Goals are an absolutely essential ingredient in any recipe for success. After all, if you don’t have a destination in mind, you’re not likely to get there by accident.

Yet, goals in and of themselves, no matter how inspiring, are pretty passive things.

We also need next actions.

What are next actions?

A next action is exactly what it sounds like – literally the very next action that would move you a step closer to your desired destination. Let’s say you would like to drive to San Francisco. Forget the giant fold-out AAA maps. Forget MapQuest. Nowadays all you have to do is turn on your GPS device, enter in the address (your goal), and follow the turn-by-turn directions (your next actions).

The whole point of having a GPS device is to generate next actions, because invariably, it’s impossible to get to your final destination in a single step. Your arrival in San Francisco is the end result of a series of single actions that each took you one step closer to your destination.

In the same way, one doesn’t become the principal clarinetist of the LA Phil in one step, win the Queen Elisabeth competition in one giant leap, or gain admission to Curtis overnight. Problem is, we tend to focus too much on the outcome and the last few memorable steps that got us there. In other words, it’s easy to remember nailing the audition, and to forget all of the extra time in the practice room, the mock auditions, coachings, mental training and other preparation that were actually responsible for our successful outcome.

Indeed, these less glamorous day-to-day actions are the only things we have direct control over. Once we get to the audition itself, the audition panel steps in and our fate is no longer completely in our hands.

Why the “way” matters as much as the destination

A young boy traveled across Japan to the school of a famous martial artist. When he arrived at the dojo he was given an audience by the sensei.

What do you wish from me? the master asked.

I wish to be your student and be the finest karateka in the land, the boy replied. How long must I study?

Ten years at least, the master answered.

Ten years is a long time, said the boy. What if I studied twice as hard as all your other students?

Twenty years, replied the master.

Twenty years! What if I practice day and night with all my effort?

Thirty years, was the master’s reply.

How is it that each time I say I will work harder, you tell me that it will take longer? the boy asked.

The answer is clear. When one eye is fixed upon your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the way.

Getting back on track

It’s no coincidence that GPS devices only display one turn at a time. Since the only turn that you can do anything about is the next one, any additional information provided on the screen would just be an irrelevant distraction.

Unlike the 3”x5” GPS screen, life is full of distractions, and it becomes easy to lose sight of both our destination and our path. We end up wasting quite a bit of time on a daily basis – time that could otherwise have gone towards preparing for our audition. Not just by practicing more, but by getting more rest, listening to recordings, relaxing with friends, getting some exercise, doing mental practice, memorizing the score away from your instrument, and more.

Ever wish you had more time in the day? Well, we can’t create more time, but we can reclaim more of it if we have clearly identified next actions and use more of our time doing the things that would help us become more successful. For instance, do you know how much extra time you can “gain” over the course of a year if you reclaim just 30 minutes a day?  182.5 hours. That’s like squeezing an extra month and a half of 4-hour per day practice sessions into a year. An extra month and a half! Or, I suppose, you could watch all eight seasons of 24 back to back.

Tap into your internal GPS and get things done

It’s been my experience that we can tap into our internal GPS by asking ourselves the following question:

What would I be doing right now if I was serious about _______?

For instance, What would I be doing right now if I was serious about winning the [insert orchestra here] audition?

Or, What would I be doing right now if I was serious about entering the such-and-such competition?

If you’re anything like me, you’ll realize that you have a much more insightful internal GPS system than you may have thought. Whenever I ask myself this question, I find myself generating a long list of things I could be doing. As an added bonus, I also find myself with greater resolve and determination to begin tackling these various tasks. Maybe it’s the slightly overenthusiastic to-do lister in me, but there’s something about seeing these very doable tasks that would clearly get me closer to my chosen destination staring me in the face, that makes me want to get them done and cross them off.

The one-sentence summary

“They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself”    ~Andy Warhol