Reaching Your Life Goals Is Like Solving Jigsaw Puzzles: It's 100% Doable With a Little Patience

Joe Donan

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“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” — Lao Tzu

What do jigsaw puzzles and life goals have in common? One, they seem impossibly hard to carry out at first, and two, they are both achievable, by implementing a simple and common approach.

Now, this is what you get when you first open a jigsaw puzzle box:

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Picture by Слава Вольгин on Pixabay

It’s an absolute mess of countless pieces of a complex image with seemingly no rhyme or reason, which you somehow have to arrange in a logical and very and I mean, very specific way.

Pieces come in different shapes, they’re colored in patterns that are difficult to recognize, many are flipped upside-down, and it’s often hard to tell which way they go — up, down, left, or right. It is chaos.

Life goals, as I mentioned before, share similarities with jigsaw puzzles. They’re a set of highly ambitious ideas formed by countless small tasks to be executed diligently, coherently, and logically during an extended period of time.

And just like jigsaw puzzles, life goals can be challenging, complex, chaotic, hard to figure out, and downright overwhelming. I believe this is the main reason why most of us don’t even bother trying to reach our goals: We are completely clueless as to how to approach them.

But as it turns out, jigsaw puzzles and life goals can be taken on similarly. And if you can solve a puzzle, then you definitely have a chance to reach your goals by following the seven steps described in this article.

To elaborate on each of my points, I have solved a 500-piece puzzle that I will use as a comparative example. The pictures you’ll find from this point on are used to document and illustrate this process, from beginning to end.

So, here you are, this is the 7-Step Jigsaw Puzzle Approach To Reaching Your Life Goals.

1. Make sure you have a bare minimum of resources to get started.

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(Photo by the author)

There’s nothing to fear when you have just bought a brand new puzzle. You pop the box open and you know all the pieces are there. They even come in a sealed plastic bag inside, so there’s virtually no chance the product is incomplete.

Taking on a second-hand jigsaw puzzle, however, is a different story. When that’s the case, there is always a possibility for one or several pieces to be missing, which is something I personally cannot stand.

I must have all the pieces, or I’d rather not solve the puzzle. In other words, If it’s a 500-piece picture, then 500 pieces is my bare minimum.

Luckily for me, no pieces were missing for this particular puzzle, and yes, I had to count them all in groups of 100, as you can see in the picture.

How is this related to goal-reaching?

No matter what your endeavors are, you have to make sure you have a bare minimum of whatever you need to make your project a reality.

Thus, depending on what you set yourself out to do, you’ll inevitably need certain valuable resources like money, raw materials, technical knowledge, human assistance, special equipment, and time — lots of time.

What to do:

  • Do some research.
    Chances are other people have been successful at reaching similar goals to yours. Check out how they did it and what resources they needed to get started. You might be surprised to learn that your objectives may require more than you originally bargained for, or (who knows?) maybe even less.
    Pro-tip: Not every winner is willing to reveal everything they know just like that. You may have to pay for a couple of courses on your journey to success. My advice? Go for it. Knowledge is power.
  • Write a list of resources and keep it updated.
    A physical list will help you visualize the resources you need and the cost at which you can obtain them. Bear in mind that, as your project progresses, the resources you need will change with it.
    Pro-tip: What you end up choosing will depend not only on your ambitions but also on your budget. Make sure your choice of resources is sustainable in the long run. After all, life goals usually take considerable time to be achieved.
  • Be creative.
    There will be times when getting all resources will prove challenging (or even impossible), and that, my friend, is when you have to be resourceful.
    Pro-tip: I don’t live in a developed country, so I know what it’s like when the very things you need are not produced or commercialized locally, and therefore they’re very hard or very expensive to get. Don’t get discouraged when you find these difficulties. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

2. Assess the reach of your project by designing a framework for it.

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(Photo by the author)

Okay. Now that you’re sure all the jigsaw puzzle pieces are there and that you won’t end up feeling frustrated looking at an unfinished picture, you can put your worries to rest. Phew!

The next logical step is locating all the corner and edge pieces and putting them together in the right place. This is usually easier than it seems, and one of the parts I enjoy the most.

The result is the framing edge of the picture. This is where spatial boundaries are established, the clearest indicator of how big the puzzle is, and where the rest of the pieces will naturally stem from.

How is this related to goal-reaching?

This step represents the establishment of the framework for your project. It is at this point that you can state the reach of your goals and what you expect to achieve by certain deadlines.

What to do:

  • Establish the extent of your achievements.
    Take the information from the previous step and calculate just how far your efforts and resources will take you on your journey. Don’t neglect this task, as it is essential in assessing your progress along the way.
    Pro-tip: Unlike physical jigsaw puzzle borders, project boundaries are flexible, meaning they can eventually become bigger than you initially thought, and that’s a good thing. One of the rewards of diligent work is making greater achievements than those you had once dreamed of.
  • Set deadlines.
    An objective without a deadline is a mere intention, at best. When we don’t set due-dates for the stages of our projects, we unconsciously tend to delay their completion; and in the worst-case scenario, we end up putting them off indefinitely.
    Pro-tip: Be realistic when it comes to time, or you might end up biting off more than you can chew. Don’t compromise the outcome quality of your ambitions for the sake of time efficiency. As the respected video-game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto put it, “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.”

3. Get started by organizing your resources effectively.

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You have made sure all the puzzle pieces are there and you have successfully built the framing edge of the picture. Now, what if I told you that was the easy part?

That’s right. This is where things get difficult. Your mission now, if you choose to accept it, is to arrange the rest of the pieces together progressively, until the rest of the image is revealed and the overall task is done.

In other words, it’s at this stage that you have to figure out the position of hundreds — or thousands — of pieces, and how they connect with one another.

So what do you do? You start organizing the pieces by their colors, patterns, and shapes, so you can form “piece-banks” to pick from when you need them.

How is this related to goal-reaching?

This point deals with the most daunting step in the process of carrying out your projects: getting started.

This is hard. Very hard. In fact, this is the very stage at which most of us chicken out and quit. This is either where we take a leap of faith without really knowing whether we’ll be successful or not; or where we just desist, without even trying.

And one of the main reasons we give up is because a) we’re usually overwhelmed by the size of the task, and b) we’re incapable of organizing our resources effectively.

What to do:

  • Organize your resources.
    Just like the puzzle pieces, the most effective way to go forward in the pursuit of your ambitions is by organizing what resources you have. Then, based on your data, you must design a plan on how you will execute your project and proceeding accordingly.
    Pro-tip: Divide and conquer. Split your endeavor into a series of small, achievable sub-projects whose completion will take you closer and closer to reaching your final goal. It’s easier to take on a series of small tasks than it is to carry out the whole of your project at once.
  • Don’t be afraid to take the first step.
    Everyone who’s ever been successful at something has a) started at the very bottom, slowly making their way up to the top, and b) been brave enough to take the first step of their projects, haunted by the impending possibility of complete and utter failure.
    Pro-tip: Be mentally prepared to face an enormous amount of hardship as you pursue your goals. The first step you take will be in vain if you allow yourself to be defeated at the first sign of trouble. Don’t give up. You may lose several battles along the way, but you can come through victorious if you’re brave enough to fight the war to the end.

4. Be flexible — not everything has to go exactly according to plan.

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(Photo by the author)

Alright. You’ve summoned the courage to begin the puzzle and you’ve started making progress. Congratulations. You have successfully conquered your greatest fear.

I usually like to begin putting pieces together on the left-upper corner, although this varies from puzzle to puzzle. However, once I get started, I have a habit of jumping to the parts that I find easiest to figure out.

In this case, for example, I decided to go for that nice-looking house in the background and started putting its pieces together until I finished it.

How is this related to goal-reaching?

As I’ve mentioned before, you’ll have to organize your resources and split your projects into small, achievable chunks, if you want to make real progress.

However, no-one said you had to complete every single one of them in a strict, rigid order. If you get tired of focusing on one task, you can jump to a different one and then resume the earlier one at a later time, as long as this process doesn’t compromise the logical development of your projects.

What to do:

  • Don’t neglect your tasks.
    If you plan to start an online business, for example, there will be days when you won’t feel like designing its webpage. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should stop and come back to it five days later when you feel like working on it again. Instead, you can use that time to focus on other tasks that also need doing.
    Pro-tip: Don’t forget to take breaks. After all, you’re only human, and as such, you have limits. No project is worth pursuing if you have to compromise your overall health, your family life, or your physical integrity.
  • Start with the easiest parts.
    As an educator, I often tell my students to solve the easiest sections of their tests first and then take on the most difficult ones later. That way, they can avoid getting stuck at the very beginning, saving valuable time. Additionally, starting with the simplest tasks will give you the push you need to face the more challenging ones later on.
    Pro-tip: Reconsider your options. Revisit the drawing board if you get tired of the individual tasks more often than you think you should. Maybe you could simplify some of them without compromising the quality of their outcome. Remember the words of Scrooge McDuck: “You have to work smarter, not harder.”

5. There will always be a part of your project you will dread. That’s the part you have to undertake most diligently.

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(Photo by the author)

You’ve made significant progress and now you’re done with the easiest part of the puzzle. Well, guess what? It’s time to take on the harder and more confusing sections of it.

Before I continue, let me make this clear: I love jigsaw puzzles, and I love flowers. However, I absolutely despise flowers and foliage in jigsaw puzzles. Don’t get me wrong: I love how they look. Problem is, foliage is as random as random can be: As there’s no apparent pattern, all pieces look the same to me.

That being said, I chose this particular puzzle precisely because its foreground is dominated by flowers, grass, and stems. And no, I’m not a masochist. I did it so I could exemplify this point, probably the most important one in this article.

How is this related to goal-reaching?

I’m sure you have the coolest and most wonderful project in mind. I’m also sure that there will be one or several parts of it that you’ll find rather unpleasant.

You read that right. Just like there’s no such thing as a perfect job, a perfect relationship, or a perfect life, I can guarantee you one thing: No matter what you set yourself out to do, there will always be a part of it you just won’t enjoy.

What to do:

  • Learn to embrace the unpleasant part of your projects.
    To succeed, you will have to learn to love every single aspect of your endeavors, even those you don’t find appealing at all. There’s no escaping this. There’s always some good, some bad, and some ugly, and any attempts to skip on the bad and/or the ugly will ultimately lead to failure.
    Pro-tip: Don’t think of these steps as chores to be completed, but as necessary actions to see your dream come true. Welcome the tedious tasks and take on them with a positive attitude. Remember the old gym saying: No pain, no gain.
  • Get support. You don’t have to go through this alone.
    Friends and relatives can be great sources of motivation and support to help you through the most boring and difficult parts of your project. Surrounding yourself with positive individuals has a beneficial effect on your mental well-being during hard times.
    Pro-tip: Read the story of some of the people you admire the most. You’ll be surprised to learn just how much hardship they had to endure on their way to success. Use those stories as your greatest inspiration. If they could do it, you definitely have a chance too.

6. Be patient. If you keep trying, you will find a way.

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If there’s a frustrating thing about a jigsaw puzzle, it is that moment when you simply can’t find the piece you’re looking for.

I bet you know this feeling very well. Once you think you’ve tried every possibility, you start suspecting the piece you’re desperately trying to spot has somehow become self-aware and is now hiding from you on purpose.

How is this related to goal-reaching?

On your quest to reach your goals, there will be times when you’ll get stuck. And when that happens, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the feeling of not knowing what to do.

You may also get to a point where you come across unforeseen difficulties, and every strategy you implement to deal with them will prove futile.

What to do:

  • Don’t despair. This is to be expected.
    Roadblocks are inevitable, and you will encounter them more often than you’d like. They will put your wits to the test, as you’ll have to figure out a way to proceed with your project even in the hardest of circumstances.
    Pro-tip: Unless you’re working on a very personal project, there’s nothing wrong with seeking help. You’d be surprised to learn that even a very young child’s opinion can potentially provide some valuable insight on how to solve a problem.
  • Be patient and keep trying.
    Just like a jigsaw puzzle, the process of reaching your goals will involve an awful lot of trial and error. Sometimes your strategies will prove useful, some other times, they will be completely ineffective. The more you try and fail, however, the more you’ll learn from your mistakes, and the closer you’ll get to complete the mission at hand.
    Pro-tip: You’re bound to fail repeatedly during the completion of certain tasks, and that’s okay. However, you’ll have to change tactics if your current strategy proves useless. Remember the words of Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
  • Change your perspective and don’t give up.
    Sometimes, when I can’t find a piece in a puzzle, I put it upside-down. That changes my perspective and, more often than not, I end up spotting the piece I was looking for. Similarly, when facing a roadblock, a change in perspective might lead to the solution you need, or at least, an improvement in mood and attitude. Thomas Edison is credited with saying “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”
    Pro-tip: Speaking of different perspectives, again, it’s okay to ask for help. When we’re working on something big, we tend to get worked up over details and deadlines. That anxiety, in turn, blocks our vision and prevents us from seeing the solution to our problem, which is often under our very nose.

7. Don’t stop when you’re so close.

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After struggling with those flowers, you have about 25 unplaced pieces left, and you’re beginning to get sleepy. But right before you go to bed, you take a final look at the puzzle and you think to yourself, “Nah, I’m going to finish this right now.”

How is this related to goal-reaching?

Oddly enough, one of the reasons why we fail at reaching our goals is that sometimes we inexplicably — yet consciously — stop making progress at the home stretch of the whole process.

It’s almost like we assume that success is guaranteed at this stage, so we can take a sabbatical period of time and complete the project at an undisclosed later moment.

I once met a girl who finished all courses at college in exactly four years. After that, she was expected to spend a few more months working on her final thesis report, a requirement for graduation. However, instead of getting on it, she took up an odd habit of putting it off, asking faculty authorities for an extension every six months, for three long years.

As a result, a process that could have taken her just six months resulted in a graduation ceremony four years later. Why she did this to herself is beyond me.

What to do?

  • Don’t even think about postponing your final effort.
    Imagine you were running a race and you had the lead. After sprinting for what feels like an eternity, you make out the finishing line, looming in the distance. Now, would you suddenly stop running and risk losing the race? Of course not. Similarly, you don’t stop working on the final stage of your projects after so much work is already done. That wouldn’t make sense.
    Pro-tip: Again, it’s okay to take a break, even during the home stretch of your projects. Beware the perils of taking too many breaks for too long, however. They can lead you to a deadly comfort zone you may have difficulty getting out of. Don’t fall for that trap.

Bottom Line

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I don’t know about you, but I get a sense of fulfillment, pride, and satisfaction when I look at a completed jigsaw puzzle. There is a feeling of amazement at what you’ve done. You managed to bring order from complete chaos, and the result is astonishingly beautiful.

Now take a moment to consider the following: What you’re looking at is nothing but a jigsaw puzzle, a toy that is ultimately inconsequential in the big scheme of things and in the course of your life and its development.

Now imagine the feelings of fulfillment, pride, and satisfaction you can get when you reach your life goals. When you finally get that diploma, open your own business, get out of poverty, move up your career path, get the house of your dreams, or whatever project you have in mind.

Imagine the feeling of knowing that you had the guts and determination to take the first step into the unknown and come through victorious. The feeling of accomplishing what you thought was unaccomplishable. The satisfaction of conquering all obstacles, and of working your way to success against the fiercest wind.

If you can imagine it, you can do it. It won’t be easy. It won’t go smoothly. It won’t always be pretty, glorious, or exciting. But there’s one thing you can be sure of: it will be worth it. Trust me on that.

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Salvadoran writer, father, husband, educator, and artisan. I write about love and relationships, family, life lessons, and personal growth.

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