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How to Become More Focused and Enthusiastic, Part II: What Matters and Keeping Score

Strategies and goals

In the first article in this series, I talked about the difference between not being focused or driven on the one hand and being distracted on the other. The difference is important because the two problems have different kinds of solutions.

I also began to talk about the kinds of questions we can ask ourselves to begin work on fixing our focus or enthusiasm. These questions tap into elements that research strongly suggests are important for self-motivation. The first element, talked about in that first article, was belief that we can actually accomplish our goal. Without that belief, we undermine our own efforts.

What is it worth?
The second question to ask is whether the goal feels worthwhile to us. What value is it?

Take, for example, my focus on fitness. Years ago I was 60 pounds heavier and much less strong and flexible than I am today–not to mention less energetic and happy. It took some real work to change my eating habits and to make exercise central in my life. Once I got close to my goal fitness level, though, motivation became much harder. Why? Because I had already reached the level where I was at peak health, and losing more weight would only really contribute to how much definition I had–that is, it was no longer a matter of health, but now only a matter of wanting to look great. I was still motivated, but my motivation wasn’t nearly as strong.

If your goal doesn’t seem worthwhile to you, then the two possibilities are that it really is worthwhile and you just don’t feel in touch with that, or it really isn’t worthwhile and you should find another goal. If you believe in your goal but don’t feel in touch with its value, spend time writing or talking about your reasons for attempting it and about what you want to achieve.

Measurability: Are we moving yet?
The third question we will want to ask ourselves is whether or not we can measure our progress. While being able to see progress isn’t an absolute necessity, most of us will get discouraged or at least very uneasy if we’re putting in a lot of work and not getting an indication of whether or not it makes a difference. That’s one reason it’s so frustrating for writers, for example, to wait for editors and agents to respond to submissions. Once you’ve done everything you can to write a good piece and get it out the door, you want to know how successful you were, to judge where you are in your process and what you’re doing effectively or ineffectively.

Some kinds of goals are difficult to measure. Even getting fit is hard to track, since weight alone isn’t an ideal measure of getting fit. With these kinds of goals, though, it is at least possible to note what you’re doing each day–that is, to track progress, which while it doesn’t give you results, at least shows how well you’re doing in keeping to the new habits you’re trying to form.

Photo by Thomas Webster

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How to Become More Focused and Enthusiastic, Part I: Plausibility

Strategies and goals

This is the first in a set of Willpower Engine articles on focus and enthusiasm.

Distraction or Enthusiasm?
If you’re having trouble focusing on a goal, there are at least two possible problems. One is that you’re getting distracted. If this is the real issue, then handling the distractions is all that’s needed to get on track. I’ve had a chance to talk about distractions in depth in the following four articles, so if that’s the subject of most interest to you, try these out:

The other possibility when it gets difficult to focus is that there isn’t enough enthusiasm, drive, or commitment toward the goal. For instance, someone who wants to learn Spanish but doesn’t take out the materials very often and isn’t very energetic about studying might not have the short-term enthusiasm about learning Spanish that would be needed to really make it happen–but at the same time, it might be honestly important to that person to learn Spanish. Unfortunately, importance doesn’t always translate to a sense of urgency and enthusiasm. Bridging that gap is what this and the articles that come after it are about.

Can it be done?
If you find yourself wanting to do something but not driven or enthusiastic to do it, a good approach early on is to ask yourself a few frank questions. There have been some very useful psychological studies in recent years that spell out some of the things a person needs in order to feel committed to a goal.

If your goal doesn’t feel realistic, or if it feels realistic for someone else but not for you, then it’s very difficult to feel enthusiastic about chasing it. After all, if you don’t believe you can do it then on some level you’re constantly telling yourself that you’re wasting your effort and heading for failure and disappointment.

It may seem like simple common sense to make sure a goal feels possible before pursuing it, but realistically, many of the best goals really don’t seem like they’ll ever happen until they do. For instance, a person who has received dozens of rejections on novels may not have much confidence about sending out a new book, but statistically is much more likely to succeed than someone who has never tried. Someone who wants to lose 100 pounds may be completely incapable of imagining a body that much fitter, yet every pound that comes off is proof that it is possible to lose the weight.

Convincing yourself
If you have a goal that logically seems like it should be possible but that doesn’t feel possible, the first thing to do is to make sure that you believe in that goal for good reasons. For instance, when I was a teenager I had a goal of becoming conversant in enough languages to speak at least a little to the majority of the world’s population. Learning those dozen or more languages might be possible in theory, but not unless I devoted all my efforts to it–and while I like languages, I wouldn’t want to do nothing but learn languages day in and day out!

If you conclude that your goal is realistic, the next thing is to prove it to yourself in a way you can understand on a gut level. Calculating that something can be done doesn’t always translate to confidence that we’ll really do that thing. Here are some ways to get from here to there:

  • Think about things you’ve achieved in your life so far. Is any of them similar in important ways to what you’re trying to achieve? If so, go back and remind yourself of that experience in detail.
  • Find role models, whether through magazine articles, documentaries, interviews, news reports, blogs, looking among the people you already know, or elsewhere. My conviction that I could lose weight and get fit came in large part from seeing my sister do just that (60 pounds later, my conviction proved to be right).
  • Look at the exact requirements and think about how you’ll tackle each one. If your goal is to get a much better job, research job descriptions for those positions and even ask companies that hire for them what they look for in a candidate. Then map out a specific plan to getting as many of those qualifications as possible. When you have a very precise plan and know what you need to achieve, it’s much easier to feel confident.
  • Plan or do your first step. If the end goal is hard to picture, just picture what it would look like to move a little bit toward that. For instance, if you want to get your whole house organized, concentrate on only one very small area and organize that. If you can do that effectively, then organizing the rest of the house is mainly a matter of repeating something you’ve already done successfully.
  • Visualize what it will be like to accomplish your goal. Get a very clear, vivid picture in your mind of what you want to achieve, and daydream about that situation often–daily or more if you can, the more often the better!

The next article in these series will pick up with more questions that are important to ask if you want to be fully committed to a goal.

Photo by Omara Enero


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