The hardest part of reaching long-term goals is the amount of time it takes to reach them.
We tend to gravitate toward easier checklist goals because we can achieve them more quickly. We see our desired results more quickly on these smaller goals. We feel better about how much we get done on smaller goals because the results are almost instantenous.
Those take time to achieve. The results rarely show themselves in the near future, and most often it takes months before we feel like we’ve made real progress. We still have a strong picture in our mind of where we want to go, but the steps along the way are fuzzy and out of focus because they’re so far off.
The easy, short-term goals? Those are in sharp focus. We see them immediately. We know the steps to reach them. We understand the reward is closer to us so we act on them, foregoing the bigger, future goals that can have a greater impact on our life.
Cognitive tunneling is a term psychologists use to describe when we focus on what’s easiest in front of us instead of being overwhelmed by all of the options we have in the future.
We choose to “check the box” on an easy task, say, sending an email or making a post on social media, instead of starting to write a book. The quick task gives us a feeling of accomplishment when we hit send. The book, well, it doesn’t give us that same feeling for months (or even a year). So we avoid the deeper, harder work for bigger goals and fill ourselves up with easier, smaller work that most often pales in big picture importance.
Like most of our struggles, we fail to maintain momentum toward our long-term goals when our focus is in the wrong place.
When we focus on how far we have left to go, we lose motivation while staring at the “gap” between today and that future, fuzzy-picture distant finish line.
When we focus on the immediate reward, we choose meaningless work for a quick hit of dopamine over meaningful work that won’t reward us until later (but with a much bigger & better payoff).
Our focus – and where we choose to place it – will determine our ability to build our grit and maintain the necessary work to achieve our long-term goals.
Here’s how we can influence our focus to make sure we keep it in the right place:
1. Break the BIG goal into smaller, bite-sized ones.
How do you eat an elephant?
The same way you do a chocolate sprinkled doughnut – one bite at a time. It may take more bites to eat the elephant (metaphorically) than the doughnut, but it’s still done one bite at a time. Just like your big goals.
One of the first steps to staying on track for long-term goals is to break that one big goal into tiny, bite-sized ones that you can gobble up more frequently. We often choose our short-term “busy work” over long-term meaningful work because the feeling of accomplishment that completing the “busy work” gives us.
Taking that same concept and applying it toward our big goal of setting smaller, easier-to-accomplish tasks will give us that more frequent mental reward we crave, and hopefully keep us from continually jumping into other, non-goal related work.
When I started writing my first book, I simply set out to write 500 words every day. I stopped stressing about how long it needed to be or how much I had to write. I only focused on 500 words every single day.
The biggest climbs are still made one step at a time.
Start at the finish line. What do you want to accomplish and by when? Write it down, then start working backwards by a year, 6-months, 3-months, 1-month, next week, etc.. until you work backwards to today.
You don’t need to know every step, but ask yourself, “if I want to do that, what’s one thing I need to do before that to put myself in a position to do it?” repeatedly.
The two tools I love for this exercise come from the book The One Thing by Gary Keller & Jay Papasan.
The first, is the “Someday Goal” planner. This simple questionnaire will prime your brain to think of just a few steps between today and reaching your “someday” goal by working backwards.
The second, is Gary & Jay’s “GPS tool” that forces you to identify your goal, three priorities to reach that goal, and five strategies that will support each priority in helping you reach that goal. It’s a step-by-step method to breaking down your elephant-sized goal into tiny bites. You can download the GPS tool for free here.
2. Schedule time in your calendar for your “bites” every day
Set an appointment with yourself just like you’d set one with the gym or your boss. Every week, look at your upcoming week and schedule small 15-30 minute bites throughout the week to work on your goals. Not only will this keep that time committed to your big-picture goal, but it will help you stay consistent in working toward it.
My morning was writing time when it came to my book. I started every single morning by attacking my goal of 500 words. Some days I would miss the morning window and have to work on it after lunch, but most mornings I scheduled 8-9am for writing time. This kept me consistent and my calendar clear from anything else that might distract me from the priority of my long-term goal.
Inconsistent work will be one of the easiest ways to ensure you don’t reach that long-term goal. Help yourself be consistent by putting it in your calendar.
3. Review your progress made each week
Learn to celebrate the small wins. Spend time each Saturday or Sunday reviewing what work you completed the previous week toward your long-term goal. We often quit pursuits because we don’t believe we’ve made any progress (despite having done the work and actually made progress). This can happen when we fail to write down our progress or review it.
Not only will this exercise keep you feeling optimistic about your progress by seeing the steps forward you’re making, but it will continue to build your grit by helping you maintain momentum forward toward your long-term goal. When any doubts whisper about “not getting your goal,” you have the ability to silence those doubts by reviewing the proof that you’re working toward it each week.
4. Get comfortable with the discomfort of uncertainty
The future is fuzzy. That unclear picture many times makes us uncomfortable, which then we default away from it toward the comfort of what we see right in front of us (like short-term work). Learning to be ok with the discomfort of uncertainty is an exercise in focusing on our controllables.
The more uncertain we start to feel, the more we need to dial in our four controllables – attitude, actions, effort, & focus – and ask ourselves what can I do with what’s in my control?
The better we master the ability to use our controllables during times of uncertainty, the more consistent we will be in our pursuits.
5. Get accountability.
The better our accountability, the better our consistency.
You need people to hold you accountable when pursuing long-term goals because there will be times when your consistency can get off track or a setback disrupts your momentum. The people who will remind you of what you’re doing, check in on you to make sure you’re doing the work, and call you out when you make excuses are the ones who love you enough to want to see you succeed.
Writing a book is a long-term goal because there’s no feeling of “I did it” for close to a year after starting. When I started writing Compete Every Day, I did three things to hold myself accountable:
- I started on Opening Day of MLB season and set a deadline to be done by Game 1 of the World Series in October. I posted this on social media for everyone to see, and would then post daily updates on my progress. After I got into the rhythm of posting these updates, people would comment and ask about it if I was later in the day posting and they hadn’t seen it yet.
- I set a goal to write 500 words every day (small bites) and each day would put a big, red “X” on my calendar, noting achievement (and giving me a visible picture of my progress).
- I enlisted the help of four friends to check on me each week and make sure I was writing my daily word count each day and on track to hit my deadline.
Not only did those three sources of accountability keep me consistently moving toward my goal of publishing my first book, but they kept me focused when I wasn’t receiving the quick feeling of accomplishment that I was used to with a blog post or social media video.
Long-term goals aren’t easy to achieve. Most people won’t set them, much less pursue them. You won’t feel like you’ve made progress every day. You’ll get tired if you let your focus drift off of today’s work and onto the distance left to the finish line. You’ll endure stretches of feeling like it’s Groundhog Day.
But if you’ll commit to the steps above, building your grit & embracing the small-step process, you give yourself an opportunity to reach yours..
Most people choose the immediate gratification of completing busy work over the delayed gratification of meaningful work. It’s why people clamor for the newest diet pill instead of the local gym membership.
But most people don’t achieve the meaningful victories either. Be a Competitor who will.
Pursue your victory.