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3 Reasons You Should Start That Thing You’re Putting Off (You Know the One) Today

3 Reasons You Should Start That Thing You’re Putting Off (You Know the One) Today

My wife has a brilliant response to the question, “What would your ideal career be?”

Her answer: ex-president.

That’s my wife’s ingenious way of explaining that, yes, she’d love to lend the name recognition and public trust she’d enjoy as a former president to helping people and doing important work… but that she’s also got zero interest in the exhausting work of actually running for president, let alone being one.

The movie Good Will Hunting came out just after I graduated from college, and I remember a friend complaining to me, “Sure wish I wrote that thing!”

Same principle.

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Every one of us wishes we had already done something great. Far fewer of us are willing to first take on the work and risk of actually doing it.

You hear variations of this sentiment all the time:

“Why didn’t I think of Facebook?”

“If I were Bill Gates, I’d just retire and enjoy my billions.”

“I’ve got an idea for a business/book/movie script/change in career. I’ll start as soon as things settle down.”

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All reveal the same underlying hesitance or unwillingness — either due to fear of failure, fear of success, or just plain laziness — to start the hard work of creating or trying something new. Something that’s going to take a long time and a lot of frustration to pay off. Something that might not pay off at all. And besides, Netflix just made some new movies available for streaming, so why start that tricky, all-consuming project anyway?

Here’s why.

1. Taking on a big project is rewarding almost immediately.

You know this feeling, I’m sure of it. At some time in your life, likely many times, you’ve tackled an enormous project, something that filled you with pride. You’ve learned a complex skill. You’ve gotten into great shape. You’ve written or painted something you were proud of. Got that memory in your head? Now ask yourself…

Did the joy, happiness, contentment, and pride from that experience come to you only after you were completely finished? Of course not. I’d bet my wife’s ex-president money that you thoroughly enjoyed yourself throughout the process.

When you’re taking on something all consuming (running for political office, learning a new language, writing a book), every day of that experience is an adventure. New ideas pop into your head so frequently you need a journal by your side 24/7. And frankly, sometimes it feels great just knowing you’re doing something more demanding of yourself than watching TV.

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Starting a difficult, long-term new challenge can be a lot less daunting when you understand that you don’t need to wait until the very end to reap its rewards — those rewards start flowing right away.

2. When you’re engaged in a big project, you’re guaranteed some thrilling surprises.

I took an introductory screenwriting course in college. (This was not an example, I’ll admit, of taking on a challenging project like the ones I’m describing here. I heard the class was an easy few credits, that’s all.)

The professor said something I found shocking and inspiring. As a screenwriter crafts a film script, the movie’s theme almost never emerges until near the end of the writing process, and it’s almost always a surprise to the screenwriter.

Sign me up!

Yes, taking on that big project is going to be work. You’re going to get frustrated and feel at times like quitting. But you’ll also find all sorts of wonderful surprises along the way — surprises you’ll never get to enjoy until you actually start.

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3. Unless you start, you’ll never finish.

If that sounds obvious, then consider the friends or family members who have been telling you for years about their “plans” to start their venture or creative project, but still haven’t. Don’t they realize this obvious law of reality that nothing can be completed until after it’s been started?

If you’re not persuaded by the first two reasons to get moving today — that you’ll begin experiencing rewards almost immediately, and that you’ll enjoy all sorts of wonderful, unanticipated moments during your journey — then consider this one. Starting is the only way to give yourself even the slightest chance you’ll ever finish.

Or, as my wife brilliantly sums it up, you can’t start your novel with a second draft.

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robbie hyman

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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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