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The Domino Effect

A Mindfully Positive Path to Goal-Setting

Neil Farber
Source: Neil Farber

What's up with the Dominoes?

If you didn't read my last article about practical goal-setting in terms of setting up dominoes, here's a brief overview.

We determine our goals (more about how to do this in the next article) and then begin to lay out our dominoes. Every domino is a goal. The final domino may be our ultimate goal, but this domino is no different from all of the other dominoes. We alone determine the pathway and the journey to reach that final goal. The dominoes along the way are not problems, obstacles, situations, or even challenges. They are also goals, albeit smaller goals that we have established to achieve our final goal.

What are the advantages of viewing goal-setting in this way?

Process Driven

As Harvard Professor, Dr. Ellen Langer has written, one of the characteristics of mindfulness is a focus on process over outcome. By acknowledging that only you can set up your dominoes, you have the choice of where those dominoes are placed. You also have ongoing choices of whether you want to knock each one over to continue on that particular pathway or rearrange your dominoes to establish a new path—a new journey. Dominoes can always be moved—they are never set in stone.

As my daughter has stated, "my dominoes have been rearranged so many times, they look like abstract art." If you don't knock over that last domino, your life and time has not been wasted, you have still benefited from the experience. As each domino represents a goal, knocking over each domino provides a sense of accomplishment; a step in the direction of empowerment. If you never reach your final domino, you have still benefited by growing and attaining knowledge that may be used in all sorts of ways in the future along other paths. There is no wasted time.

Positive Focus: Again this is all about choices. Establishing where to put your dominoes is your choice. In addition, whether to pursue knocking down each domino is also your choice. As such, you must acknowledge that no one but you can set up your dominoes. The path is yours alone to establish and to follow or to not follow. This journey and each of the dominoes along the pathway are "want to's" and "get to's". Nobody is making you do these things. You have the freedom to choose and thus there are no "have to's" or "got to's". No one is doing this to you.

There is no one to blame. You have chosen this path. Simply acknowledging this fact will lead to an empowering enlightenment. The result of which is an infectious positive spiral. Others will be also be inspired and motivated by how much control you have over your life (they have just as much control but have not yet realized this).

Mindful Approach: When we concern ourselves and are able to maintain a focus on the dominoes at hand without always having to reference the final domino in our pathway, we are better equipped to spend our time in the "now" rather than the future. This is a mindful technique in which we approach each of our goals along the path with openness and interest. While we maintain our final goal and it remains in the background as something that keeps us directed and centered, it does not involve our primary attention. We will do a better job at the task at hand and greatly improve both our chance of success and our satisfaction if we are living fully in the moment.

Attitude of Gratitude: When we change our have to's and got to's into want to's and get to's we immediately exchange our blaming behavior into one of gratitude. The focus is on our personal responsibility for how we choose to set up our dominoes. We become more appreciate of the journey, the process and of other people.

wikimedia - copyright free
Source: wikimedia - copyright free

Let's look at a few examples:

#1 My goal is to climb Mount Everest. I have a choice at how I view this goal.

Choice 1) How will I prepare for this? I have to get into better physical condition and learn about this mountain and how to deal with high altitudes. I have to buy the supplies and equipment. I have to book a flight and arrange for guides. This is going to force me to take at least 5 weeks off work—that could be a big problem. Finally, I have to climb the mountain until I reach the summit. None of this sounds like much fun. I'm highly motivated to reach the summit because if I don't this will all have been a big waste of time, money, effort, and energy.

Choice 2) If I look at this a different way, I want to climb Mount Everest because I love the outdoors and the challenge. Thus, I get to learn more about the mountain and will really benefit from understanding how to deal with high altitudes. I will obviously want to have the proper supplies and equipment to improve my chance of success and my comfort along the way. I will be fortunate enough to visit Nepal and Tibet and look forward to meeting all kinds of like-minded individual including the Sherpa guides. I'll be getting a much-deserved long vacation from work and best of all, I will have the opportunity to ascend the highest and most famous mountain in the world. Every step will be an adventure. I hope to reach the summit, although I realize there is some chance that this won't happen. Whether I summit or not, this will certainly be the adventure of a life time. I'll see and do things that I've only read and dreamt about.

#2 My goal is to be a doctor. Most doctors start off by going to college, graduating from college, taking the MCAT exam, and applying to medical school. They then take classes in medical school and if they pass those basic science classes, begin to work in the hospital, study more clinically-related material, and actually take care of patients. There is a national medical license examination that one is also required to pass to be able to practice medicine legally. So, what kind of doctor do I want to be? Obviously, I want to be a great doctor. How can I achieve this goal? By doing well in my classes and studying hard for my exams. I want to take these classes and exams because if I don't, I won't be able to achieve my goal of becoming a doctor. We most often hear this referred to as, "I have to take this class" or "I have to take that exam". No you don't. You could change your dominoes and establish another goal. You could flow along a different path and not become a doctor or perhaps you may find a path that does not require you to take that specific exam. No one is forcing you to take this journey. There are no "have to's". You should want to take that exam and want to do well in that subject because that will have an impact on how well you are prepared to be a physician.

Now I'm on call in the hospital and it's the middle of the night. I'm assigned to take care of the next patient who comes into the emergency room. Does that mean that this is a "have to"? No, I am only here because I chose to be here. I could change careers or I could call in sick. Nobody can make me take care of this patient if I don't want to. These are the dominoes that I've laid out. You could say that there are certain things that I have to do if I want to become a doctor. I would argue that there are certain things that you get to do if you want to become a doctor.

To achieve more fulfillment and satisfaction in life you should focus on the journey, the path, and the process. Thus, you will want to learn whatever you can along the way. If you want to be a doctor to help people, than it would stand to reason that you would want to know as much as possible about the science behind medicine so that you will be better prepared to take care of your patients.

When you acknowledge that you have choices and that you are taking an exam because you want to or showing up at work on a Sunday because you want to or waking up in the middle of the night because you want to, there is an intrinsic feeling of inner strength.

When I've passed on this message to a large audience, there is usually someone who comments that there are certain things that we don't have a choice about like going to work. They will claim that they have to have a job because they have to pay their mortgage and they have to send their child to college. The fact is that there are millions of people (especially nowadays) who do not have jobs and are unemployed. There are also plenty of other potential careers for you to enter or try out. The comment that you have to go to this particular job is simply not true. You show up at work because you want to be there. If your colleague stays home and pretends that they are sick or if they quit the job, it is because they are acting on their choice to no longer work there. You can do the same. When you weigh the benefits and drawbacks of continuing to work at your job, you may conclude that it is better to continue to work there than to go on unemployment. You have now made a conscious decision to stay at your job and are now able to convert all associated have to's and got to's into want to's and get to's.

This is not just a game of semantics and playing self-induced mind games. It is an escape from continual complaining and blaming as we believe that our lives are being determined by others.

Several months ago I saw a colleague at a national conference. He is a very well known researcher in his field. When I asked him what he was doing that day, he replied, "I have to moderate a session in a few minutes." My first reaction was to say, "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that." When you "have to", then someone is making you do something that you don't necessarily want to do. However, this wasn't the case. I know for a fact that he had a choice and that he chose to moderate the session. It is one of his goals to be active in the research community and contribute in national meetings. It was probably a "get to" but it's hard to speak for someone else.

Maintain a focus on the positive—the process—the journey.

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