During the ’60s, psychologists Gary Latham and Edwin Locke—pioneers of goal-setting theory— discovered that the establishment of a goal is one of the easiest ways to increase motivation and enhance performance. In countless studies, Latham and Locke found that setting goals increased performance and productivity by 11 to 25 percent. That is a lot of potential left out on the table if we neglect it!
However, goals or projects can be daunting. It often feels like there is just too much to do and we get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task. We desperately want to reach the outcome but find it difficult to manage the anxiety and lack of motivation to even start.
However, it doesn't have to be this way. With a few cognitive strategies, we can simplify the process and make the task a lot more manageable. By having a clear idea of what to do next, and breaking it down into steps we can cross more things off of our to-do list.
"In countless studies, Latham and Locke found that setting goals increased performance and productivity by 11 to 25 percent"
First, clarify your objectives
Unclear objectives are one of the biggest barriers to performance. As philosopher Seneca once wrote: “If a man knows not what port he sails to, no wind is favourable.”
Therefore what we need is a very clear understanding of the task at hand. If done correctly, goal setting drives our attention to the present moment. After all, It is one of the main conditions for flow state.
The key is to have a specific action plan, rather than just having a general sense of what you want to do. In fact, results from a review of the effects of goal setting on performance show that in 90% of the studies, specific and challenging goals led to higher performance than "do your best" goals or no goals whatsoever. (Locke, E. A., Shaw, K. N., Saari, L. M., & Latham, G. P., 1981)
So, start off with what you want to accomplish. Get very clear on what the task or project is. No matter how daunting it may be, begin by writing it down. Try and be as specific as possible. Some examples might include:
“Beat my personal best time by 2 seconds”
“Find a job that is related to my field”
“Increase sales by 10% by next quarter”
“Finish school assignment which is due next week”
Next, ask yourself these 3 questions
Once you have established your target, simplify the process with these simple questions:
1. How will you know the goal is complete?
This sounds like a silly question, but we need to know where the goalposts are. For example, “when my lap time is 2 seconds better than my previous time”, or “I get hired for a job in this field” would be the answer to the examples above.
2. What are the minimum amount of steps to take?
We often look to the most complex way to solve our problems. However, we don’t need to complicate things. Start with laying out the minimum amount of steps you would need to take to finish a task. You can add on complexity later if you wish, but for now, just see what the process might look like.
For example, to finish the school project you would need to:
Gather research about the topic
Write the paper
Hand it in
Already this seems more doable than completing the assignment that is due next week.
To increase sales by 10%, the minimum steps might look like:
Figure out what 10% looks like in terms of $
Make a list of potential leads
Call the leads
Make the sale
The point here is not to overcomplicate things but rather to show you the ways to go about completing your objective. It provides you with a blueprint for what needs to be done.
3. What is the most obvious first step?
Now that you have an idea of what to do, think about what is the most obvious thing you can do right now to take the first step towards completing the goal.
To beat your PB, that might mean first figuring out what is your actual PB time
To find a job in your field it could be to reach out to one person for an informational interview to learn more about the field, or downloading a resume template
If you want to increase sales, it might simply mean picking up the phone and calling a potential customer
And for completing your assignment, it could be as simple as opening up a document and putting in the title.
"We often look to the most complex way to solve our problems. However, we don’t need to complicate things. Start with laying out the minimum amount of steps you would need to take to finish a task."
When we lay out the steps in front of us we can look at the big picture more objectively. Usually, the hardest part is getting started. Think about your motivation to go to the gym for example - getting to the gym is often more difficult than the actual workout. Once you are already there, things run a lot smoother.
I used this method for writing this post. Sitting down and writing is very challenging, but breaking it down into the smallest, easiest, laughably simple thing I can do - such as writing 10 words - alleviates the burden of needing to complete something right away. I often start off with just a few words, but before I know it I get into a groove and end up writing a lot more.
By easing some of the friction in between choices we can gain momentum and hit the ground running. Next time you have a big task to complete, ask yourself these questions and see if it eases some of the challenge. Once you have reflected on this, dive a little deeper and plan out your actions with the 100-day plan method of goal setting.
Remember to keep it simple. Do what you can, with what you got, where you are.
By the way...