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Traps To Avoid When Setting And Scaling Bars

Updated on August 26, 2013

Traps To Avoid When Setting And Scaling Bars

August 26, 2013

Winston Wayne Wilson


Most people, me included, are great at setting bars for themselves. However, setting a bar is one thing – scaling it is another. This is a reality that I recently had to tackle head on. These days my work bag is perpetually filled with files to review, a book to read, a journal to update, a book for an exam that I am studying for and a hodgepodge of random articles that I have to read.

I put all these things in my work bag because the daily bar I set for myself is to get through everything that I put in my bag. In my mind, if I carry these things around then I stand a better chance of getting work done whenever the opportunity arises – on the train, during lunch or a slow period at work.

Here’s the really big problem: with all the daily meetings and unforeseen fires, the opportunity never seems to arise for me to knock out these tasks and take them off my to-do list. All that happens each day is that I get home, drop the 25-pound bag of stuff on the floor and shake my head in disappointment because, once again, I dragged all of these things around and got little or nothing done. Worse yet, over the years, this habit of saddling myself with work has led me to suffer from back pain and pinched nerves, which were very painful and costly to rehabilitate.

Last week, I looked myself in the mirror and said, “Dude, seriously, this is not working out.” I was kidding myself that any of this work was ever going to get done just because I was lugging it around. Although I set an aggressive bar to get a lot of work done each day, and I was very motivated, the work was just not getting done. Stuffing my work bag has never really proved to be productive in 23 years but old habits are difficult to obliterate. Finally, however, last week I decided to do a few things that were completely counterintuitive to my old work habits and my over-achieving personality. So far, this new process has been working very well. Here are three traps that I now try to avoid when setting the bar for myself:

  1. Setting the bar too high. I know this might sound a bit defeatist and possibly uninspiring, particularly when the multi-faceted genius Michelangelo contends that “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” Maybe so. However, the first rule of setting and scaling a bar in our daily lives is to be realistic. Accordingly, it is often better to set the bar at a realistic height and then work our way up. Once our success muscle is strengthened, we can then raise the bar. Some people are outliers or trail blazers who can soar over the highest bar on the first try. However, for the most part, the average person tends to achieve his or her goals when the bar is set at a more realistic level. Setting the bar too high includes wanting to accomplish things that are simply unrealistic or that we are not yet experienced enough to accomplish – like wanting to be a CEO earning seven figures when we’ve only graduated from high school six months ago; or wanting to win a Grammy award for album of the year when we can neither sing well nor have an album; or wanting to win a marathon when we have a bad knee and haven’t trained enough – there are countless examples of unrealistically high bars. When we set the bar unrealistically high we merely set ourselves up for failure. In setting a bar, we have to know who we are, what we are capable of and the level of commitment we are willing to undertake in scaling that bar. In addition, the reality is that success occurs in stages and we have to respect that. Hence, scaling a high bar might require getting practice on scaling some lower bars first until we build up our bar scaling capabilities. Sometimes we crave success so much that we think setting the bar at a very high level will make us succeed quicker; however, this is typically not true. This is similar to the misconception that turning up the flame on a stove will cook the food quicker – it doesn’t – at least not after the boiling point has already been reached. The same kind of diminishing return sets in when we try to scale a bar that is unrealistically high.
  2. Setting too many bars at once and bar hopping. Some of us suffer from what I call “bar setting addiction” – we are bar setting addicts. Unfortunately, “The more the merrier” is not a concept that works well with setting and scaling bars. “Bar hopping”, which is akin to multitasking, might make us feel like we are getting more things done but in reality we are not mastering any of the tasks that we are trying to complete. Not only that, but this practice oftentimes result in bar hopping fatigue or burn out. The more bars we set the lesser our chances of scaling those bars. For example, in the past when I would set the bar at getting ten things done each day, I would get little or nothing done. I think this occurs because, when so many bars are competing for my attention, it is difficult to focus and I become overwhelmed. This past week, when I reduced the number of bars from ten to two (one work-related and one personal task per day) I managed to scale them with ease. Each day, I would focus all my energy on scaling those two bars. I think the reason for my
    success with fewer bars is that there was no confusion with what I had to get done. In the end, I got more done for the week than I would normally get done when I was being distracted each day by multiple bars. At a modest rate of one or two bars per day, we can scale between 365 and 730 bars each year. That’s a lot! So, even though one or two bars per day sounds light, it adds up over the course of a year. Even if we scale a bar or two every other day or two we will still get far more things done. Remember, overwhelming ourselves by setting and attempting to scale multiple bars rarely produces the kind of success that we desire. By the way, after we complete scaling the bars for a particular day, we should avoid the tendency to scale more. We should relax and enjoy the free time so that we can prepare to scale the bars for the next day.
  3. Engaging in bar envy. Each bar we set for ourselves is personal. The reasons for setting a bar, and the pride we feel when we scale them, is never identical to anyone else. Hence, we should never compare our bars to those others. When we set a bar for ourselves, the goal is to achieve our personal best. Someone else might in fact be able to scale our bar with minimal effort. That’s OK. There are bars that others set for themselves that we might also be able to scale with ease. That does not matter either. Each of us must focus on the bar we set for ourselves – and hopefully, as mentioned in the first point above, that bar is realistic. Our well-accomplished friends, family members and colleagues might have their own expectations about the bars they think we should be setting and scaling for ourselves. However, while it is great to be inspired by others, our purpose in life is not to scale other people’s bars. We still have to be true to who we are and what we are capable of doing. Hence, while it might be nice that our best friend just climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Everest, back to back, and is insisting that we do the same, we have to focus on our own bars. If we know that we have a bad back and a weak heart and have no interest in mountain climbing, then we should not feel bad that we are not an overzealous, athletic mountain climber like our best friend. There are numerous other bars that we can set for ourselves that we can successfully scale and be proud of.

My challenge for you today is to evaluate whether the bars you have been setting for yourself are at the right height. If they are too low you might need to raise them a bit and if they are too high you might need to lower them. Also, evaluate whether you have been bar hopping and burning yourself out from trying to scale too many bars. Finally, evaluate whether you have been focused on other people’s bars rather than your own. Remember your purpose in life is not to scale other people’s bars – scale your own. Enjoy the week.


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