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Put Your Goals Where You Can See Them
6th December 2021 • The Science of Self • Peter Hollins
00:00:00 00:10:22

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Choose a goal, set a timeframe, and then choose some appropriate metrics to track and monitor your progression. Keep this visible and concrete, to inspire you, give you a sense of focus and accomplishment, and help you troubleshoot and pre-empt problems.

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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.

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In the above example, the tracking chart was placed visibly in the bathroom where it would be seen every day, even on those days where no actual weighing in would happen. This is no accident. You’ve heard the phrase, “get it in writing.” Well, goals are the same—when written down, they become more real to our unconscious minds, and are more likely to be achieved. Writing goals down forces you to clarify them, put them into concrete words and see them out there in the world. It’s the first step to making them real.

Written down goals (as well as visible tracking) are a kind of positive reinforcement. Any time we follow a desired behavior with a reinforcing stimulus, we are making that behavior more likely to occur again in the future. Ordinarily, we think of this reinforcer as a reward (e.g., having a treat after you complete an exam), but simply marking your progress has the same effect. Tracking progress against a written goal makes your achievement more tangible and allows you to enjoy it more, making positive associations between the behavior and you feeling good.

And that’s the key right there: the more you can attach positive feelings to your desired actions, the more likely it is you’ll keep doing those actions. For example:

• You write down an inspiring and motivational message for yourself, capturing your reason for aiming for your goal. You place this prominently in your office and look at it daily. This encourages you. Those good feelings come to be associated with working in your office, and you find yourself wanting to be there and to achieve your goal.

• You have a white board in your study with your week’s goals written on one side. As you complete tasks, you erase them and rewrite them on the other side. Now you have visual evidence of everything you’ve achieved (positive reinforcement—you’re making progress!) as well as a clear indication of what’s outstanding.

• You have a jar filled with pieces of paper, each with “$100” written on it. As you pay down a large debt, you manually remove the papers and tear them up, burn them, or throw them in the trash. Doing so feels so good! You reward and reinforce each one hundred dollars paid, as well as encourage yourself to keep going and empty that jar for good.

How to Use This in Your Life Immediately

Firstly, make sure you are not shaming or scaring yourself into achieving your goals. Punishments and negative emotions can control your behavior to some extent, but you’re far more likely to make sustainable changes if you make the process genuinely enjoyable and meaningful. Focus on ways you can make every step of your journey as pleasurable and positive as possible. Don’t underestimate the satisfaction to be found in tracking your progress. Tell yourself out loud, “I’m getting closer every day to my goal” and allow yourself to bask for a few moments in those good, encouraging feelings.

Write down your goals. Make them clear, simple, and workable. Then make sure you can see how you are getting closer and closer to that goal. Hang your written goals or progress charts up somewhere or put them where you can see them every single day. Use calendars, stick things to your fridge, put notes on your computer screen, or even set reminders on your phone. You can set a specific time every day to check in, perhaps noting that you’ve gone one more full day without (insert addictive behavior here). Pat yourself on the back.

Visualize Your Outcome

Visualization comes naturally to anyone making a goal. We’ve all fantasized about what life would be like once we achieve our dream. However, visualization is not just daydreaming; it’s a powerful tool that spurs and maintains our motivation. Visualization helps self-discipline because your brain can’t actually differentiate between real and imagined images. So, when you imagine something vividly, your brain chemistry changes as if you’re actually experiencing those images.

Visualizing positive things gives you positive feelings and associations, reinforcing your behavior and keeping you on track. This makes it easier for you to overcome feelings of fear and take actionable steps toward achieving your goals. So, dreaming and visualizing are not magical—they prepare and prompt your brain to actually achieve what you’re holding in your imagination. Your motivation spikes. Your unconscious gets to work on finding creative solutions for your problems. You are programming yourself to expect a positive outcome and to recognize opportunities and possibilities in line with your dream.

It's not a question of “imagine it and it will mysteriously manifest in your life,” but rather, the more clearly you can picture what you’re aiming for, the more efficient you’ll be at making that a reality. Athletes, for example, take pains to “rehearse” a certain move or play in their mind long before they train their physical muscles to follow through. The mental preparation lays the foundation and gives them the confidence, focus and conviction to then bring that vision to life. In the same way that an athlete actually creates new neural pathways just by thinking about a certain action, you can do the same, and start training your brain to behave as though what you want is already true in some sense.

How to Use This in Your Life Immediately

You can use visualization to imagine a detailed and vivid outcome—this inspires and motivates you and creates a degree of focus and fearlessness. Example: imagining yourself crossing the finish line on marathon day.

Or you could visualize the process toward your goal—this helps prepare and organize you, as well as keep you on track and help you predict and pre-empt possible obstacles. Example: mentally imagining yourself pushing through and achieving your training goals day by day. Literally picture yourself facing resistance and laziness and triumphing over it.

Visualizing is a focused, deliberate act. Close your eyes and take your time painting a mental picture of what you want to happen. Play it out like a movie in your mind. Draw on all five of your senses—imagine how the scene looks, sounds, etc.—but most importantly, sink into how you feel in this image. This is vital. Summon up the physical sensations in your body, the emotions you feel, as well as any words, gestures or facial expressions. This is what will really help those new neural pathways cement themselves.

You can play around with your visualization. Some people imagine the image shrinking down into a magical pill they then eat or swallow, and then visualize it going into their bodies and powering up their motivation. Others might imagine a gold frame around an imagined scene, or imbue it with a specially chosen song or mantra that transports them into just the right frame of mind. Visualization can also be done via collages or “vision boards”—collect physical pictures that capture the feeling you want to create with your goal and hang it somewhere prominent. Visualization is not just visual—you can use affirmations or specific phrases, too (for example, imagine in detail the speech you will give once you earn a coveted award, and imagine the sound of the applause).

Visualization is best done regularly. Build it into your daily routine or do it after you’ve achieved a goal or had a setback—it can act like a compass, keeping you on track in both cases. Remember, the image, whatever it is, must be alive and felt in your body to have any power.