To achieve your goals, get out of your brain

November 20, 2022

Do you feel a disconnect between your long-term goals and your short-term actions?

This theme is a recurring topic in my conversations with people about their productivity. Often, people have their day-to-day work under control, but they have big dreams and are not getting any closer to them. Life is busy, after all. Between a full time job, social engagements, working out, and perhaps family life, work that only pays off in the future falls by the wayside. And falls by the wayside again and again and again.

In fact, I’d say you are not “productive” when you’re only maintaining the status quo. I coined the phrase big-picture productivity to offer a contrast: when you take a step back (to view the big picture), you realize that you should measure your productivity by whether you’re achieving your goals, not by arbitrary measures such as whether you’ve cleared today’s to-do list or how many hours you worked this week.

When you feel a disconnect between your goals and your day-to-day work, sometimes that’s because you are chronically overcommitted. Many people have said “yes” to too many things. They cannot do all the work they’ve promised to do quickly enough, so there is a backlog and that backlog is always growing. In this case, the obvious (but sometimes painful) solution is to drop commitments until you have a reasonable amount of work.

Other times, there is a more subtle dynamic at play. I’ve experienced this dynamic in my own life and I sense it increasingly often in people I speak with.

Could it be that you care about your goals mentally, but not emotionally?

Don’t get queasy because I bring up emotions. Productivity has some logical connotations, like it’s all about systems and apps and lists. But we humans are highly illogical. We are emotional creatures. And when it comes to being productive, emotions might matter even more than systems.

Be honest: how many of your (supposed) goals really resonate with you? Which of your goals, when you bring them to mind, induce some emotion? The emotion could be excitement, pride, joy, or something else—but is there any emotion there?

For example, a while back some people told me that they were sure I could hit 100,000 subscribers on my YouTube channel by the end of the year. But I probably won’t. And there’s a reason for that. I do not feel any emotion when I think about having 100,000 subscribers. Sure, I have some thoughts about it. It would be cool, I guess. It’s a nice round number. I’d also get one of those plaques from YouTube to display in the background of my videos. Yay? I suppose that when I reach 100,000 subscribers, I’ll feel proud of myself. But I expect that feeling to pass very quickly, after which I’ll feel mostly like I do now.

And right now, growing the number of people who follow me on a certain platform does not excite me at all. It’s not that I don’t care, but there is no thrill. There is no excitement or thrill to motivate me to create videos. To record and publish a video, I have to find another motivation, such as seeing whether I can find anything new to teach about a particular app that I’ve been using for years already.

In the same way, I used to be excited about making money by teaching people valuable things online. But now that I’ve been doing that for a few years, it doesn’t excite me anymore. And the lack of excitement—the lack of emotions—makes it extremely difficult for me to create a new course. Mentally and logically, it would make so much sense to create new courses: I have things to teach; people get real value out of what I teach; I would love to earn more; I already have the backend infrastructure set up; I have fancy recording gear; and so on and so forth. The only thing that’s missing is a reason to do that produces some positive emotions. Unfortunately, that is a key ingredient.

Think about the goals that you have set but not achieved. Could it be that one your goals makes perfect sense logically, just not emotionally? Without feeling that this goal matters to you—and I mean physically feeling an emotion, in your body—it is extremely difficult to achieve it. You can only take so much action based on what makes sense to do, rather than on what feels good.

When your goals are too mental and not emotional enough, you’ll have to make a change. That could mean dropping some goals. But you can also try to frame goals differently. For example, the thought of reaching 100,000 subscribers might not motivate me to create a new video, but doing a collaborative video with another creator might, because I enjoy meeting and getting to know people. Different motivation, same result.

All this is to say that if you’re not making progress on a goal, perhaps it’s not compelling enough on an emotional level. If that’s the case, find a way to make it compelling. Once you do, your chances of reaching it will skyrocket.

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