J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

How To Calibrate Goals and Explore Obstacles to Increase Motivation

Don't ignore the needle -- decide how you're going to thread it.

Don’t ignore the needle — decide how you’re going to thread it.

Early this year I wrote about how goals should provide (not require) motivation.

Setting the right kind of goal is tremendously important. A good goal is:

1) Purpose drive (the goal helps you express your life purpose, it resonates with your answer to “Who am I?”)

2) Specific (you’ll know, without any ambiguity, if you’ve achieved this goal or not)

3) Energizing (thinking about the goal propels you to action)

A recent post on Eric Barker’s site opened my eyes to two additional factors.

Calibrating Your Specific Outcome

First, Barker points out that imagining a specific outcome for a goal can sometimes decrease motivation.


It turns out that for a specific outcome to increase motivation, you actually have to believe that with effort and a little luck you can achieve it.

A few years ago I was reading a book by a bestselling fantasy author who I will not name. I finished the book, but was left unimpressed by the prose. Somehow, this experience was incredibly motivating. If he can do it, I can do it, I thought to myself. The experience of reading a successful but mediocre novel got me pumped to continue my writing and pursue my own writing career. Write better than Author X became my standard.

On the other hand, when I read an author like David Mitchell (I’m reading The Bone Clocks now), it’s deflating to think about trying to write like that. Maybe, in five years, things will be different, but at the moment shooting for that level of brilliance in my own prose seems unattainable.

Certainly it’s possible to aim too low. You should think as big as you can realistically believe is achievable. How do you know the limit? If visualizing the specific outcome pumps you up, that’s a good sign. Try visualizing the “next level.” Still pumped? Or does the next level feel “pie-in-the-sky”? Not everyone can be an astronaut.

If a specific outcome feels unattainable, that doesn’t mean you should necessarily shoot lower. Consider moving left or right instead, to a specific outcome that is just as (or even more) ambitious, but also a better fit for your particular talents and personality. A great example of this is Peter Diamandis, who abandoned his goal of becoming an astronaut in order to create the Ansari X Prize (which helped jumpstart the private space industry) instead. (Tim Ferriss recently posted a good interview with Diamandis and Tony Robbins.)

Exploring Obstacles

The second post from Barker’s post that resonated with me was that imagining obstacles and roadblocks on the way to achieving your goal (and planning for them) also increases motivation.

The idea is that if you plan for contingencies, when you hit the (almost inevitable) obstacles, instead of deflating and giving up, you think “I knew this was coming” and your plan kicks in.

Gretchen Rubin refers to this strategy as “safeguards” and “planning to fail.” When establishing a new habit, anticipate what will probably trip you up, and decided ahead of time what you’ll do in response a trigger.

The same strategy applies for bigger-stakes games. What am I going to do when I start submitting my fiction work and (almost inevitably) receive rejection slips, or no response at all? I’ll do the same thing as I did when I was a fledgling music producer — keep sending out material and not take it personally if it doesn’t connect. Creative rejection isn’t failure — it’s feedback. Rejection means either 1) your work needs to be better, or 2) you sent it to the wrong person/publisher/outlet, or 3) for whatever reasons your work doesn’t fit into the current zeitgeist/popular taste. Maybe it’s time for revisions, or maybe back to the drawing board with a brand new idea, or maybe it’s just time for a fresh envelope and a new stamp. Whatever your creative pursuit, rejection is going to be part of the game. While rejection never feels good, you can learn to consume it as a sort of food that gives you energy. All obstacles can be used to increase motivation if they are expected, and fit into your mental picture of your path to success.

Daniel Coyle describes how the Green Berets use negative visualization (as well as positive visualization) to prepare for missions. They rehearse a mission with every possible thing that could go wrong, going wrong (the Murphy’s Law version), and a later rehearsal where everything goes smoothly.

Reconsidering Multiple Life Goals

Previously I wrote about the value of having a single goal. I’ve changed my approach somewhat since I wrote that post. I still believe in having a single life direction that defines what you are trying to do or become. I am x becoming y, or I am attempting to to this or that in the world. But after some experimentation I have found that there is synergy and energy created by pursuing multiple goals simultaneously. I would agree with Peter Diamandis’s 3rd Law: “Multiple projects lead to multiple successes.”

In terms of tracking, I still use the same methods described in that post (specific outcome, evaluation date, reward, kick-in-the-butt motivator).

Will Any of This Make You Happy?

When considering goal-setting, it’s important to remember that achievements generally don’t increase happiness (at least not for very long). Achieving your goals will move your life forward and perhaps make the world a better place, but if you want to be happy, there are more direct ways. In fact, happiness helps you be successful more than being successful makes you happy.

So what are the essentials of happiness? That’s worth another post, but I think the pillars are gratitude, social interaction and inclusion, and neurogenesis/chemical brain health.


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1 Comment

  1. For positive thinking to work, it has to be believable and actionable :

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