Race-car drivers know that what they fixate on, they race towards; they learn early on to focus on the road, not on the wall around the track. When you speed around the bend at 200mph and focus on the wall, you’ll drive right into it. If, instead, you focus on the road, you’ll follow the track. That’s the essential secret of goals – direct your attention to what you’re creating, not what you’re avoiding.
Leadership is like that. Of course there are countless things that can go wrong. But if you focus on them, you will drive yourself crazy and crash your team. Focus on where you want to go rather than on what you want to avoid. But how does this happen? Read on to understand the neural forces of goals, and how to go beyond the SMART formula.
Many leaders don‘t realize the influence that focus has on action and behavior. Our minds are wired toward goal attainment. This has nothing to do with ambition. Our minds naturally orient toward the desired outcome and apply the necessary behaviors and intermediate outcomes needed to reach it.
By clearly stating and committing to a goal you activate your natural processes of attainment. Similarly, when you do not articulate a goal, the same processes of attainment kicks in, but they work to reinforce habits and repeat historical patterns. When Sydney, an accomplished and innovative CFO, set a goal to increase her managerial courage, she immediately began to notice when and where she could practice her new skills.
As a leader, your goal oriented mind is always creating. By asking, “What am I creating?” you activate the first virtue of leadership as a hero’s journey – deliberate focus. More than just psychological, Focus has a neurological foundation, too. By focusing intently on an outcome, action, or direction, you activate the sympathetic mode of our autonomic nervous system. Sympathetic – sym and pathos – means with feeling. The sympathetic mode is an upsurge of energy which triggers emotional and physical movement towards the object of focus.
Sympathetic physiology increases energy and readies the body for action – it is also about the need to do, express, and act. Whether the object of focus is front and center because we want to avoid it at all costs or because we want to reach it at all costs is irrelevant to that part of the brain. By focusing intensely on a goal, our physical motions begin to move us toward it.
In this mode, our muscles and movements align our physical action with our mental focus. When Sydney focuses on managerial courage her adrenalin gets activated, her posture straightens, and her emotional energy amplifies.
We take it for granted that we are rational decision-makers, that we understand the mechanisms by which we decide, plan, and relate. We believe that we are the drivers of our race-car down the track of life. It’s often surprising, therefore, that our actions navigate us into the metaphoric wall, even against our conscious wish. For all we know, the car, apparently out of control, randomly hit the wall. We refer to this as an accident—an unintentional event. But it was not entirely out of our control. Rather than inexplicable, this phenomenon is predictable and consistent; we naturally move toward our focus. The key issue is not whether we shape our decisions and actions by our focus, but by what we commit to hold as our focus.
For significant achievements, SMART statements aren’t enough. Follow these eight steps of goal actions planning to accelerate your individual and team attainment:
- Goal statement with completion date: specific statements, not general, activate the neural triggers of innovation and problem solving (12% improvement isn’t as specific at 12% increase over last quarter)
- Benefits (personal, material, spiritual) from reaching this goal: goals are challenging; if they weren’t, they’d already be completed. Benefits are the motivation for sticking to the plan when you and your team are tired, bored, frustrated, or distracted.
- Roadblocks I can foresee: While optimism is critical, thoughtfully anticipating possible roadblocks allows you to plan for overcoming them.
- Information and skills I require to accomplish my goal: What knowledge or ability will you have to acquire or develop in order to accomplish your objective?
- People, groups, individuals to work with to reach my goal: The lone ranger mindset is a stupefying limit. Network, invite, and connect with the people who will accelerate your results, and keep you motivated.
- Steps, actions, and objectives to accomplish my goal: Committing in writing your action items is part one. Add two more elements to make this really work – estimated time for each action as well as its completion date
- Imagine your goal (describe what you are like when goal completed): This is powerful stuff. Script a vivid visualization of your end state – what does it look and sound like, how do you feel when it’s done, who is celebrating with you, and what have you created?
- Success affirmations (short positive reminders of the goal): Lastly, as a way to anchor your attention and keep coming back to your focus, write a short headline that powerfully articulates your goal.