Simplicity Redefined: Be Open to What Emerges

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu

Post written by Leo Babauta. Follow me on Twitter.

One of the things we’re told by productivity gurus is that we need to have clearly defined goals or outcomes — the better defined it is, the more likely you’ll achieve it.

And this is true, to some extent. It’s worked for me, when I visualized my goals and set my mind to achieving it, and took small action steps to get there … I achieved my goals.

It works … and yet, it’s not the only way. In fact, depending on your outlook on life, it may not be the ideal way.

The problem with focusing on the outcome is that things don’t always turn out that way. And when they don’t, you’ll often end up either 1) trying to force something when it shouldn’t be forced; or 2) being hugely disappointed or frustrated.

Here’s a method that embraces simplicity:

Don’t try to force outcomes — let them happen. Be open to what emerges.

This is a change that I’ve been trying in my life over the last year or more — slowly, gradually, because it’s not always easy. You have to learn to let go of the need to achieve certain outcomes, to embrace the flow, and that can be very difficult. So I’ve learned to embrace it slowly, and it has been wonderful.

Goals Made Simple
One of the most common questions I’m asked when interviewed is, “So what are your plans for Zen Habits in the next year or two?” And my answer is, “I have no plans. I just want to keep enjoying what I’m doing, do the best I can, and see what arises.”

This is a radically different approach from the way many people do things. It’s not necessarily better, but it has worked well for me.

The reason I’ve taken this approach is that when I started Zen Habits, I had absolutely no idea it would take off. I thought, “If I can have a thousand readers after a year or two, I’ll be happy. If I make a couple hundred bucks a month, it’ll be a nice side income.” Well, a year later, I had 30 times the number of readers I had hoped for, and had enough income to quit my day job.

Not only that, but in that time I also released a best-selling ebook (Zen To Done) and signed a book deal with a major publisher. How could I have known that would have happened when I started Zen Habits? It would have been impossible.

The lesson I learned: you don’t know what will happen, or what opportunities will arise, until you arrive at that moment. You can plan and plan and plan, but there is just no way to know how things will turn out. And if my plan doesn’t include an opportunity that I didn’t see coming, I might miss that opportunity. Sure, I could continually adjust my plans based on changing circumstances … but then, what’s the point of the plan?

Instead, I have forgone the need to define outcomes, and have focused on enjoying the journey. That doesn’t mean I’m not motivated to do my best — I am — nor does it mean that I take a lackadaisical attitude toward my work (although I do get lazy, like anyone else). It means that I’m motivated by the work, that I enjoy the activity, not by the destination, goal or outcome.

“Basically, I no longer work for anything but the sensation I have while working.” – John Gay, English poet & dramatist

Another example is fitness: while I do set goals with myself (lose my bellyfat, for example), I have learned not to worry so much about those goals. They’ll come, or maybe they won’t. Instead, I’ve learned to focus on eating enjoyable foods that are healthy, and stay active on most days. As a result, I don’t sweat it when things don’t go according to plan — because there’s really no set plan. If I eat some treats at a party, it’s no problem. If I don’t go for a workout one day, no sweat. I’ll get back to it the next day, and even then I might still eat some chocolate for the pure joy of it all. I still get fitter and healthier, and most importantly I enjoy the journey along the way.

Be Open to What Emerges
This is the hardest part about this approach: if you aren’t striving for a particular outcome, you won’t know what will happen. This lack of knowing is difficult — people like the security of predicting and controlling the future with goals and plans. Letting go of that security is scary.

Here’s the thing: that security is an illusion. We have no way to predict the future. We cannot control it. We can try (and we do try), but we fail, all the time. We chalk it up to “plans gone wrong” or making mistakes or not planning for contingencies, but the truth is, we just need to admit we can’t control or predict the future.

That’s scary, I know. But it’s the truth.

And when we admit we can’t predict or plan for or control the future, what’s the next logical step? Stop setting goals and stop planning, at least in any way that controls what we do. Sure, it’s nice to know what you’re working on and working towards, but don’t make that the focus of anything.

Instead, see what emerges. And be open to it.

That’s not easy. But it can be improved with practice, and as we see that things tend to turn out OK anyway, we get more confident in this method.

The result is a way of living that doesn’t worry so much on striving for something, on pre-defined outcomes, and doesn’t try to force an outcome into becoming reality. It’s a way of living that is without high levels of stress, that doesn’t get disappointed or frustrated by goals not being met, that moves at a good pace without forcing things or despairing at mistakes or plans gone wrong.

It’s a life of simplicity redefined, and I’m loving it.

“Taoist thought stresses the need to find the state contentment, not soaring happiness nor the depths of despair. Finally, Taoism teaches to live a disciplined life and not worry so much about outcomes.” The Rambling Taoist