Purpose comes in all sizes. There is the small, momentary purpose which we encounter throughout the day, like when you open the closet door to find a shirt or a blouse to wear as you get ready to go to work. Or when you stop at the supermarket to buy the necessary ingredients for making lasagna.
On the other end of the spectrum, are the larger purposes in life:
- to have a loving, fulfilling marriage with your partner.
- To provide your children with a good education.
- To live in a way that minimizes the harm that you cause to people, animals and the planet.
Sometimes a purpose is large enough and prominent enough to withstand the passage of time. We may think of such a purpose as a mission — a driving force in our life – something about which we are passionate.
There are two critical problems we may run into when it comes to purpose. The first occurs when we sacrifice our purpose to our feeling states. Instead of allowing ourselves to be guided by our purposes (large and small), we “go with our feelings.” Inevitably, this gets us into trouble. For example, it may be clear to us that we need to exercise in order to maintain a healthy mind and body. So we plan to get up early on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and take a 45 minute walk. But one morning we wake up and notice that we don’t really feel like walking. We’re a bit tired, and the weather isn’t quite as nice as it was on Monday, and we’re feeling very comfortable wrapped in our cozy down comforter. So we turn off the alarm and drift back into sleep while our sneakers wait patiently at the door wondering what happened to us.
Will your life fall apart if you go with your feelings and go back to sleep just one time? Of course not. But if this becomes (or is) your dominant style, then you’ll eventually find yourself in trouble. You’ll fail to file your tax returns, eat too much sugar, have roller coaster relationships, lose credibility at work and find that important parts of your life are deteriorating while you are on safari searching for comfort, pleasure and other feeling states that . . . well . . . feel good.
So the fundamental change we need is a shift from a feeling-centered approach to decisions to a purpose-centered approach. The question isn’t “what do I feel like doing?” but, rather, “what needs to be done?” All the time management systems in the world won’t really help us very much until we’ve developed the capacity to make decisions based on purpose rather than feelings.
The way to overcome this obstacle is by developing a skill called, “coexisting with unpleasant feelings.” This is the approach suggested by Morita Therapy, a method of Japanese Psychology sometimes called “The Psychology of Action.” We learn to coexist with our feelings while taking action. We do what we need to do and take our feelings along for the ride. We become less feeling-centered and more purpose-centered.
But even if we succeed in doing this, we run into the second problem which is a problem of priorities. It’s not enough to just keep busy – to take action. We have to make sure we’re devoting our time to the right purposes. Purposes compete. There’s only so much time in the day and we have to make choices about which purpose gets our attention and which gets placed on the back burner.
These days, more and more people struggle with what I call, “Stressed and Overwhelmed Syndrome.” Stressed and Overwhelmed Syndrome (SOS) means that the time needed to do what needs to be done in a day is more than the time available. A symptom of SOS is that your days (even Sundays) are driven by checklists. The goal is to check off as many things as possible before you go to sleep. One of the main problems with SOS is that we sacrifice the “experience” of doing something for the satisfaction of getting it done. But there’s very little satisfaction, because even as we finish a task – like writing a letter to someone who just had surgery – our mind is already shifting to the next thing on our list. Another symptom of SOS is multitasking. We think that by doing several things at the same time we can accomplish more, even though every research study I’ve seen concludes the opposite.
Many people cope with SOS by trying to escape from their lives. They do this by zoning out in front of the TV set or surfing the Internet. Or through the use of drugs and alcohol. Or even by overuse of prescription medication. These coping options provide temporary relief at a feeling level, but once we’re “back in reality” we feel even worse.
There’s no easy cure for SOS, but there are two strategies that can help. First, you have to develop wisdom when it comes to your priorities. In many cases that means taking some purposes off of the playing field. By accepting that you really can’t have it all it becomes necessary to make choices based on what you really care about and leave the rest behind. Imagine that all your purposes were piled up in various rooms throughout your home. One day you wake up and find that your house is on fire. All you can do is grab a few things and run out to the backyard where it’s safe. What purposes would you grab? What will you save? Make good choices, because the rest of them will burn.
The other treatment for SOS involves shifting from an “outcome” mode to an “experience” mode. We have to focus more on “how” we’re doing something and less on getting it done so we can check it off. This means staying present. Keeping our focus on what we’re doing. Being aware of our sensory experience. If we’re having a meal with our family, it means tasting our food, noticing the aromas and the textures. It means putting down our forks and listening when someone is speaking. We eat like it was the last supper rather than getting it over with so we can get on to something else.
Making the shift to a life that focuses on purpose, and values the experience, is not easy. It requires conscious effort and constant practice. But it can result in more joy, less suffering and a legacy of accomplishments that we believe really matter.
Gregg Krech is an author and leading expert in Japanese Psychology and will be teaching the Distance Learning Course, Living on Purpose, which begins January 10, 2013.
Photo credit to Stuck in Customs
Gregg Krech Author, Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-reflection (2002)| Author, A Natural Approach to Mental Wellness (2004, 2011)| Author, A Finger Pointing to the Moon (2000)| Editor, Thirty Thousand Days: A Journal for Purposeful Living (1993-Present)| Director, ToDo Institute (Vermont) (1992-Pr......