let those unnecessary actions block you from making progress. This is an easy trap to fall into. Do you need to quit your job, or can you begin on the side? Do you need to enroll in a class, or can you self-study? Do you need to move, or is that a convenient excuse for why you haven't started? 

The approach borders on robotic. That's the intent—to remove as much emotion as possible. When it comes to getting excited about a new endeavor, emotional energy can be a great motivator. It amplifies. But it's a double-edged sword. The same boost which makes the upside seem dreamy can also make the challenges appear insurmountable. 

Making Sure You Have the Right Goal

This approach to decision making forces you to start with the end goal in mind. Key to your overall success is ensuring you have the right goal.

"Is my goal really to do something new, or am I simply bored? Should my goal actually be to feel actively engaged on a daily basis?" The answer determines whether changing jobs is a valuable investment, or simply a way to stir up some novelty.

"Is my goal really to live somewhere new, or am I simply running from my problems? Should my goal actually be to work through them?" The answer determines whether a move halfway across the globe is a valuable growing experience, or just a way to defer working through deeper problems.

Doing It

The last step is, of course, doing the things. Ideas are cheap. Plans are inexpensive. Execution is king. 

I find execution difficult unless I can break it down into a small, bite-sized bits of work, then schedule time every day to regularly chip away at them. As long as tasks are large and ill-defined, they remain unapproachable. 

I'll explore execution in a future post. 

Trying It Out

Stepping outside yourself takes practice. Build the muscle. Start with small, everyday things before applying it to major life decisions.

Treat your life like a science experiment. Track questions, their potential and actual impact, the rubric you used to land on a decision, and your feelings before and after. Tweak it as you go. When you begin to see the positive effects, you'll want to apply it to everything. 

Once that happens, your life will never be the same.

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