“People can easily generate ideas and visions. Current reality, on the other hand is not so easy for many. Practice objectively observing current reality.” ~ Robert Fritz

We have such great intentions for their lives. We have a vague, or even a very specific, idea of where we want to go. We obsess over plans and goals. But this type of thinking will get you nowhere fast without an accurate picture of where you are right now.

One of my favorite scenes from Tommy Boy was when they stopped to ask for directions and the gas station attendant told them to “Get yourself a new map.” They thought the guy was merely being a jerk, but Tommy and Richard were looking at a map of Illinois trying to get to a town in Iowa. They would never get where they were going until they looked at the right map.

To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. At present moment I have 45,615 emails in my inbox. I had 45,000 emails in my inbox about a year ago, and solved it, not by wading through and organizing them but by getting a new computer. I looked down yesterday to find that, lo and behold, my email count is back to where it was before.

The conventional answer here is that I need to meet this problem head on with dogged action. There’s a whole line of thinking today that says you’ve got to get your inbox to zero. There are whole websites devoted to this concept. I love the internet as much as the next guy, but there’s this “pile on” thing that happens where an idea gets picked up and recycled and regurgitated until it doesn’t really even mean anything anymore. (Don’t even get me started on the “10,000 hours” thing!)

So, using my Inbox 45,000 dilemma as an example, let’s see if we can’t put this whole “assess current reality” thing into practice.

1) Ask “What do I have?”

In my case, this is the easiest part. I have 45,000 emails in my inbox.

2) Ask “How’s that working for you?”

I love that quote from Dr. Phil. It’s sort of turned into a putdown, but the original intent is to do a little soul searching.

To assess my “current reality”, as the above quote mentions, I need to look at what I have and why I maintain it. In most cases, we maintain habits, even seemingly bad ones, because they benefit us in some way. Let’s see: I like to check emails on my phone and keep all of the emails on my computer (except junk) in case I need to access them later. I know that there are emails in there that I want to keep, and maybe even some ancient emails I want to respond to. I like that I have all my emails and I can search for them somewhat easily*.

The problem for me isn’t that I have 45,000 emails, it’s just that they’re in a state of disorder, right? Well, I kind of like disorder, so long as it serves me. There’s something inspiring to me about a big pile of information. I think it’s OK to not be neat, so long as you can find what you’re looking for.

3) Compare where you are to where you want to go. Ask “What do I lack?”

Yes, my inbox would be a lot less cluttered if I got it down to zero. That would also involve hours of work. Work that I feel is unnecessary. What I need is not neatness but a system for finding what I need.

4) Formulate a plan. Ask “Where do I need to go?”

What if, instead of hours of organizing, I just created a new folder, dragged all of the emails into this folder, then click “mark all as read”? It’s involved a few mouse clicks on my part (and probably a couple of minutes of processing on my computer’s part).

So I’ve assessed my current reality and solved the problem with a minimal amount of work. If I had just moved forward with dogged determination, as I feel we’re so often encouraged to do, I would have worked for hours and hours. And I would be in about the same place I am now.

5) Act on your plan.

There is definitely a time to act. But your actions will be so much more effective if you just think a little before moving.

I’m not saying anything about the Inbox Zero crowd. If you’re part of that and it’s working for you, more power to you. I’m just trying to point out that many times we’re moving forward towards our goals, but they’re the wrong goals. Sometimes all we need to do is take a look around and figure out where we are before we try to go anywhere.

What about you? Have you ever solved a problem that you thought would take hours with a minimal amount of effort? Do you think I’m off my rocker? Either way, I’d love to hear about it. Let me know in the comments!

* on a side note, I REALLY wish email programs would make the search function a little more powerful. You would think Google would be able to make a killer search within GMail. I can dream, can’t I?