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Lifestyle & Wellbeing

Image credit: Ansgar Scheffold / Unsplash

Actor and Writer Tahlia Norrish explores the nature of decision-making, and what happens when we aim to achieve too many goals at once.

Warning: this post is going to feature some real talk.

Earlier this year I uncovered something pretty confronting: in several aspects of life, I was making decisions from a place of fear. Fear of getting it ‘wrong’. Fear of the self-loathing and regret this would summon.

I’d previously thought my seemingly unshakeable tendency to set multiple goals at once was a natural extension of my textbook type A nature, but upon further investigation, found that a significant portion stemmed from the recently-discovered root of fear. It was safer to pursue a handful of disparate goals than go all-in after one, right? I was spreading the risk of getting it ‘wrong’ by doing so, surely?

Starting to question this belief led to a lot of reflection and a lot of research (did I mention the bit about being super type A?). Sparing the gory details of the subsequent breakdowns and breakthroughs, I realised this assumption wasn’t constructive and was restricting my ability to serve others too. It was time to pivot towards a more empowering narrative.

Related manifestoes on the value of ambitious-ass goals and our system for hitting these big, hairy, audacious targets will be useful companion guides. But for now, let’s discuss why we refuse to be an ass any longer.

Buridan’s Ass

You may be familiar with the parable of Buridan’s Ass, frequently referred to in philosophy to illustrate the paradox of choice. It takes its name from the 14th-century French philosopher Jean Buridan, but variations on the fable have been traced back as far as Al-Ghazali (in the 12th century) and Aristotle (circa 350 BC). It has a long history.

For those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, the essence is this: a donkey faced with a fresh bucket of water and a tasty bale of hay. This donkey happens to be equally thirsty and hungry, and equally placed between the water and hay. Being the rational donkey they are, they deliberate which to go towards first – water or hay?

Unfortunately, as there’s no clear ‘best’ option, the donkey dies of both thirst and hunger before making a move. It’s a cruel parable, we know.

While it may read dramatically, we can all no doubt call to mind experiencing this analysis paralysis in our own lives. For me, goal setting was a prime example.

Choose one

The parable of Buridan’s Ass reminds us we can have both the water and the hay, just not at once. The same holds for our goals.

This is why we’ve mapped out a new game plan for setting goals:

  1. Set goal (just uno, dear Tahlia)
  2. Pursue goal with all our might
  3. Achieve goal (or discard if off-track)
  4. Set new goal (again, goal being singular)

For me personally, this practice was mentally excruciating at first. I definitely felt Buridan’s ass. But then the reckoning came: what was I trying to do here? Make the ‘rightest’ decision possible, or actually achieve my goals? Would I honestly prefer to debate over the most ‘correct’ choice and hit one goal (if that), or, in the same amount of time, pursue one aligned possibility after the other and hit at least two? Though I had imagined the feelings of self-loathing and regret to be more apparent when limited to just one commitment, the simple act of moving in one direction – any direction – proved to be an antidote to these fun emotions.

Science has now shown multi-tasking to be a myth and single-tasking a source of magic. Studies also reveal that we experience less stress, greater focus, and more success when we set our sights on a single target. And as we start to conquer some of our mountains, our perception of ourselves shifts. We see ourselves as a decisive person. A person who is true to their word. A person who achieves what they set out to.

Reminding myself of this objective research continues to help ease my anxiety whenever I feel the pull of seductive ‘what ifs?’ As does the mantra, ‘don’t be an ass’ (nothing kills a funk like a little humour, no?). But above all, it’s the first-hand experience of hitting a goal, then riding that wave of momentum as you pivot to the next, that’s the most compelling testament to this approach. There truly isn’t anything quite like the moment of, ‘Wait, I actually made that happen? I’ve now manifested what was previously a dream?’ Try it on for size. You might be surprised just how well it suits you.

Best-selling author James Clear has said: ‘What often looks like a problem of goal setting is actually a problem of goal selection. What we really need is not bigger goals, but better focus.’ Similarly, Oprah Winfrey has proffered: ‘You can have it all. Just not all at once.

We ostensibly want to achieve our goals. And it’s safe to assume those reading this have some ambitious ones.

Don’t be an ass. It’s not only possible to enjoy both the water and the hay, it’s ultimately the only way to go about it.

Tahlia Norrish is an Aussie-Brit actor, writer, and current MPhil Candidate at the University of Queensland’s School of Sport Sciences. After graduating from The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (Distinction, Acting and Musical Theatre) and Rose Bruford College (First Class Hons, Acting), Tahlia founded The Actor’s Dojo — a pioneering coaching program centred on actor peak performance and holistic wellbeing.

Headshot credit: Ben Wilkin