Regardless of the methodology, approach, or game plan you want to follow, it’s consistency that will get you to where you want to be.
Follow the process
A systemised approach to achieving goals is one of the keys to success. It also provides learning opportunities and helps you to detect potential roadblocks quickly. Our brains are heuristic machines – they thrive on detecting and then following patterns to conserve energy. Following a predictable process is like snacking for the brain. We take small bites that are easy to consume.
One of my clients has considerable aspirations in all aspects of her life. She has a precise vision of who she wants to become with clear family, work, and health goals. She’s developed an action plan and designed the perfect weekly routine but still finds it hard to follow through. She’s not alone in this struggle, which has its roots in the very nature of our brains and the environments we live in.
The brain is vastly complex, and there’s still so much we don’t know about how it works. We know that various different systems exist to perform particular functions but that these systems have limitations. These can be both internal, like the phenomenon of seven items being the sweet-spot for recall in working memory, or external, where one system works against another, such as the speed-accuracy trade-off. Our modern environment doesn’t help the situation. Information technology positively reinforces instant gratification and overstimulates our reward centres. Our physical environments are full of objects, images and ideas that overwhelm the brain’s sensory inputs, leaving us easily distracted and less able to focus.
The anticipation system
The anticipation of reward is what drives us to take action on our plans in the first place. It’s easy (and pleasurable) to fall in love with the idea of reaching our final goal, but if we don’t learn to love the process to get there, too, we’ll quickly drop the effort required and return to our comfort zone. But why does this occur? It all starts at the neurochemical level.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter linked to the wanting and anticipation systems in our brain. It’s the chemical that’s released when we start something novel, like pursuing that shiny new goal. These emotions increase the rate of dopamine firing in the brain, triggering the manufacture of epinephrine (the brain’s adrenaline) and driving us to do things we would otherwise find hard or unpleasant. It’s the force behind your excited “Yes!” to a cool new friend’s invitation to go running together, even though you don’t like running. Whilst dopamine supports initial motivation, it wanes over time as the excitement of our new, unfamiliar pursuit becomes routine and familiar.
Keeping it up
So if anticipation and dopamine help get us to get going, what helps us to keep going? Focusing on the present moment. By becoming fully aware of our experience – including discomfort and pain – we activate a raft of so-called ‘here and now’ neurotransmitters that help us to push on towards our goal. Serotonin helps regulate our mood. Oxytocin keeps us positive. Endorphins help manage pain. Endocannabinoids help our body to maintain homeostasis. Considered together, this is a powerful arsenal we can call on when motivation waves or resistance starts to build.
Eight steps to greatness and success
From helping my clients with goal setting and prioritisation, I have extracted eight critical steps to achievement:
- Define your ‘big goal’ by taking time to ensure your goal is detailed, realistic, and time-bound.
- Identify the milestones you will have to achieve and the areas of your life that need to change in order to realise your goal.
- Break it down into achievable but challenging activities that you can measure regularly.
- Add in the details to your plan to test its feasibility and make it visual. Map weekly details, add an allowance for unpredictable situations and create cues for your new routine. With anticipation building, your dopamine levels will surge.
- Eliminate barriers to success by removing toxicity from your life: temptations, negative thoughts, naysayers, tedious tasks.
- Build support structures to support you on your journey. Design systems that make your work routine easy and surround yourself with raving supporters.
- Manage unpredictability by dealing with urgent matters only during a planned time block. Any new activity not supporting your higher goal will have to be postponed, delegated, or forgotten.
- Trust the process by staying disciplined and maintaining patience. Staying present to your experience will leverage the power of your brain’s ‘here and now’ neurotransmitters.
When working towards a ‘big goal’ we often rely on willpower alone to get us there, focusing too much on the final outcome, rather than the milestones to get us there. Make things easier for yourself by implementing simple changes – they’re easier to action and sustain. The steps above have been designed with this in mind. Think of them like building blocks – they need to be put together to be useful. Each builds the foundations for the next, adding robustness and resilience to the structure as it grows.
For example, adding a simple cue will help embed your new habit. Associating something you already know to something new will make it feel less peculiar and help build positive associations with it. Say that you struggle to pace yourself and give yourself rest. You could specify that each time you finish a piece of work, you will leave your desk and go for a short walk. It’s almost laughably simple, but therein lies its power: it’s failproof.
KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid
I once worked with a sales leader in a large telecommunications company who wanted to become an empowering leader, but who was constantly receiving calls from his direct reports, seeking guidance and support. As a result, he couldn’t get things done and never felt very effective in the help he provided to his team. To achieve his goal, we made three changes to the way he operated:
- He created specific time blocks in his calendar for weekly one-on-one’s that had clear agendas and objectives (critical step 4)
- He allocated time during the week to deal with unpredictable situations with his staff (critical step 4)
- He asked his direct reports to text him about urgent matters that required his attention (critical steps 6)
With these simple changes, the culture of his team shifted – becoming more autonomous and disciplined. As a result, he felt more in control of his time, giving him the space to see that the help he provided his team was, indeed, effective. The volume of staff requests decreased rapidly, staff satisfaction increased, and sales results improved. He had created systems and an environment that helped support both himself and his team to achieve his personal goal of being an empowering leader.
Trust the process
Don’t fool yourself by thinking that the journey is going to be enjoyable all the time.
You will face boredom and adversity. The keys here are to remain emotionally aloof from obstacles as much as possible and to consistently execute your plans. If you allow yourself to get attached to the struggle of the obstacle, then struggle you will. But if you become present to the emotion, you can let it go, freeing your energy to focus on moving through the obstacle to reach your next milestone. Trust the process.