From Dream to Reality

For everyone who has difficulty ‘getting down to it’ and wants an alternative to willpower.

sky at night greg rakozy terry gillen

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Many people’s experience of long-term goals is remarkably unsatisfying. Every New Year, too many people repeat the resolutions they made the previous year because their good intentions petered out. What most of them will do, however, is to repeat the cycle of initial enthusiasm, procrastination and, finally, self-reproach.

If any of this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Every January thousands of people join gyms, paying an annual or monthly membership but never go there more than a couple of times. This phenomenon is so common it actually forms part of the financial planning of many fitness companies – and no doubt diet companies, educational companies, etc, etc.

The solution, however, is relatively simple and does not require huge reserves of willpower. It begins by learning from carpenters.

Working with the grain

Carpenters know that the natural grain of the wood, its internal ‘makeup’, is important. Instead of fighting it, they work with it because working with the grain is easier and results in a better finished product.

This has a parallel when we try to achieve long-term goals. Working ‘with the grain’ of what our brain does naturally is easier and results in a better finished product.

The human brain is good at:

  • Big abstract thoughts, visions, dreams and long-term goals.Responding to environmental cues. Sunshine, for example, can make us happier; a sad story can make us weepy; a tidy desk can make us more productive.
  • Responding to rewards. Our behaviour subconsciously gravitates towards what makes us feel good. Something as simple as a genuine ‘thank you’, for example, can affect our behaviour.
  • Creating habits. Changing gear in a car is a good example. It is tricky while you are learning but quickly becomes so habitual that you do it without thinking about it.

The human brain is not so good at:

  • Keeping long-term goals in mind consciously enough to direct day-to-day behaviour.
  • Avoiding undesirable environmental cues such as distractions or even the magazines and sweets strategically placed at supermarket checkouts.
  • Resisting immediate gratification.

As achieving long-term goals requires sustained application over a long period, the question to ask is, ‘How can I hitch a ride on what the brain does naturally?’

The answer involves seven mutually supportive tactics.

1 Visualise

As your brain is good at visualising and daydreaming, begin with the end in mind and visualise what you want to achieve. Whether it is a slimmer you, a better educated you, a happier you, or you want the pleasure of holding your first published book, see it in your mind’s eye.

Take the day dreaming even further by imagining how you will feel, the conversations you will have, what people will say about you. Amplify that feeling making it bigger and bolder.

To really capitalise on the power of visualisation, revisit the goal in your mind’s eye frequently. Several times a day is useful in the early stages of goal achievement because what you are actually doing is ‘reprogramming’ your brain and quietly strengthening your resolve.

2 Plan

Visualisation is vital but it will only take you so far. To get moving and to stay on course, you need a plan. More precisely, you need part of a plan. Believing that you need a complete plan before you can start is unrealistic and unnecessary. After all, when you start your journey, you might not know what all the steps will be. Relax, because at this stage, you do not need to know all the steps. When your mind’s eye vision is your guide, you only need to be clear about what you are going to do next.

The three Wise Men had a star to guide them not a detailed route map.

The simplest way of deciding what to do next is to begin with your visualised goal and to ask, What will I be doing half way between now and completing that goal if I am on track? So, if in twelve months you visualise yourself having completed the first three chapters of a novel, in six months, you probably need to be working on the plot and characters. Half the timescale again; in three months, you probably need to be well into your research of similar books in the genre, or checking technical and historical facts.

Continue this halving process until you get to what you need to do in the next ten minutes.

Your long-term goal might be so ambitious it will take years to achieve. In ten years time you might want to earn a comfortable living as a successful novelist. If so, in five years time you will probably need two or three books published. In two and half years time, you might need to be pitching outlines to your enthusiastic agent. Continuing to half the timescale might prompt you to begin looking for the right agent. Half it again and you might need to be scouring the Artists’ and Writers’ Yearbook, speaking to other writers, contributing to a writers’ group, completing a creative writing course or attending a writers’ retreat. Half it again and again, and you might arrive at a simple achievable goal of looking at your bookshelves and seeing what books you have really enjoyed reading because that will tell you what you will also enjoy writing.

It is the same with goals relating to fitness, learning a foreign language, finding a new partner or emigrating to another country – you keep halving the timescale.

The ‘trick’ of planning is to find the natural next step linked to your long-term goal and to reduce it to an easy component.

3 Start a routine

Routines are vital to achieving long-term goals because they deliver several benefits:

Routines reduce the need for willpower. You probably have a morning routine, for example, enabling you to get up, shower, dress and breakfast efficiently and easily, perhaps even on autopilot. Brains love routines so much that routines quickly become habit, and habit requires zero effort.
No need for will power; habits just happen.

Time allocated to routine activities tends to be safeguarded. Routines become ‘fixed’ in our mental calendar and we work around them.
Above all, routines tap into the cumulative effect. We achieve, or fail to achieve, long-term goals one step at a time. Cumulatively, and irrevocably, each small step builds up. Regular routines virtually guarantee progress towards your goals.
Establishing a routine can be especially challenging if you have many commitments. A busy job, a lengthy commute, a young family, etc, all present many immediate calls on our time and lead to a strong need for work-life balance. The line of least resistance is often to defer your personal goals and it is not long before that deferment becomes permanent. If that sounds familiar here are three realistic solutions:

First, think of your goal as an aeroplane and you as an air traffic controller. You can put an aircraft into a holding patten for a while but not for ever. Eventually, you have to divert it to another airport or make space for it to land at your airport. What does this mean for you? It means that if you have deferred your goal continuously, maybe you have actually made the correct decision and the other calls on your time really are higher priority. The sensible solution is to stop beating yourself up, cancel the goal and replace it with one that fits your life better.
A second alternative is to recognise that the goal is OK just not right at this time. So keep it in a holding pattern and revisit it at a predetermined time. That time might be when the pressure of your job is relieved, when the kids start school or when you have finished renovating your house.
Third, if you want to start working on the goal now, you might need to accept that even small periods of time invested in it are better than no time at all. So you might need to negotiate with family that you will work on it, say, two evenings a week, every other Sunday or whatever. (See point 7, below.)
Also, you can be creative over your interpretation of ‘routine’. You might do something at a certain time each day, on certain days of the week or when you are in a certain place. I know a writer, for example, who picks up her children from school every day and uses the waiting time sat in her car to tick off another task from her writing to-do list. As long as the routine leads, cumulatively, to your goal, even small steps count.

Routines are especially easy to create when you ‘tag’ the new behaviour onto something you already do.

For example, if you go to work, and fitness is your goal, you can walk part of the journey. If you have lunch, and slimming is your goal, you can head for the salads instead of the burgers. If you turn on your tablet to check social media, and learning a foreign language is your goal, you can spend 20 minutes learning vocabulary instead. If you regularly stand in a queue, wait for a bus or walk a dog, you have opportunities to do something related to your goal. That ‘something’ might only be planning your next step. That is fine; it all adds cumulatively to your progress.

4 Manage your environment

As your brain will respond to its environment, it is essential that you make sure that what is around you provides cues that are conducive to your plan and goal. First, remove distractions or anything that provides cues counter to your goal. If you want to lose weight, make sure that the biscuit tin is out of sight. If social media distracts you, move your ‘phone and tablet so that you cannot see or hear them for however long your new routine requires.

Create and capitalise on good cues. If you want to redesign your garden, have on your desk (even if it is only the kitchen table) what you need for the next ten or twenty minutes and put the rest out of sight. If there is noise, wear earphones.

Longer term, drip feed your brain with pictures, books, articles, television programmes and people conducive to your goal.

5 Focus

Most of us have pretty busy lives so we need to make minutes count.

The way we do that is to focus. Managing your environment will go a long way to helping you focus. So will being clear what you are going to do in the next ten minutes.

Hopefully, your routine will make it easy to invest more than ten minutes in each step but, ask yourself, have you ever reached the end of the time you allotted to your routine without getting done what you wanted to get done and wondered where the time went? If so, remember that even a couple of hours is made up of ten minute periods. So keep asking yourself, what will I do in the next ten minutes that will contribute to my goal? With your focus on a ten-minute ‘micro goal’, it is easy to focus and, consequently, make progress.

Another idea to maintain focus is this: if you stop to take a break, answer the telephone or whatever, before you stop decide exactly what you will do when you resume. That way, you ‘hit the ground running’ and minimise ‘recovery time’.

6 Reward yourself

Brains love rewards. That is why many people respond instantly to the ‘ping’ of an incoming social media message even though they mean to focus on something else, or channel-hop to see ‘what else is on’ when they actually mean to turn off the television and do something else. The pull of instant gratification is very strong.

So capitalise on that temptation and reward yourself for goal-orientated success. Focus on a goal-related step for twenty minutes then reward yourself by checking social media, making a coffee or whatever feels good.

You can even combine rewarding yourself with managing your environment by putting a chart of your progress where you can see it easily and frequently. Make it big, bold and pictorial, and it will work.

This not only appeals to the ‘child’ in all of us, it quickly establishes new habits.

7 Seek support

Support can come in a variety of ways. A ‘hero’ can inspire you. A mentor can guide you. A ‘buddy’ with a similar goal can accompany you. Family and friends can hold you to account. The one kind of ‘support’ you do not want is someone who will sympathise with, and accept, your excuses for procrastinating. Do not ‘go it alone’; seek genuine support.

Over to you

Some people are blessed with robust willpower. Some have the ability to plan, focus and, generally, just ‘get on with it’. Some of us, however, need help if we are to avoid being daunted by the magnitude of a long-term goal, not knowing where to start, procrastinating and, finally, suffering the inevitable regret of failure and the toxic feeling of missed opportunities.

This mindset can be compounded if you have been hoodwinked into believing that anything worthwhile can only be achieved through Herculean amounts of effort and self-sacrifice. While it is true that some goals in some situations might require effort and self-sacrifice, many goals do not. In fact, working towards many goals can be enjoyable and satisfying.

Achieving the goals you want to achieve might even be fun.

The solution is not to try harder, it is to try smarter by ‘hitching a ride’ on what the human brain does naturally. When you work with the grain, you capitalise on the cumulative effect and get closer to your goals more easily. What is more, the benefits keep coming.

You have probably heard the old saying that nothing succeeds like success. As you get closer to achieving your goals, you begin to realise that you are actually capable of more than you previously thought possible. This realisation leads naturally to more ambitious goals. That might seem a long way away right now but just imagine what goals you would visualise if you were quietly confident that you would succeed.

© Terry Gillen 2018

Terry Gillen Consultant, Trainer and Author

I began my career in management development and progressed to become a company training manager, a director of a training consultancy and, the toughest test of all, a self-employed consultant in a highly competitive field. Relentlessly refining my approach has resulted in invitations to work with major organisations on three continents and to speak at international conferences (without, I am pleased to say, spending a penny on marketing). Over the years, I have had the pleasure of working with clients in charities, construction, finance, further education, healthcare, international banking, law, leisure, manufacturing, motor industry, oil & gas, pharmaceuticals, public utilities, retail and scientific research. I have written books, trainers’ resources and management training DVDs. I have also written, or contributed to, articles in journals and newspapers such as People Management, Training Journal, Strategic HR Review, British Airways Business Life, the Mail, Times, Observer, Guardian and Wall Street Journal.

My two most recent books are available on Amazon (paperback) and Kindle (e-book).

Quietly Confident           Great Appraisal