Tidy Up Mental Clutter for Greater Focus

A back burner dream is something you’ve wanted for a while but aren’t taking action on. It’s on simmer in the back of your mind. You open the lid occasionally to check on it. Yep! Still there. Then you gently close the top, push it back, and quietly say to yourself, “maybe someday.”

Back burner dreams are latent goals and aspirations we have for ourselves–a business to start, a race to run, a trip to take, a book to write, and so on. Everyone has one, if not many. Sometimes they get spurts of our attention before dropping down on our priority list once again, un-crossed off. From there, they nag and even attempt to shame us for not taking action.

Why back burner dreams are a problem

What’s interesting about back burner dreams are the competing, sometimes contradictory emotions we have when we think about them. Imagining the pursuit and achievement brings both joy and anxiety, pride and self-consciousness, eagerness and overwhelm. And what all back burner dreams have in common is our worry about future regrets. These are the things we’re both afraid to do and afraid to not do. We know that if we don’t at least try, we’ll regret it when it becomes too late.

These back burner dreams are rarely crystal clear in our minds. They’re usually more of an idea of something hard to put into words, not a sharp picture of exactly what we want. They become mental clutter that gets in the way of focus and clarity.

How to make them clearer

With clarity, you can decide, sort, prioritize, plan, and sequence them. And what’s remarkable is that by bringing them forward, they stop nagging you–because there’s a plan.

The first step to making that plan is to set aside time to look at these back burner dreams, really examine them, and get clear on exactly what it is you want. What feeling are you after? Who will you BE when you achieved it? With as much specificity as you can, describe the dream. If you have more than one–which you likely do–go ahead and inventory as many as you can. Write it all down.

Once they’re in black and white, you can start to sort them, prioritize, sequence, and begin planning. First, determine which might be broken down into mini “step” dreams? For example, if you dream of finishing a marathon, is there a 5K, then a 10K, then a half marathon you could commit to along your journey? All big accomplishments are the sum of dozens of smaller ones. Progress on our step dreams also serves two other important purposes. They affirm (or not) that this is, in fact, the direction we want to go. Assuming yes, they also serve as motivational fuel to keep going.

As you break them now, consider using a timeline and sequence them out in years. Plot those on your path.

Why the time is now

What’s important here is getting the courage to spend some time reflecting and getting clear about what you want. Just by acknowledging your back burner dreams, you don’t need to immediately start pursuing them. You may be inspired and see a path. You may also decide that it’s still “not yet.”

The value is in being intentional with your decisions about what and when.

Back burner dreams tell us something about ourselves. They benefit from reflection and intentional decision-making. Doing this exercise helps bring a sense of calm. It reduces those nagging thoughts and worries about future regrets because you make “maybe someday” become “what and when.”

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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