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How to Reach Your Goals By (Almost) Ignoring Them

How to Reach Your Goals By (Almost) Ignoring Them


    We all have big goals–losing weight, starting a business, whatever. Big goals are great. They can transform your life. Problem is, after about a week, most of us lose motivation. Our dreams don’t die, but our gumption dries up. Then on your birthday or New Year’s Day or some other annual milestone, we look at our goals list and kick ourselves and feel like perpetual slackers for not achieving anything.

    It’s a common problem, and happens because you haven’t stoked the furnace of your passion so you can persistently move toward your goals. Willpower and passion alone aren’t enough. Scheduling time to work toward our goals is helpful, but still isn’t enough.

    SEE: Top 10 Reasons Why People Don’t Reach Their Goals

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    So how can you reach your goal by ignoring it? It sounds counter-intuitive, but the strategies below really work.

    It’s easy to get excited about a goal, but that excitement won’t put enough fuel in the tank to take you down the long road so you can reach your goal.

    The trick to staying motivated and inspired

    It’s tempting to keep your eye on the prize, your goal. Some people like to make a collage of goal-related images and quotes, and slap in on their wall to constantly remind them about their goal. A concrete, visual reminder can be helpful, but again, it’s often not enough to keep focused on a goal over weeks, months, or years.

    Instead of focusing so much on your end goal–that thing far off on the horizon–focus on the immediate benefits. What you need is daily inspiration and reinforcement to keep you going. It’s like having your own personal cheerleading squad behind you every step of the way–even when you don’t feel like doing anything.

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    Create immediate reinforcement for taking action toward your goals. If you have immediate reinforcement, you don’t have to keep your eye on the prize as much. You don’t have to rely on unreliable willpower. Immediate reinforcement stokes your fire to keep you on track toward your goal.

    How do you give yourself immediate reinforcement? By focusing on how you feel when you take action, no matter how small the action is. Pay attention to how you feel when you do something that’s related to your goal. Do you feel inspired? Excited? Responsible? Empowered? What are your thoughts when you take action on your goal? Maybe you find yourself thinking “This is easier than I thought!”, or “Look at how much I’ve done in the past week!”. Pay attention to these feelings and thoughts, since that’s what’s going to fuel your persistence, and what will ultimately make it possible to reach your goal.

    SEE: 3 Common Goal Setting Mistakes

    A bonus trick to make it easy to start

    But what if you don’t even know where to start? Maybe you’ve got a big goal you’re excited about, but are overwhelmed? Fear not.

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    Here’s your bonus trick: spend 5 minutes planning what you need to do to start. In your plan, list tasks that are so incredibly easy and tiny, that you’re guaranteed to do them. To paraphrase a Kaizen saying:

    “You must be as certain you can do these tiny tasks as you are that the sun will rise tomorrow.”

    For example, if you want to lose 30 pounds, don’t start by trying to run a 10k. Start by putting on your exercise shoes. Make that your daily goal. If you can do that–and want to do a little extra–just step outside. If you want to do more, then walk around the block. But make those first tiny steps, pay attention to your thoughts and feelings, and use them to give yourself immediate reinforcement for taking action.

    These ideas are partly derived from the book Exercise for Mood and Anxiety: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-Being by Michael Otto, Ph.D. and Jasper A.J. Smits, Ph.D. But even if you don’t suffer from depression or anxiety, and just want to get your butt in gear, the principles can be applied to any challenging task or goal.

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    Daily action and immediate reinforcement will snowball and allow you to reach your goal–without having to rely on your shaky willpower. So feel free to–almost–ignore your goal, but make sure to take daily action, and then reward and reinforce yourself for taking that action.

    What’s your next action going to be?

    Do it right now. In the comments, share your task/goal, your daily action, and how you’ll reinforce yourself.

    (Photo credit: Penalty Shootout in Amatuer Football via Shutterstock)

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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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