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Start a Project You Have Been Putting Off in Just 5 steps

Start a Project You Have Been Putting Off in Just 5 steps

No matter what professional field you are in, chances are that there exists a project you have been putting off for weeks, months or even years. We always have plenty of excuses to keep putting it off and the more time goes by the more creative we get with our excuses. Here are the simple steps to get started:

1. Identify ‘Why’ you are putting this project off?

Are you short on time? Not enough hours in the day? Are you not sure how to start? Is the project too demanding in terms of mental energy and concentration? Are there financial restrictions? Are you simply being a melancholic perfectionist reluctant to start without a complete plan? It takes bravery to admit to yourself why you are not going forward with a project you want to pursue in general. Good news – you are not obliged to share this information with the world, unless sharing it would help you overcome your challenges.

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For example, I find that I often procrastinate writing my thesis when I am overloaded with a large amount of smaller work projects. My brain simply runs out of ‘RAM’ and I am unable to concentrate on my writing.

2. Take a ‘Very Small Step’ towards eliminating that obstacle.

It is completely unrealistic to expect that you would get rid of an obstacle that held you back for months/years overnight. Start out with taking a series of very small steps. The progress will follow immediately. For example, if you have been planning to get fit but sports seem intimidating to you, start off by talking to people who love sports. Find out what they enjoy about being active.

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Intimidation rises from lack of information or from previous negative experiences. Taking a step as simple as discussing your goals with others will put you at ease and encourage you to start making progress.

3. Give it 5 minutes of your ‘Undivided Attention’ every single day.  

You might not make an awful lot of progress, but you will form a HABIT of working on your project every day. Aim for only 5 minutes a day, and with time you will find yourself wanting to extend that time. For example, anyone (whose health conditions allow it) can take a 5 minute walk in the morning or after work. Anyone can spare 5 minutes during the day or before bedtime to immerse into planning or thinking through one specific detail of a project.

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4. Set very specific ‘Super-Short-Term’ goals

It is often very difficult to establish a completely coherent plan of tackling a long term project. Also, meeting long-term goals can take up a lot of time, and waiting for the first ‘fruits’ of your labor might be discouraging. Instead, set as many short term goals as you can, and then break them up into even shorter-term goals! Be as specific as you can. For example, a short term goal might sound like “Find out how to register your own company”. A series of specific shorter-term goals would sound like: “Google search ‘how to register a company’”, “search the CRA website for further information”, “Call CRA to find out the rest of the details”. The more specific your goals are, the easier it will be to complete them fast. When we know what we are doing we tend to be more confident and we are less likely to put things off.

5. Use the mindset of “Eyes fear – Hands do”

“Eyes fear – hands do” – that’s how they say it in many Slavic cultures. In English it simply means ‘Just DO IT!’ Chances are that the project that you have been putting off is not composed of very dangerous tasks, so in fact there is nothing to be afraid of factually. The fear that we often feel before approaching a problem is steaming from our own expectations that we set for ourselves. Instead of beating yourself up that your project might not come out as ‘perfect’, tell yourself that if you will not get started it will not exist at all!

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Featured photo credit: mariyaboyko12.files.wordpress.com via mariyaboyko12.files.wordpress.com

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Mariya Boyko

Mathematics teacher, curriculum developer

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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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