Plotting your way to success

When I begin work on a new story, I start with five basic questions:

  • Who is the protagonist?
  • What does he want?
  • What does he do to get it?
  • What stands in his way?
  • How does he overcome it?

Since I spend a lot of time thinking in storytelling terms, I tend to look to storytelling techniques for real-life solutions. These basic  questions are also very useful when you’re setting a goal and planned how to reach it.

Let’s assume you have a solid understanding of what you want to achieve and why that goal has personal value. Let’s further assume that you’ve identified actions needed to achieve it and are starting the process of turning those actions into habits. That brings us to bullet point #4 and the subject of today’s blog post:  Identifying potential roadblocks.

Here’s a simple approach: Draw a line down the center of a sheet of paper and in the left column, list all the roadblocks you can think of. Leave some space between each one, because on the other side you’ll be listing things you can do to address them.

One of the easiest goals to examine is weight loss, not only because it’s a common and relatively straightforward goal, but also because our cultural landscape is littered with potential stumbling stones.  Food is everywhere, 24/7.  There are donuts by the office coffee pot,  vats of buttered popcorn at the movies, candy at the counters of every conceivable type of store. Most of the real estate at supermarkets is devoted to snack foods, and we’re constantly bombarded with advertisements for snacks, fast food, and other nutritional hazards.

Then there are the long-standing habits such as taking BLTs (bites, licks, and tastes) while cooking, munching while watching TV, having a bedtime snack, and drinking soda and other sweetened beverages at all hours.

There are situational hazards, such as overeating at parties or skipping meals because you’re too busy and then grabbing whatever is available. You might have friends or family who, for whatever reason, pressure you to eat more than you want or need.  A restaurant buffet might be your personal trigger. Maybe it’s a holiday, or a celebration.

And finally, there are the emotional challenges. You might be self-medicating with carbs, which temporarily sooth anxiety or give you a quick boost of energy. You might regard high-calorie treats as a reward you “deserve” for both positive and negative experiences. Snacking might be a response to loneliness, boredom, or depression. It might be prompted by avoidance:  “Yeah, I’ll start working on the report right after I make a sandwich….”

Once you’ve identified your potential pitfalls, you can create a strategy in advance.  Instead of grazing at a party, plan to fill a small plate with a reasonable portion and stick to that.  If the call of the donut shop on the way to work is too powerful to ignore, plan to have breakfast at home or maybe even change your route to avoid the temptation. If your overeating is prompted by emotional issues, confront the underlying problems and start building a strategy to address them.

In fiction, the hero faces many obstacles–powerful villains, an insufficiency of skills and resources, his own flaws.  The process of confronting conflict and overcoming obstacles is what creates the story. That’s a good thing to keep in mind as you plot your own course toward your goal. When you accept that challenges are a natural part of the journey, instead of feeling aggrieved and ambushed, you’ll be ready to respond when they (inevitably) occurs.