4 Steps That Stop Your Brain From Hijacking Your Goals

In our summer business planning class, we ask people to select an Area of Devotion – like lead generation, or building up a back catalog, or improving conversion rates – and then set a goal for that area. Then we ask, “What does success look like for this goal at the end of six months?”

The reason we ask this question is because we want them to come up with a specific goalpost that will feel satisfying to reach.

It's like when you're cleaning up for company to come over – if you don't know what “success” looks like, then you'll never feel like you can stop cleaning. You'll always feel pressure to do more, or stress about what's left undone. And we're kind of shooting for neither, here. Specific goalposts are necessary for closure.

The specific goalpost also helps you choose what kinds of actions to take. If “success” is taking your current train wreck of a website and making it into something that you can show people without embarrassment, then you're going to choose things that clean things up visually and make it easier to navigate. You are not going to prioritize things like analytics, SEO, or internal cross-linking.

But – if you were just shooting for “making your website better”, you might. And that's a recipe for angst. So we ask, “What does success look like for you at the end of 6 months?”

The more you can clarify and realistic-ify your expectations surrounding success, the more likely you are to actually get things done on a day-to-day basis. Feeling like you're succeeding makes you want to succeed at other things. It's a virtuous cycle.

If you do not feel like you are chalking up regular successes, you will feel drained even when you are making progress.

Your brain will work very, very hard to stop you from doing things if it does not feel like there's a point in doing them. That's one of its jobs.

So if it feels like the work you're doing is just a drop in the bucket, or it feels like it's not going to make a difference, then screwing around on Wikipedia for an hour and calling it “research” is a lot more appealing than doing something that actually moves you forward.

You’re feeling bad, and your brain is going to hijack your attention and turn it to something that will take the focus off of that. Usually that’s some form of trivial distraction, or some other work-related task that feels like it has more immediate value.

This is why you end up with projects or plans that don't get worked on for months, or even years. You experience massive resistance to taking action because as far as your brain is concerned, what's the point? Even the work you are doing doesn’t feel like progress.

But if you give it a point, and you make it something reasonable to accomplish in a specific timeframe that also has a meaningful value … well, now things get cooking.

Try this exercise for something you’re stuck on right now.

1. Take something that you know you need to prioritize, and think about what needs to happen for it to be “done.” Not perfect, not 100% done, but done enough for you to consider it a success for now.

2. Then look at a specific timeframe and ask yourself what level of progress seems reasonable to make in that timeframe. It could be six months, or it could be a week. It could even be today.

(And when we say “reasonable”, we mean “reasonable.” Not you at your all-out best and nothing going wrong and never having to stop and pee. Think about what tends to cause normal, “this is life” delays, like sick days, writers block, hangovers and technical difficulties. And, of course, peeing.)

3. Next, take that goalpost and write down why this will be meaningful to you. Maybe it’s because you’ll feel like you’re finally moving on it. Maybe because your goalpost is a concrete deliverable that helps you get to the next step of the project.

It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it matters to you. It has to feel like real success, like something is happening that you can feel good about. And we’re talking active good, here – not “Well, I’m supposed to do this, so I guess I should.” Make it something that can leave you feeling better at the end.

(If the thing you’re doing doesn’t have an “active good,” then you can think of something more interesting that you can be doing once this is done. That can be a good way to add that value when the work isn’t particularly rewarding.)

4. Finally, think about how you’re going to feel about yourself when you get there. Take a while to really picture it. Plant that seed in your brain so it knows there’s a point to doing this thing.

The more success you let yourself viscerally experience, the more you’ll succeed in business.

Success breeds success. You’ve got to feel it to continue to make it happen. And it’s just too easy to feel like you’re failing and you’re not getting enough done to grow your ittybiz the way you hoped you would.

Feeling like you’re failing isn’t exactly a business asset. It’s a great way to shoot yourself in the foot, though.

You might want to try this way instead.