Lessons From a San Francisco Sunrise: The Magic of Committing to a Specific Goal

In our noisy world of multitasking, always connected, and overstimulated work, it’s easy to live in a constant state of distraction.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Earlier this week, as I wrapped up a 5–day trip in San Francisco, I was reminded of the power of committing yourself to a single task.

I woke up a few hours before sunrise, drove through the darkness and out of the city, hiked for 30 minutes to the top of a hill overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, and snapped this photo…

San Francisco Sunrise

san francisco california photos
The sun rises over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. (Photo by James Clear.)

As I stood there soaking in the early morning light, I was reminded of an important lesson that is dangerously easy to ignore: if you commit to a task rather than thinking about a desire, you get something done.

The Dangerous Mistake We All Make

When I arrived in San Francisco, I told myself, “Just take photos as you do other things.” My primary goal was to meet with friends and so I figured I could take pictures as we walked around the city. This resulted in exactly zero photos worth sharing.

I had vague ideas like, “I’d like to do some street photography,” but I never went out with the intent of photographing something specific. Finally, on the last morning, I went out with the intent of capturing a specific picture and I ended up with something worth sharing.

My mistake was that I assumed that because I wanted to take photos, I would end up getting a desirable result.

How often do you do this in your own life?

We think constantly about our vague desires without committing to a specific task. We go to the gym to “work out” without trying to become better at something specific. We want to “get stronger” without considering the exact muscle groups that we want to focus on. We wish that we were more creative, but never work on a particular project.

Clarity Leads to Direction

All of the broad questions we ask ourselves, like “What should I do with my life?” or “Will I ever find love?” or “Is there meaning to what I do?” … none of those questions make it clear about what you should do next.

When you commit to a task, however, then the next step is obvious. You want to take a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge at sunrise? Next step: find a good spot. You’ve found a good spot? Next step: wake up early and drive there.

If you only think about what you want, then you’ll end up confused or frustrated with luke warm results at best.

Your choices will fall into place if you have a direction to move towards.

Commitment to performing a specific task is often the only difference between our results and our desires.

Begin It Now

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.
— W.H. Murray

So often, we avoid staking our claim to a specific goal out of fear that we choose the wrong one. It’s as if we forget that we can always adjust our decisions later on.

This is perhaps the most shocking thing about committing to a specific goal: if box yourself in, then you’ll begin to break out and achieve something greater than you ever imagined.

Commit to something and begin it now.

Once you fully decide to start, the world will find ways to help you finish.

21 Comments

  1. I am very moved by this post, James, and love how you illustrated the importance of committing to a task by using your own experience with photography in SF. I have done this in so many areas in the past – especially exercise and writing. Oh, I would love to firm up. How I would love to write a book! Now that I have committed to both and taken action to make those two things my first-thing-in-the-morning activities, I am seeing results in muscles, pants sizes, and pages! :)

    Thank you for writing.

    • Tammy — thanks for sharing. I’ve found the same thing: when I put the most important thing first each morning, I make a lot of progress.

  2. Excellent post! Thank you so much for writing that. I have copied your sentence about commitment to performing a specific task being the difference between our results and desires onto a card and have hung it by my desk where I can see it whenever I look up. It speaks a lot to me where I am right now. I am currently in school to learn court reporting, which is an incredibly difficult skill to learn. It involves hours of practice every day for years in order to achieve almost perfect accuracy writing difficult material as fast as people can speak. Over 90 percent of the people who start court reporting school either fail or quit. Commitment is what gets you through.

    • Kecia — first, thanks for reading. It’s great to have you here. You’re always welcome in this community.

      And second, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I hope the printed phrase keeps you motivated as you work each day!

  3. I’ve found over and over again that specificity far outweighs willpower. To harness the mind completely, you have to give it specific instructions. Thanks for this, James. Have you ever read Maltz’s “Psychocybernetics”? He refers to the idea of picking a destination, and working backwards from the goal to achieve it — i.e. teleological thinking. Really powerful stuff.

    I’ve also found that this power can work in the negative — meaning that if you focus on the negative and have a specific idea of what you want to avoid (even if you have a general idea of something positive that you want to happen) — it’s very easy to pull yourself in the negative direction without even trying.

    Anyone ever experience this?

    • Daniel — thanks for sharing, my man. It’s great to have you dropping knowledge in our community.

      I’ve read Psychocybernetics, but you’ve reminded me that I need to go back and read it again. And while I don’t have a specific example of the negative correlation you mentioned, I absolutely believe it. Your mind can work against you just as well as it can work for you. It’s up to you to decide which way you want to go.

  4. That is an awesome photo! What kind of camera did you use? Also loved the post! such a simple, yet insightful idea…

    My task today, work out my leg and arms muscle groups then stretch out in the sauna right after drinking a protein shake

  5. This post has really struck a cord with me. I have so many goals and passions that I’m trying to accomplish all at once that I feel like NOTHING is getting done. I’m splitting up my time and energy and that’s a sure fire way to fail. Thank you for reminding me how important it is to focus on one task at a time!

  6. What a great article James (the photo was awesome too), it is amazing how when you focus your energy and attention to one task you also get clarity of thinking and better ways automatically become obvious. This is something I need to work on as often get distracted and end up doing several things at once. Keep up the good work.

  7. Great post. So much of what you’ve said rang true with my life and I’m in my 50′s.. Never too late to learn. I’ve got 3 draft novels written over the past 3 years and whilst I wrote them one at a time you’ve just made me realise I’ve not committed to editing one. I’m trying to do them all together. Madness. Many thanks, two will have to wait.. Which two though…

    • Lynne — first, thanks for reading. It’s great to have you in our community!

      And good luck on the book editing. Pick one and go for it. You’ll get to all of them eventually. :)

  8. Thank you so much for this insight — just had an interesting conversation with my son in the midst of finals and hearing the stress in his voice I told him the lion tamer story and actually just shared the above article.

    Thanks again.

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