When you repeatedly lose your ability to stay focused on your personal goals, it’s easy to become discouraged to the point of giving up.
But science tells us there are specific reasons why you stop focusing on your goals.
When you understand better the reasons that you aren’t focusing on your goals, you’ll be better equipped to overcome the obstacles that hold you back.
Perhaps your goals are too ambitious, or maybe they are not ambitious enough, or it could be that they don’t represent your true ambition. It’s also possible that past failures have made you stop believing in yourself and your future success.
Unfortunately, as people get older, they have more defeats. They feel less inclined to keep striving in life and finding new challenges to overcome.
To achieve your goals, you certainly need to follow all of the customary advice like narrowing down the number of goals you’re focusing on, writing down your goals, and measuring and documenting your progress.
But if your difficulty is focusing on your goals, you must find an approach that’s connected to your passion, your emotions, and your sense of purpose.
Here are four ways to help you stay focused on your goals.
1. Practice being radically sincere
Arnold Schwarzenegger famously began his ambitious fitness aspirations with a crop top that exposed his flabby abs.
As a device to stay focused on his goal, he wore a short, tight shirt to reveal his ample belly. Brutally forcing himself to confront his problem — being overweight — in an embarrassing and public way, Schwarzenegger transformed his body and eventually became one of the best bodybuilders of all time.
This is a great example of how being radically sincere works. Be completely concrete, act with fundamental honesty and face your reality. With this intense approach, you’ll find whatever information you need, and you’ll be naturally motivated to succeed.
Schwarzeneggers’ approach may be too intense for you but—regardless of your style—it’s important to be honest about the reality of your talent, your capability, and your willingness to pursue what you want.
Looking at brutal facts
“Productive change begins when you confront the brutal facts” – Jim Collins
Jim Collins’ related approach is called “looking at brutal facts”.
Looking at the brutal facts is clearly seeing the facts of your situation. It is the flip side of your vision.
When we set goals, we allow ourselves to dream.
Creativity, passion, and vision are vitally important. But if your goal isn’t based on reality then it can’t be achieved. And worse, a dream can demotivate us by becoming a delusional, false hope—a fiction we believe in in order to fool others or feel better about ourselves.
On the other hand, you must dream about something more—a possibility that doesn’t yet exist. Therefore, you must believe in your outcome—your dream—while at the same time keeping grounded in the “brutal facts.”
In short, your dream shouldn’t overwhelm the facts, and facts shouldn’t overwhelm your dream. Therefore, you must learn to live in paradox. Jim Collins has named this paradox “The Stockdale Paradox,”, which he describes as the ability to: “have unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.“
When you are radically sincere you have the honesty to face reality, look at the brutal facts, recognize whatever it is that stands in the way of achieving your goals and at the same time maintain 100% confidence in your success.
2. Discover your deep connection to your goal
If you can’t focus on your goal — if it feels vague, or your enthusiasm for it is weak, chances are you aren’t emotionally engaged enough with it. It’s likely a goal that someone else told you is good, or worthwhile, but it’s not coming from your true self. So, naturally, you don’t care much about it.
Also, it’s probably not a goal if you can’t remember what it is. Or maybe it’s not your goal — it could be someone else’s goal, coming from social pressure, or a kind of debt, like a personal obligation.
One way to test if your goal is yours is to ask yourself why you want to achieve it. How will your life be different when you succeed with your goal? What’s important about achieving your goal right now?
If the goal is your goal, you should have an obvious internal motivation. You should want to do it. And you’ll know what’s driving you to succeed.
The internal sense of purpose that connects you to your goal is called intrinsic motivation. And if you don’t have this internal drive, then there are a couple of things you can do.
The first option is to embark on a journey of self-discovery.
Because intrinsic motivation is one of your most powerful tools for achieving your goal, it’s worthwhile to get to the bottom of what’s driving you—of what you really want your life to be. What are your core values? What is your purpose in life?
Find this deep connection to your vision and purpose. Then protect, nurture, and develop it.
Ideally, your emotional connection to your goals is so strong it compels your attention. Buddhism uses the image of a man with his hair on fire running to extinguish the flames on his head to convey the sense of urgency one ought to have in attaining a personal goal.
But if you don’t have driving ambition for your goal, it’s okay. There are ways to get there.
One way is to evaluate if your life purpose is supported by your goal. You may discover that your life’s purpose is at odds with a goal you are trying to achieve, in which case you may need to reevaluate your goals and pivot.
If you’re not sure what your purpose is, one place to start is to take the Greater Good Purpose in Life Quiz.
Evaluating your life purpose and finding your internal motivation may not be a good option for you. Your goal could be personally uninspiring and still necessary to achieve, as a work goal.
If this is the case, you will need to find other ways to stay motivated and focused on your goal. You can do this by reframing your goal as a means to achieving a goal that you’re more passionate about. Remembering, for example, that going to work for income fulfills your deeper passion to support your family or to pursue creative pursuit. Such a mental adjustment is called reframing.
3. Pursue your goal for the people you love
It’s hard to focus on your goal if you don’t have intrinsic motivation, but you can stay focused instead by developing your emotional connection to other people or an individual person.
For you, personalizing the goal may be the way to emotionally connect to the goal in order to achieve it.
You may decide that you are losing weight to be healthier for your kids, or that you want to acquire wealth to take care of your best friend or your spouse in old age.
As an inventor, you may have a product and that you want to succeed so that people all over the world can benefit from it.
If you form an emotional connection between your goals and the people you care about, your emotional connection will help you.
Your love for those people will help you fall in love with your goal. Make that love the center of your adoring attention.
4. Vividly feel and see your goal
Now that you have learned how to stay focused on your goal by deepening your emotional connection to it, you can move on to learning how to visually conceptualize your goal.
Creating a specific vision for your goal is important so that the goal holds your attention.
Like a good story, specificity in goal-setting is key.
You’ll tend to slip off of non-specific goals like a rock climber climbing polished granite because there are no crevices to hold onto. The details of your vision provide the vitality your mind needs to care about the story.
You have to create a picture—a story—immediately accessible to your mind as well as to the minds of everyone involved in your goal.
People can get caught up in spreadsheets, numbers, and all kinds of ways to quantify and track a goal. And if you are a numbers person, that’s great, because numbers create a picture. Always be sure your numbers create a compelling story.
Create the details to fill out your goal
Hard Goals author Mark Murphy has a technique for creating details to fill out your goal with vivid descriptions so that you can feel it and see it.
He recommends starting with a mental picture and he has a few rules for making this picture.
First, think only about the pictorial representation of the goal. Once you have that picture then, start adding details to fill it out. He recommends that you focus on size, color, shape, distinct parts, setting, background, emotions, and movement.
Here are few examples:
Size: How big is everything in your picture? Are you living in a one-bedroom beach house bungalow or a resort-style 15-room mansion with two kitchens?
Color: What colors do you see? Color is emotionally evocative and can alter the mood of your picture dramatically.
Shape: What shapes do you see? Shapes can also influence the emotions of your picture. Circles are harmonious, squares are solid and reliable.
This exercise is very powerful because it is the first step in bringing your goal to life in a participatory way. You can begin to see and feel yourself achieving and believing in your desired outcome.
Creativity researcher, Paul Torrance discovered that one of the most exhilarating human experiences is the dazzling moment when a new image of your future self appears.
You can use this exhilarating vision to stay focused on your goals and sustain yourself through any difficulties that arise.
Don’t overlook this final step!
Especially if things feel slow on the way to achieving your goals: set up your accountability structures to get where you are going as fast as possible.
Having a structure in place with regular check-ins and accountability helps you see if you are progressing. Regular check-ins with a life coach or other accountability partner will put your progress into perspective. Here are three great ways to create a reliable accountability structure for yourself:
- Seek out an accountability partner. This is someone who keeps you accountable and encourages and guides you. Working with a coach relating to your goals has been shown to be more effective than managing them on your own, or relying on a supportive community.
- Share your goals with a supportive community. This step will boost your confidence and give you even more accountability.
- Write down your goals and track them regularly. Checking daily, weekly, monthly as needed with a project management program or a calendar will help you to stay organized and on track.
- All of the above. Getting all of your accountability structures in place will keep you focused on your goal.
If you remember one thing from reading this article, let it be this:
Passion + Accountability = Success
If you want to stay focused on your goals, find a way to stay deeply connected to an emotional driver that generates the passion you need for success.
Then, develop your accountability structures and keep them in place so that you will have the support and order you need to turn your passion into reality.
In short, this is your winning combination: passion + accountability that keeps you focused on your goals so that you successfully achieve them.