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10 Reasons to Focus on Steps, Not Goals

10 Reasons to Focus on Steps, Not Goals

When you want to improve an aspect of your life, it’s important to set goals. This is how you know where you want to end up. However, once you’ve set a goal for yourself, you should focus on the small steps you’ll be taking in order to reach this goal. You should always keep your final destination in sight, but know that it’s the small steps that will guide you there. Here’s what you can expect by keeping the small steps in mind.

1. You won’t feel intimidated

Maybe your goal is to become a master guitarist, but you don’t even know how to play a chord. It can be incredibly intimidating to watch a Grateful Dead concert as Jerry Garcia moves up and down the fret board for hours without breaking a sweat. You’ll most likely get the feeling that you’ll “never be able to do that,” and run the risk of quitting before you even get started. By taking small steps toward your goal, you’ll feel less intimidated when you see others who are above your level.

2. You’ll see progress constantly

If you’re constantly looking at your endgame as your only goal, you won’t think you’re getting anywhere when you make a small improvement in your skills. When you focus on the small steps, you’ll see progress almost instantaneously. Yesterday, you might have set out to memorize the order of the guitar strings. It can be highly motivating to see this goal accomplished. It might not seem like a huge accomplishment, but you’ll know you’re one step closer to achieving your overall goal.

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3. You’ll appreciate the process

When you focus on the small steps, you’ll realize that even the experts have been in your shoes at one point in their lives. It’s hard to imagine a time in which Garcia didn’t know the difference between an E and an A string, but he had to have started somewhere, right? The small steps might be boring at times — do you think Michael Jordan really loved taking foul shots all day? — , but going through them is an absolute necessity if you want to reach your goal.

4. You’ll learn the basics

It might be tempting to skip steps at times in order to reach your goal faster. However, this will only lead to confusion and frustration in the long run. Imagine a child trying to learn multiplication before he or she learns how to add. So much instruction would be lost in this method that the child wouldn’t possibly be able to succeed.

The old saying is true: “You have to learn to crawl before you can walk.” Take baby steps to ensure you can handle the small stuff before moving on to the big time.

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5. You’ll learn more

While you’re learning the basics, you should slow down and try different methods to accomplish your short-term goals. There’s always more than one way to get something done. Going about a task in a variety of ways will lead you to the most efficient way for you to complete the task at hand. You might learn something about the whole process that you would have missed had you rushed through the small steps.

6. You’ll understand the fundamentals

It’s not enough just to complete the small tasks — you have to understand why you completed them. Tuning a guitar might seem pretty straight-forward, as you can just memorize each string’s open note and tune it. However, it’s important to take the time to understand the relationship between the strings, and how each is utilized when forming chords and scales. Go beyond rote memorization and truly comprehend each step as you progress toward your goal.

7. You’ll anticipate success

If you schedule the small goals to be accomplished, you’ll know on Wednesday what you’ll be able to do on Friday. This not only gives you an idea about how you’re moving forward, but it also motivates you to keep up the hard work. If you schedule out your week of practice and growth, skipping a day will set everything back. When you’ve put it all in writing, you’ll be even more motivated not to let yourself down.

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8. You’ll adapt your goals

Then again, some days you might not do as well as you’d hoped you would. That’s certainly alright. By setting mini-goals along the way, you’ll be able to modify them depending on your progress the previous day. While you would most likely feel disappointed in yourself for skipping a day of work, there’s no shame in getting stuck on a previous step as long as you’re making strides to overcome it.

9. You’ll celebrate small victories

When you set smaller goals, you’ll be able to celebrate more. Like I said, making a schedule and anticipating success will allow you set your sights on a short-term goal, possibly a week-long one. Once you reach that smaller goal, you’ll definitely feel much more accomplished than you would if you’d reached that point without considering it a “goal.” Every small accomplishment is reason to celebrate, so don’t downplay your improvements.

10. You’ll keep pushing yourself

If you set one major goal for yourself at the beginning of your journey, you run the risk of becoming complacent once you reach that goal. For example, if your goal was to run a six-minute mile, and it took you months to get to that point, you might just breathe a sigh of relief and consider yourself a success. While that would undoubtedly be a great accomplishment, there’s still room for improvement. If you had spent months improving your time and acknowledging each incremental improvement, you’re more apt to celebrate your milestone and then get back up the next day and work to shatter your own record.

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Featured photo credit: Flickrr via farm3.staticflickr.com

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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