Every wonderful outcome in my life has involved a process. I can’t think of an example when this was not true. In fact, most of those processes were similar. Each had five phases that presented an unique difficulty.
PHASE 1: Starting
For many people, this is the hardest part. It is daunting to take action and begin a major project, whether it is losing weight or renovating the bathroom. However, we might be able to talk ourselves out of the difficulty here by realizing that we may have started a long time ago. All of the thinking, all of the gathering of information, all of the talking– those were necessary steps, and we have taken them. If you are reading this right now and a particular goal or project immediately comes to mind, then you are well past PHASE 1. For better or worse, you have started.
PHASE 2: Working
The challenge in this part of the process is maintaining momentum. We tend to underestimate how long the work will last. Our homes are filled with the fossils of projects that were abandoned in PHASE 2. We knitted most of the scarf but never finished the edge. We straightened half of the closet, and it got messy again before we completed the other half. The car in the garage cannot be driven because the engine remains on the floor. The trick in getting past this difficult stage is realizing that it is, indeed, a trick. A mind trick. As we begin the work, completion seems close, definitely doable. In truth, the end is far away. Then … in the middle of the work, we think completion is terribly far, so we give up. In truth, the end was well within reach. Don’t put down that project for longer than a one-day break! Momentum is everything.
PHASE 3: Improvising
People don’t talk much about this part of the process. We look around at accomplished people and imagine that they always know what they are doing. As a result, when a confusing snag interrupts our own process, we assume that the whole project is irreparable or that we were foolish to have started in the first place. When we reach a point of confusion, we can quit or we can enter PHASE 3 and improvise. Improvisation may be a key ingredient to victory. Ask a few successful (and honest) friends, and they may confess that there were many times that they had no idea what to do next in a project, but they kept going, anyway. I’ll admit it: Improvisation has been a part of every goal met in my life. It turns out that “winging it” can be just another way to fly.
PHASE 4: Revising
By the time we get to revision, we want to kick ourselves for ever thinking that “starting” was hard. Starting is not nearly as hard as “starting again.” Almost everything needs revising. I think of it as “revisiting.” Go back to the beginning and see how you would do things differently. Our minds are beautifully wired to find faster and better ways of working with each attempt. That is why we might not want to trying deep frying a turkey for the first time on Thanksgiving Day. We will make mistakes as we initially approach a project, but we will improve upon them every time after that. When this is so obvious in relation to cooking 25 pounds of raw meat, I wonder why we would think that something like writing a book or making a quilt can be finished well the first time? I have found that “revisiting” my writing means a consistent 1:2 ratio. If it takes me 45 minutes to write a blog post, it will require an additional 90 minutes to revise it (and I will still find errors the next day). If it takes me two months to write a book, it will take me four months to revise it. PHASE 4 will always, always, always be the difference between mediocrity and excellence, so do not risk skipping PHASE 4, though it will be a temptation to do so. Whether you are building a web site or planting a garden, revisit Square One and go over your steps again, just to make sure there isn’t anything you could improve.
PHASE 5: Waiting
There comes a time when we have to stop stirring the dough, put the cookies in the oven, and let them bake. Who knows how long this part of the process will last? Sometimes PHASE 5 will take hours. Sometimes it will take decades. But waiting is part of the process, and it doesn’t mean that we have given up or that we are finished. There still is a lot to be done. Waiting doesn’t have to be a dreadful experience, either. It can be exciting and energizing to enter the waiting phase of a project. The best way to approach a time of extended waiting is to engage it expectantly. Assume your project will be successful and do whatever you would do if that were true. Prepare yourself for the moment the phone rings. Anticipate the letter of acceptance. What do we have to lose by hoping? Is it better to assume the worst outcome instead of assuming the best outcome? I have lived through many failed attempts at achievement, and in some instances I tried to be a realist and expect that things probably wouldn’t work out. Having expected the worst did not soften the blow of disappointment. It still hurt. However, in some instances, I held onto a rock-solid belief that I would win. But still I failed. Contrary to the message of our fears, I have found that hoping for the best does not make failure hurt worse. Failure just hurts, period. There is no way around that. So now I think having a guarded outlook during a period if waiting is a weakened stance to take. A hopeful outlook is a position of strength. We can use waiting time to get things in order. We can use it to encourage a friend who is earlier in the process of their own project. We can use it to look ahead to the project we will begin after this one. Waiting doesn’t mean doing nothing.
I am reminding myself of all of this as I wade through the waiting phase of my own project right now. PHASE 5 is a vital part of the process. It is the phase when we need the most encouragement. Sometimes we will receive that encouragement from others, but most of the time, we have to offer it to ourselves. That is why I taped a note to my bathroom mirror today. On it, I wrote:
Don’t just wait. Wait well.