Visualizing what you want and identifying why you want it is necessary, but usually not sufficient for actually achieving goals. Getting clear and imagining what success looks, sounds, smells, and feels like is an essential part of motivation, setting the course, and recognizing when we’ve arrived; but it is only the first step.
The seminal work of Gabriele Oettingen, Rethinking Positive Thinking, explores the effect of visualization on the achievement of goals. Data from the extensive studies she conducted show that not only is visualization not enough, but relying on it too much can actually lower the likelihood of achieving the goal visualized. Not to worry, she also found that a technique she calls “Mental Contrasting,” when used in conjunction with visualization, dramatically increases the likelihood of goal achievement. Mental Contrasting is the process of imagining the obstacles to achieving a goal; that is, the obstacles to carrying out a step or steps in the action plan put together for the purpose of the achieving said goal. As an example, let’s start with a common goal: losing weight. Study participants who spent time imagining obstacles to sticking with a diet after they visualized themselves having reached their weight loss goal and all the benefits they would enjoy as their new svelte selves without also spending time imagining obstacles actually were less likely to reach their weight loss goals. In other words, those who visualized the desired result without also employing Mental Contrasting actually lowered their chances of losing weight. Oettingen’s data show that visualizers who fail to also use Mental Contrasting would have actually been more likely to be successful if they hadn’t visualized their goal achievement at all. It seems that the visualization is itself enough of a reward, and as such, not particularly motivating. On the other hand, participants who spent the same amount of time and energy visualizing weight loss success and then visualized things like off-plan food temptation in the face of stress and fatigue drastically increased their chances for success.
The research of Peter Gollwitzer (Oettingen’s husband) revealed a strategy for overcoming obstacles he calls “Implementation Intention.” Employing this technique makes the chances for successful goal achievement even more likely. Implementation intentions are proactive contingency plans. They usually take the form of if-then constructs. For example, if it is 8 a.m. and a week day, then I will write in my journal for one hour. Another example: if I am tempted to eat a piece of candy, then I will eat a piece of fruit or phone my sister for support. Implementation Intentions are pre-commitments; they are decisions made ahead of time and as such, don’t tend deplete willpower, which, as research has shown us, is finite.
Mental Contrasting and Implementation Intentions are complementary techniques that, when used together, make goal achievement almost inevitable. The process then becomes 1) Visualize the achievement of a goal as vividly as possible, magnifying the image and making it as sensorial as you can. 2) Create an action plan. 3) Employ Mental Contrasting by imagining the possible obstacles to executing your action plan. 4) Create implementation intentions to address those obstacles.
In a previous post titled “Hold Back to Leap Forward” I discuss the importance of imagining big, inspirational goals, but creating and executing plans that move you toward your goal incrementally. Darren Hardy, former publisher of Success magazine, writes extensively about this in The Compound Effect. Small, incremental activities that support the achievement of a goal applied consistently over time works. The tortoise consistently beats the hare. Here’s one more tip to add to the recipe of goal achievement: once a goal has been defined and an action plan established it is better to focus on the process (each step in the action plan) than the result. This helps prevent discouragement and often its result, giving up. Defining success as executing an action plan and rewarding that execution helps us keep on keeping on. Indeed, such persistence is typically what our biggest goals require.
Make the most of your efforts. Take advantage of the wisdom born of extensive research. In summary, to succeed in reaching your goals: 1) clearly define your goal and choose something that inspires and excites you; 2) visualize your desired results; 3) create an action plan that is incremental; 4) employ Mental Contrasting; 5) develop some Implementation Intentions to overcome the obstacles you identified as part of Mental Contrasting; and 6) focus on the process itself and reward yourself for executing your action plan.
Most of us make our way in our day-to-day lives going through the motions, reacting to the same or a variation of the same set of stimuli in the same way. Most of our activities and actions are automatic and habitual. This is not a bad thing; we wouldn’t be able to accomplish much if every moment took conscious choice – let’s see: left leg out, heel down, toe down … right, left, etc. Wonderful things, our unconscious minds. We intentionally and unintentionally feed things into them repeatedly (sometimes only once), and they take over for us; things that once took effort and concentration become second nature, and we are free to turn our conscious attention to something else. We make it through a stressful, even traumatic, situation and our unconscious “remembers” how we got through it, even when our conscious minds don’t. Our subsequent ways of coping with that sort of situation become automatic, even when they may no longer work or may even harm us. (That’s a topic I’ll further explore in a future post).
Given the inherent limitations of our conscious minds we need to make things automatic (i.e. we need to “delegate” them to the unconscious). We want to do things without thinking about what we are doing so that we can think about and do something else, so that we can move skills into mastery. So operating “mindlessly” is useful and often serves us. When we fully understand this, we can direct it better and intentionally create habits to our benefit. When we take responsibility for our experience and develop the self-awareness required to see when our automatic ways are not serving us, we can exercise free will and take steps to change those ways.
Paradoxically our automatic (unconscious) ways of being both free and imprison us. When something is unconscious, we can easily lose sight of its automaticity, whether it still works, and whether we would still choose it. This is where practicing mindfulness comes into play. Cultivating mindfulness as a practice has been an essential part of a number of contemplative spiritual and religious traditions. These practices, or secular versions of them, are being embraced today as methods of dealing with stress and of developing greater focus and concentration (again, material for another post). We don’t have to be an expert in one of these practices for them to benefit us. Just slowing down our “automatics” so that we can observe them is the first step to perhaps deciding to choose something different.
When we decide to become mindful, to slow down enough to truly observe – invoking what Eckhart Tolle calls “the watcher”—we can distinguish. Distinguishing (i.e. making a distinction) is the first step to true autonomy. In a previous post I discussed the power of distinguishing between demands and requests. Many of us practice distinguishing real physiological hunger from something that is only masquerading as such. One I am starting to be able to see is the difference between being excited to contribute to a conversation and feeling that I must interject my thoughts. The first comes from passion for life, the latter from a sense of scarcity—a sense that there isn’t enough air time to go around. Another example that I am working on discerning is the distinction between an impulse and an intuition. Using distinctions as a tool for self-awareness, for bringing the unconscious back into the realm of the conscious is a potent first step on the path to intentional self-determination.
Once we have made a distinction, we can practice noticing it. Each distinction is like a prism through which we can fully identify the automatic and then choose whether to continue with it or to choose something different. For example, when I distinguish that a given intense feeling of urgency is an impulse born of an emotional trigger, I may choose not to act upon it. On the other hand, when I distinguish that it is an intuition, I can choose to take action in short order. How did I make this distinction to begin with? First, it is important to note that this can and will likely be different for every individual. For me, I saw that certain emergent thoughts and behaviors led to stress and/or regret, while others were empowering and opened doors. I began to look for and note the differences between them – their context as well as their physical and emotional qualities. I experience my impulses as loud, jerky, and needy, like an imperative to assuage an addiction. On the other hand, I experience my intuitions as authoritative, quiet, consistent and grounded directives that are free of stress. If I wait a little while before acting on an intuition, its intensity or presence does not diminish. The opposite is true of an impulse. While there is a certain discipline involved in taking yourself off autopilot in service of greater freedom, it is well worth it. Effectively using autopilot means developing the skill to know when it is appropriate and when it is not. I encourage you to have a look and take the helm of your own life: distinguish, notice, and choose.
It’s fun to imagine achieving big, ambitious, goals. Such images stoke the flames of passion and motivation. Realistic? That’s not nearly as fun or inspiring. As Tim Ferriss says in The Four-Hour Work Week: “Having an unusually large goal is an adrenaline infusion that provides the endurance to overcome the inevitable trials and tribulations that go along with any goal. Realistic goals, restricted to the average ambition level, are uninspiring and will only fuel you through the first or second problem, at which point you throw in the towel.” The concept of realistic has both objective and subjective components. The objective part deals with plausibility and probability. The subjective component –the one I speak to here—is emotional and relative. When it comes to determining realistic, one size doesn’t fit all. One person’s realistic is another person’s exciting ambition, and yet another’s walk in the park.
Having big goals is exciting and motivating. I have created, embraced, and gotten all fired up about such goals. And that’s a good thing. However, there is a challenge I keep encountering that has become a pattern and has actually repeatedly foiled my attempts at achieving my big goals. The challenge is that I get fired up about an unrealistic goal and then set out on an unrealistic path to get there. Unlike the goals themselves, unrealistic paths sabotage efforts. This has been borne out in my experience. For example, I have perennially set out to lose around 20 pounds, which seems like a big goal to me. I create a strict (unrealistic) plan that requires lots of planning and a will of iron. If I can somehow manage to adhere to the plan perfectly, I am bound to reach my goal. But there’s the rub. Rigorous research has yielded compelling and plentiful evidence that will power is a finite resource that fatigues much like a muscle does with use. On a perfect day, when everything goes my way perfectly, I can adhere to my oh-so-noble, stringent plan. However, as demands on my time and emotional, physical, and mental resources mount, my plan goes by the way side. So I crash not too far into my grandiose plan — indeed, a perfect example of the perfect’s being the enemy of the good. Each time this pattern happens, my own credibility with myself erodes a little more. I know that putting together a more modest realistic plan that makes use of what I know about habit formation would make success more likely – a plan that slowly and steadily builds momentum. It would take longer than following the stringent plan. But since my efforts on the stringent plan always end up falling short, longer is better than never. This is where the whole idea of kaizen (or continuous gradual improvement) comes into play. As Darren Hardy writes in The Compound Effect, small, smart choices consistently applied over time create huge results.
How do I apply kaizen to my goal of losing 20 pounds? I would gradually add one tactic to my strategy at a time, not adding another one until the each preceding one is well established and easy.
It could look something like this:
- Slow down eating (chewing 20 – 30 times per bite)
- Refrain from eating at desk, in front of TV, or while driving
- Log food intake, without measuring or tracking calories and/or carbohydrates
- Plan and abide by menus with targeted carb counts
- Plan and abide by menus with targeted carb and calorie counts
- Gradually add more activity and adjust food intake as needed.
I encourage you to conceive a big, exciting and ‘unrealistic’ goal and then devise an incremental, gradual path to achieve it.
I’m a singer and love to perform, but have always struggled with stage fright. Not unusual, I know. Some folks say that anxiety makes for a better performance. I couldn’t disagree more. Preparation makes for good performance; and preparation coupled with a presence that is centered, energized, empowered, and relaxed makes for the best singing and a great performance. So how does one get her proverbial butterflies to fly in formation?
One of the most incredible pianists I have worked with told me about the use of personas to overcome stage fright. I have heard similar advice, but not the suggestion of developing a persona. The advice I had heard that sounds something like this: if you want to do X, but are afraid, think of someone you admire and imagine how they would deal with the fear in that situation. Hmm…as good and interesting as that sounds, for some reason it never worked for me, not for addressing emotional challenges anyway.
The idea of creating a persona intrigued me. I really like reaching into myself, stirring up the juices of imagination, and creating. Certainly well worth a try, creating a persona for my own use would be fun. I began by asking myself about the qualities this persona should possess. What I came up with is that she should be powerful, yet vulnerable; confident, but not condescending, completely and unapologetically at home in her own skin; fearless, but not foolhardy. Most of all she should courageously lead with and share her heart. Ladies and gentlemen (drum roll), I present Angelique de la Force! Because I “gave birth” to her, she is a part of me, an abiding and intimate ally. I can step into her; I can “be” her. It’s really remarkable to me that this works. Distinguishing Angelique as somehow separate from me, when she is in reality a part of me, has given access to more of myself. Joy possesses all of Angelique’s traits, but they are somehow not as distilled or concentrated as they are in Angelique. Angelique is not burdened by some of Joy’s other qualities, qualities that are positive and useful, but qualities whose presence tamp down those that are so prominent in Angelique. On stage I am Angelique.
I wonder how many other personas I could bring to life to aid in other aspects of my life. How about you?
The Declaration of Independence asserts that “the pursuit of happiness” is an inalienable right. In spite of this as well as the mounting data from the fields of Applied Positive Psychology, Social Psychology, and Medicine extoling its benefits, few of us consciously and intentionally commit to our own happiness. Sure, we love it when it happens; but for the most part I think we tend to be at its effect instead of the other way around. Let’s start by distinguishing what happiness is not. It is not a flat, homogeneous emotional state. Happiness is not pleasure or comfort, though neither is necessarily antithetical to it. The pursuit of happiness is not hedonism. It is fuller, richer, and deeper than that. In fact, happiness often requires that we stretch, that we lean into pain and discomfort in service of a goal. Happiness enables perspective. Indeed, when I am happy I sense that even though there are a lot of things wrong in the world, at some level it and my place in it all make sense.
Happiness is both intrinsically and extrinsically valuable. Though the benefits that are born of happiness are too many to list, here are a few: happiness fuels the will to live, creativity, inspiration, generosity, ingenuity, and general wellbeing. Happy people can see more opportunity, are healthier, and more productive. Given all this, it is surprising that more people don’t truly commit to their own happiness—sometimes myself included. Perhaps we equate happiness with selfishness. And no one wants to be thought of as selfish (which is an interesting topic in and of itself). Perhaps we believe happiness is beyond our control. Whatever the reason, it is clearly worth having a look.
I don’t advocate that we should always be happy or that it is wrong not to be. Experiencing the full range of human emotion (both those considered positive and those considered negative) enriches, inspires, motivates, and makes genuine empathy possible. What I do advocate is that we own and take responsibility for all of ourselves (including and especially all of our emotions) and that we exercise our freedom to choose our emotional states.
So what can we do to choose happiness for ourselves? With all its benefits, choosing happiness should be among the most worthy of endeavors. How do we create happiness when our current circumstances make it feel difficult (or maybe even a little crazy) to choose?
How about putting together a Happiness Kit? Is there a piece of music that reliably lifts your spirits when you hear it? Put that in your kit. Is there a photograph that warms your heart? Is there a scent that brings you delight? What about that video that you received in email that had you laughing out loud? That letter or card someone sent you? Your list of wins? That friend whose presence is like a balm to your heart? That favorite walk you take? You get the picture.
Just as we are often least likely to take vitamins when we need them, we are often less inclined to engage in happy-making activities when feeling low. To address the vitamin situation we might do something like laying them out ahead of time or dispensing them using a special container that makes taking them easier. To address the absence of happy-making activities, we can create a Happiness Kit. Below are the steps to putting together your custom Happiness Kit. Do these when you are not experiencing a happiness deficit.
1) Make a list of all the things that you know make you happy. Incorporate as many senses as you can.
2) Gather and co-locate physical and digital objects, making sure that they are noted on your list.
3) Now make it a practice to notice more things that make you happy and add them to the list and/or appropriate location (in step 2). Notice the times when you seem to be happy for no reason and open yourself up to what it could be that has you feeling that way.
4) Start working out your happy-making muscles. When you are in a neutral emotional space, reach into your Happiness Kit and see how quickly you can change your emotional state to one of happiness.
What’s belongs in your Happiness Kit?