When we take focused action, over a span of time, in pursuit of a goal, and we achieve results, that’s where fulfillment comes from – not just from the outcome, but from the whole process.

We want to get better at playing guitar. If we practice hard and learn to play a song that we couldn’t play before, that’s fulfilling, right?

We want to get in shape. If we lift weights a few times a week until we’re lifting double what we could lift before, that’s fulfilling, right? 

But in any quest, even if we do achieve success, fulfillment isn’t guaranteed. Let’s look at three obstacles that get in the way of fulfillment.

The first obstacle is narrowmindedness or tunnel vision. That’s when we’re so focused on the details of our immediate goal that we don’t notice the timeless, universal underpinnings of that goal – the larger reason why we’re pursuing the goal in the first place.

If we learned the song that we wanted to play on guitar, and we learned to play it pretty well, why wouldn’t we feel fulfilled? Perhaps that’s because in all of our effort over many months, we’ve only learned to play one simple song and we realize that other people can play it much better. We’ve put in all that hard work and we’re still not remarkable, we’re still not a star. Our sense of fulfillment turns into self-doubt because we’re thinking of our achievement as a narrow, specific thing – acquiring the ability to play one particular song – and we’re not seeing how this achievement connects to a timeless intention.

Why did we want to play that song in the first place? Why do we want to play any song? That’s because we want to share our heart and soul with other people through music. We want to connect. 

Indeed, we have learned the song well enough to use it as a vehicle for connecting. We can gather a group of friends in our living room and play the song with enough feeling and skill that they can enjoy it and be moved. Even if we’re not ready for Carnegie Hall, we can communicate through that song. So we’ve furthered our timeless goal of connecting with others through music. And by taking time to notice this – by taking a broader perspective of why we’re doing what we do – we can regain the fulfillment that came into question when we were thinking so narrowly about what we had accomplished.

The second obstacle to fulfillment is scattering. Dispersion of effort. Lack of focus. That’s when we spend our time switching from one task to another in such a way that we’re not sure what long-term goal we’re actually pursuing.

For example, we might have a long to-do list containing many small tasks like: pay a bill, call a friend, take the garbage out, go food shopping, return a product that didn’t work, go to the gym, get to bed early. We might set a goal of crossing each task off the list, and we might feel a sense of fulfillment in making progress toward being done with everything. 

But the list is nothing on its own – it’s just a piece of paper – it’s just a holder of assorted goals. Behind those goals, there might be a dozen different motivations and intentions. 

As we work on one task after another, we find ourselves switching rapidly between different long-term goals. One task, like paying a bill, is related to the long-term goal of financial health. Another task, like calling a friend, is related to the long-term goal of maintaining our relationships. A few tasks are for having a comfortable home, and a few are for physical health. Switching so quickly between tasks that are related to such different long-term goals can create a kind of dizziness, where we forget what those long-term goals even are. We’re only seeing and thinking about the immediate tasks in front of us, not about their larger significance.

It’s the same when we check email. Our inbox is basically a to-do list where each message represents a task we have to complete: reply to this message, delete it, archive it? We might find some fulfillment in clearing out our inbox, but what long-term goal are we actually working towards? Each email connects to a different long-term goal. One email is from a friend. Why are we responding to that email? Because we want to maintain the friendship. Our broader, long-term goal is to have friends and be a good friend. Another email is from the doctor’s office. Why are we responding to that? We’re overdue for a physical. But why do we care that we’re overdue for a physical? Because we have the long-term goal of being healthy. A third email is from a travel company and we’re responding to that one because we want to have adventure and novelty in our life – we want to see the world.

As we cross items off our to-do list or process emails in our inbox, more tasks and emails keep coming and it can feel like we’re treading water, constantly switching focus, and not making a sustained effort toward any particular long-term goal. We’re doing lots of different little things that each connect with different long-term goals, but the long-term goal of the moment is changing so fast that it all becomes a blur.

One way to respond to this obstacle of “scattering” is to schedule larger chunks of time around one long-term or timeless goal. For example, instead of reserving a one-our time slot in our calendar to clear out our inbox, we could reserve an hour to take action around the timeless goal of: “I want to be a good friend.” Write that down. Spend that hour responding only to emails from friends. Call a friend. Schedule a lunch date. Send a postcard. Research trips we can take with friends. Anything that connects to friendship, that’s our hour for it. Our inbox won’t be clear after that, but we’ll feel like we made progress on one specific long-term goal which is maybe more important than having a clean inbox.

As we go about our day, we’ll need to switch between tasks that connect with different long-term goals – that’s unavoidable. But we can try to carve out larger chunks of time to dedicate to one long-term goal. Take the goal, “I want to be healthy.” Let’s say we’ve just acted on that goal by making a salad. Are we done with that goal for the time being? Or could we do something else toward it right now, like going out for a walk? The idea is to take things that we already want to do in our day and group them so that we can keep one long-term goal in sight for a longer stretch of time. This can help us see the items in our schedule less as unrelated tasks and more as connected actions that work together to further our larger, timeless goals.

The third obstacle to fulfillment is reactiveness. That’s when we’re forced to respond to circumstances that threaten our goals, rather than choosing what we’d like to do to further our goals and then carrying out those decisions. For example, we might have a long-term goal of having a comfortable home where guests feel welcome. Being proactive as opposed to reactive about this goal might mean choosing a piece of art and hanging it in the guest bedroom. 

But what if we notice a leak in the kitchen ceiling? Now we’ve got to spend our time arranging pots and pans on the floor to avoid a flood while we desperately try to get a plumber to come fix the leak. An unfortunate and pressing circumstance is forcing us to respond. We’re doing what the situation pushes us to do rather than spending our time on home upkeep in the way we would choose. That’s life, and problems are unavoidable. But when we find that we’re spending the bulk of our time reacting to circumstances and not as much time initiating and following through on our chosen projects, our sense of fulfillment is compromised.

One way to respond to this challenge of reactivity is with a perspective adjustment. We should understand that whenever we’re pursuing a timeless goal, we must always combine reactive and proactive modes of behavior. That’s necessary, natural, and entirely to be expected. If our timeless goal is “I want to be financially secure” we’ve got to work and earn money (proactive) but we’ve also got to pay any parking tickets we get slapped with (reactive).  If our timeless goal is “I want to see the world” we’ve got to plan trips (proactive) but we’ve also got to get on the phone with the airline when they abruptly cancel our flight to Costa Rica (reactive). If our timeless goal is “I want to be healthy,” we’ve got to exercise (proactive) but we’ve also got to rest and take medicine when we’re sick (reactive). 

Oftentimes, we fail to see our “forced” reactions in the context of the larger goals they serve. Paying a parking ticket or waiting on hold with customer service seems like something we’re being made to do. It seems like a nuisance that doesn’t serve any long-term goal. Its outcome is only corrective. It undoes something bad. The time we spend fixing problems and handling inconveniences can seem like time that’s stolen from us, subtracted from the bank of time we would like to spend pursuing our goals proactively. But we can instead acknowledge that these necessary reactions do contribute to our deepest goals. If we pay an annoying parking ticket, we’re actually doing something for our financial security. If we stay on hold, listening to Muzak as we wait to be connected to a customer service representative at the airline company, we’re actually furthering our goal of seeing the world. Yes we are.

It’s also worth remembering that when we feel forced to react, we actually don’t have to react. There’s a leak in the ceiling? Well, we don’t have to call a plumber. We could simply not pick up the phone and dial. The leak might cause water damage in our house, mold would grow, the floor boards would get soggy and weak, and the whole situation could get very dangerous. But we could let that happen if we wanted to. 

By choosing to respond we are actually being proactive, even when it seems that circumstances are stealing our choice and forcing us to handle things that are tedious, costly, and upsetting. There’s still volition involved.

Finally, we might try to couple a reactive step with a proactive step towards the same timeless goal, to keep things in better balance. Once we’ve handled the leak, we could say that we’re exhausted and we’re not going to do anything else relating to home upkeep for a while. But we might feel better if we immediately hang that picture in the guest room that we were planning to hang. That way, our actions toward the timeless goal of “I want to have a comfortable home where guests feel welcome” are not all reactive – not all about responding to problems. Now we’ve done something proactive too. That’s not to say that dealing with the leak won’t have been annoying and frustrating, but perhaps this approach will make the annoyance steal less of our fulfillment. 

In conclusion, we can experience a greater sense of fulfillment in life if we know how to respond to three kinds of obstacles: tunnel vision, scattering, and reactivity. We can try to keep sight of the timeless intentions behind our specific, tangible goals. We can try to organize our schedule in a way that gives us the chance to sustain our focus on one timeless goal for a longer stretch. And we can understand that reactive and proactive behaviors must be part of any timeless pursuit. When we’re forced to react, we can restore balance by choosing to take a proactive step that furthers the same timeless goal. ■

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