We all have goals and ambitions that we want to achieve but sometimes its hard to see how we can attain them, more often than not we decide that it will be too hard and give up. There are lots of reasons for this and I’m sure you could write a whole list which describes why you haven’t reached a certain goal or ambition. The truth is that no matter what our individual circumstances are, the actual reason for not achieving our goals is more to do with our limiting beliefs than it is about the resources we have available or the obstacles we face.
In this article I will provide you with 3 simple tools and techniques that will make it much easier for you to move closer to your goals and feel more comfortable taking action.
Step 1: Overcoming Fear and recalibrating reality
The number one thing holding us all back from doing more of the work we love and living life on our own terms is fear. Whether it is fear of rejection, fear of failure or fear of financial insecurity, the majority of people who aren’t moving towards their goals are being held back by fear. This is quite a hard thing to accept at first, I will admit, and perhaps you can’t believe that it’s that simple to attribute the root of everyone’s obstacles to a single cause. However, I would be willing to bet that if your life depended on it, you would be able to come up with at least one way to overcome the obstacle at hand and achieve your goal.
In order to better understand how our limiting beliefs and fear can have such a large impact on us, it’s useful to understand exactly what fear is and how it manifests itself in modern day life. In order to do this I am going to attempt to simplify the most complex organ in the human body; the brain. In recent literature, many well known and respected authors in fields such as personal development, psychology and marketing have attempted to do this by using a simplified version of the Triune theory developed by Paul D Maclean in the late 60’s. Although many of these simplifications have helped me understand more about the brain, the theories have come under a fair amount of scrutiny in recent years due to advances in neuroscience and elements of the theory have been disproven. Therefore I will attempt to explain how the brain works in relation to fear, using long-standing theories of systems that you may be familiar with and probably even learned at school. Don’t worry though, this isn’t going to be a boring biology lesson so please read on! I promise it will all be relevant to helping you achieve your goals and dreams!
To start with let’s talk about the autonomic nervous system that is responsible for controlling most of our bodies core functions such as breathing, heart rate and digestion. This is the system that works without us having to think about it consciously and keeps us all alive. A part of this system called the sympathetic nervous system controls our fight or flight response and is regulated by an area of the brain called the amygdala. One of the problems with the way the amygdala functions and determines what is a threat and what isn’t, is that it can’t tell the difference between a perceived threat and a real one. When we imagine what a situation would be like in our head, the amygdala will often respond to these situations in a similar way that it would if they were happening in real life. Im sure you have been in a situation before that has scared you or made you really anxious because you were convinced there was going to be a certain outcome but the situation never manifested itself. The example that is often used involves vividly imagining you are walking down a dark alleyway on your own late at night, you hear footsteps and suddenly you see a figure coming towards you, you can’t make out their face and as you get close enough they leap towards you and grab you. At the last minute you realise it’s just your friend who saw you from the other side of the street. The event itself didn’t present any immediate danger, it was your perception of the event that caused you to feel the fear and this process is what the majority of fears and phobias are based around.
Obviously we can tell the difference between a real life threat and one we are imagining in our brain, but there are still parts of the brain that are put on alert even when we are simply visualising a threat. The majority of uncomfortable feelings that we experience are generated by social structures and norms that only exist in our mind as a visualisation. For example, when we are calculating risk, we visualise each scenario and imagine what it would be like to live in this world. You may not do it consciously because some things you have experienced before, or they don’t need much visualisation for you to know what will happen if you do it. However when we visualise events in the context of our goals and dreams, there is a version of our life that exists only in our head which is different to the life we have now. Our ability to visualise the future in our own mind is one of the things that makes us unique as humans and theories suggest that this part of the brain was formed as an evolutionary progression to predict danger.
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened” – Mark twain
Our external environment has evolved much quicker than our brains and therefore unless you are unlucky enough to live in an unstable environment, there is rarely any need for our fight or flight response to be activated. We have systemised the world we live in to make it as safe as possible in order for our brains to be able to easily distinguish between safety and danger. What we experience on a daily basis is part of an infrastructure that has been created by us, not just in physical terms but in social terms as well. It sounds like something out of the Matrix but reality as we know it is mostly a human construct. We rarely look at reality for what it is unless we are in unfamiliar situations that cause us to have a heightened sense of awareness, most commonly experienced when we leave our own country and travel to an unfamiliar part of the world. Technology has moved us even further away from reality by adding an extra dimension to our lives that we didn’t have a hundred years ago and therefore it’s much harder to avoid the man made constraints within which we live. In order to recalibrate our perception of the world and the frame in which we view it, it’s helpful to write down our thoughts and reservations in relation to our goals and ambitions. Our brain does not fully process a thought until it is spoken or written and therefore it is easy to have a warped perspective of reality within the confines of our own mind.
The first step in moving towards your dreams and goals is to determine what they are and then what are the things you are afraid of if you were to pursue them. The tool that I find most useful is called fear setting and it was first introduced to me by Tim Ferris. I had seen variations of the technique before but this one resonated with me and has always helped me to put things in perspective and overcome any obstacles I am currently facing. The idea is quite simple but highly effective:
- Firstly, write down across the top of the page what the goal is, then underneath make three columns. In the first column write in as much detail as possible what could go wrong if you decide to pursue your goal and what you are afraid might happen (this should be the worst case scenario).
- In the second column write down anything you could do to minimise the chance of these things happening, look at each thing you have written in the first column and come up with one thing you could do to prevent it.
- In the third column write down what you would have to do to get back to where you are now if everything in the first column did happen and your worst case scenario came true.
Step 2: Plan ahead but take action NOW
Planning your goals is important but not nearly as important as taking action. Often people feel overwhelmed by their goals and what they feel they have left to achieve, simply by breaking the goals down into smaller sections, they suddenly seem achievable. I like to start with what I call dream setting, this is a process that allows me to visualise exactly where I would want to be in three years time, describing the details as vividly as possible in order to make me feel excited and motivated. Not only does this put me in a great state every time I read it, it also signals to the unconscious brain that this is what you want to work towards. Im sure you have heard the phrase, “you get more of what you focus on” and it really does help to have your dreams and goals in a place where you can refer to them and visualise them on a regular basis. If you haven’t written your goals down and created a compelling future in your mind, use the toolkit at the end of this post to do so.
One of the biggest objections I hear on a regular basis when I ask people what is stopping them from achieving their goals is: “I don’t feel like im ready” or “I need X and Y in place before I can start”. The truth is, you should never feel ready because if you do, you are probably too late. There are two things that appear to be a common theme among successful people; Firstly they took action before they felt they were ready and secondly, once they started taking action and succeeding, they felt as if they were about to be uncovered as a fraud at any moment in time (commonly known as imposter syndrome). This is not only very common but I also believe it is crucial to succeeding and doing something that has a significant positive impact and adds value to people’s lives. The most important thing here is changing your mindset from avoiding situations because they feel uncomfortable, to trying to get yourself in more of them and take them as a crucial signpost that you are heading in the right direction.
A quick note on mindset
Your mindset and the way you perceive the world can be attributed to at least 80% of the results you achieve and the life you live. The other 20% are mechanics and the actions you take on a daily basis, some people like to call this luck or being in the right place at the right time. Although I’m sure there are cases of being in the right place at the right time, if you don’t have the right mindset or attitude, these situations will never progress and you will never be presented with as many opportunities as the person who is constantly taking action towards their goals. It’s very easy to let other people’s perception of the world cloud our own, especially if they are people you respect. If you believe that people who are successful are just lucky, will you be successful? Or will you just use it as another reason why you can’t achieve your dreams and ambitions?
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” – Seneca
Don’t forget that although your mindset is extremely important, it will have much less effect without action. Its easy to fall into the trap of thinking all you have to do is change your outlook on life and opportunities will come flooding your way. It will certainly help when they do but nothing is guaranteed unless you take action and make your own opportunities.
One of the best books I have read which emphasises the importance of both action and mentality is called “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday. It is a fantastic book to read for motivation and inspiration and draws on principles of Stoicism.
Step 3: Measure, adapt and celebrate
The probability of your idea having the exact outcome you expect the first time you try is quite small, however as long as you treat the pursuit of your goal as an experiment, you will be able to take these results, learn from them and refine your actions.
The important thing is that you use these results to work out what is going to move you closer to your goal and what is moving you away from it. What methods are working and what aren’t. If you can’t think of how to measure your goal then it probably isn’t specific enough. Hopefully you are familiar with the acronym SMART goals which stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time specific. When defining each of your goals you should use this to check that they meet each one of these requirements.
The acronym is important for the following reasons: Being specific with your goal ensures you are measuring the results as accurately as possible in order to establish if you are moving towards them or away from them. Breaking the goal down into lots of small tasks (achievable) means you don’t become overwhelmed by them and end up not taking action because you can’t decide what to do first or don’t know the best way to get there. You can also use these mini goals to see what actions are helping you to complete them goals in the shortest period of time. This is a great way to measure effective action vs efficient action which essentially means the difference between doing something very well in a short period of time vs doing something that is moving you towards your goals at an exponential rate. It is very easy to get caught up with the efficiency of a process and worrying too much about the details rather than just focusing on the end result. If it works, you can refine the method at a later stage in order to achieve the same outcome in a shorter period of time. The relevancy of the goal is equally as important. Is it relevant to what you want to achieve or is it something that you are doing because it is easy? Relevancy can also help you to find the goals that will have the largest impact and ensure you aren’t doing things which are not related to your bigger vision.
The last part of SMART goals is giving them a time frame, this is important as it relates to Parkinson’s law which states: “work expands to fill the time allocated to it”. Therefore if you don’t have a deadline, your brain won’t prioritise the task and there will always be other things you find to do instead. You may feel like deadlines limit your freedom, but the freedom actually comes from being able to choose what you are working on and when it needs to be completed by.
The final thing that doesn’t get mentioned in the acronym SMART is celebration. It really is important to celebrate the small achievements and acknowledge the little victories that you have set out in your goals. Not only will it allow you realise the progress you are making, it will also motivate you to achieve your next goal and create the feeling that the hard work is paying off. Celebrate when you find something that works, celebrate when you do something that puts you outside your comfort zone and celebrate when you make a positive difference to someone else’s life. As cliche as it sounds, the fun part of getting to your goals and dreams is the journey, so if you don’t stop to enjoy it along the way then what is the point of doing it in the first place? You will always find bigger goals to achieve when you get to the goals you have set and if you wait until you have achieved them to celebrate, you will be unhappy until you achieve them. As well all know life is far too short to be unhappy!
As I said previously action is the most important thing you can do today to move you closer to your goals, everything else can be refined along the way. If you really are serious about reaching your next milestone and living life on your own terms, take ten minutes to complete the success sheet which you can download for free below.