When I was in high school I was a band geek. Go ahead, make fun but I loved it. Music has always been a part of my life and marching band was perhaps one of the most important experiences in my life. I believe in a lot of ways that it defined me at an important age and taught me certain life lessons that I still follow today. The band director was former military though and so the marching band was somewhat militaristic, with designations such as squads, squad leaders and fleet commanders. This bled onto the field with our marching drills, a painful yet necessary part of any marching band experience. Recently I remembered a term from those days of my youth and it’s one that I think defines where I’ve been lately and I suspect a place where many of you all find yourselves as well, marking time.
In marching band, just like the military, marking time is defined as: to march in the same place, moving your legs up and down without going forward. It’s to hold your current position on the field without making any progress. And that’s where I think a lot of us find ourselves at various points in our lives. It’s not the result of laziness or dispassion, hardly. For many it’s just the comfortable thing to do until you wake up one day and realize that you’re still in the same spot where you were a few years before. It can be with your job, relationship, kids, community, whatever, but marking time is a common thing in the lives of most of us I think. While some moments of marking time are bound to happen, too much of it can be lethal to our personal well being. It doesn’t mean that unless you become CEO of a company by age 40 you’ve missed out on something big, but what it does mean is that you always have to challenge yourself to be a better person.
We all measure success in different ways, but no matter the way in which you define your own personal success, standing still is lethal to progression. They say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results, and that’s true. And yet so many of us do this every day in our personal lives expecting things to magically change, to get better all on their own. They won’t, not unless you stop marking time and walk down that field.
How do you know if you’re guilty of personal inaction? Take personal stock and ask yourself what in your life makes you unhappy or frustrated. That’s usually a quick and easy question for people to answer, but don’t make the mistake of lying to yourself.
Don’t Accept the Immutability of Life – When you first ask yourself what you don’t like about your life do not tell yourself, “Well there are just some things I can’t change.” That is absolutely not true and is just another way we get sucked into marking time even longer than we should. We say that there’s no way I could change my job, or have a hard discussion with my spouse or make any changes that will improve our lives. But there is nothing in our personal lives that cannot be changed. Sometimes it requires drastic change and that’s frightening, but it is possible. I’ve been guilty of this many times in my life and it has held me back for longer than I’d like to admit.
Last year I lost a job that I should have quit years ago. I hated it, I routinely called it soul sucking; which it was. But it was also comfortable. It provided me with a good salary, benefits and a lot of personal flexibility. It was the perfect situation, or so I thought. What I didn’t take into account was what doing something I hated for so long would do to me emotionally, intellectually and even physically. I found myself not caring about a lot of things, just going through the motions to get the job done. I stopped being a go-getter and instead just reacted to problems as they arose. This led to a certain level of depression, which affected every other aspect of my life. It wasn’t until the ax fell that I realized what a burden this had been on my soul. The next day I woke up feeling light and free. There were no nagging thoughts in the back of my head about emails to write or issues I had to resolve. I smiled for the first time in a long time and knew right then that I had stopped marking time and had begun to move forward again. Granted, someone forced me to realize that my job was not a necessary constant in my life, that I could change careers and be happy and successful, but it happened and being thrown off track like that only made me go further and faster than I ever thought possible.
Set Fair Goals – We tend to be our own harshest critics and almost always the reason why we mark time is self-inflicted. If you want to lose weight, don’t set a goal of twenty pounds in one month. It’s not realistic or sustainable and when it doesn’t happen, it will ruin any attempts you’ve made to get out of that rut. You’ll be back marching in place once again and the next attempt to move forward will be even harder. No matter what you’re trying to change be it your job, relationship, or whatever you must be fair to yourself about setting goals. But goals are important; they’re actually a critical part of moving forward. Humans think better in segments, or at least I do. It’s easier for me to make incremental goals that I can realistically achieve instead of setting my sights on one massive, crazy objective that while it may be possible one day, won’t happen without a lot of intermediate steps. Let’s take the example of this blog. Sure, when I first started I wanted people to read it and like it and one day be successful at it. But if in that first month I had said, “If this isn’t a worldwide success in six months I’m quitting” then I would have been a failure. Instead I set small goals like creating an editorial calendar, reaching X number of people on Twitter, writing guest posts for other sites, and so on. Each time I achieved one of the baby goals I didn’t just feel good about myself, but I inched myself closer to that larger goal of being successful. This holds true for anything we want to change in our lives. If you don’t like your current job or career set small goals to get out of it; if you aren’t happy in your relationship think of baby steps to help you work harder at making it a success. Anything is possible as long as you don’t lose the forest through the trees.
Look Sideways (Not to the past or future) – So many times people tell me to either learn from my mistakes or keep my eyes on the prize and focus on the future. Well which is it? Actually it’s neither, instead I think everyone needs to spend more time looking sideways. What do I mean by this? At any given time there are opportunities for change all around us, yet so many of us refuse to look for them. Instead we tell ourselves that maybe things will be better tomorrow, maybe tomorrow everything in the universe will magically fall into place. Well, it won’t, not unless you make it happen and you can only do that by taking stock of your situation and finding ways to help yourself move out of stasis today. I once had a friend tell me that she wished she could travel as much as I do and yet we both made the same salary. What that told me is that she hadn’t made travel a priority like I had. I save, I research and I find ways to travel to new places. For her it sounded like a nice idea, but she just couldn’t look around her to figure out how to make it happen.
Another friend was in a relationship that just wasn’t working, they both knew it and yet they stayed together. Why? It was easier, it was more comfortable and both believed fervently that maybe tomorrow they would be happy, maybe tomorrow they would rekindle that love affair. It wasn’t until they both stopped marking time and actively worked at making their relationship better that things actually started to improve. They looked around them and saw the poisonous influences in their lives, the things that had bred contempt and anger and sought to change them in order to save their relationship. And I know we’ve all had this happen in our work lives. Hopeful for that promotion or raise and believing that it will just happen because surely everyone knows how good we are. Well they don’t, not unless we tell them. It’s a hard fact but in most aspects of our lives we are our only cheerleader, we are the only ones who will speak up on our behalf and if we don’t then how can we expect the world to realize our contributions? If you believe you deserve that raise, tell your boss and back it up with the facts. Make a case for yourself and don’t go down without a fight. That’s what I mean by looking sideways.
I find it personally ironic that I have written an article like this one as I have failed so many times to follow the advice I’ve laid out here today. But all that means is that none of us is perfect, we will all mark time in our lives. What is important, and what does improve whatever situation we find ourselves in is the ability to realize our inaction and find ways to change it. We have but one life, one existence and no one is going to make it awesome for us. In order to have the happiest and most successful life imaginable, we have to get out there and force it to happen through shear perseverance and force of will. It’s hard and can be a drawn out process, but in the end our lives are made all the sweeter for it and better yet, you’ll never look back and wonder why you were marking time for so long.
When have you marked time and how did you get moving again?