Stop Dreaming, Start Doing

What research (and reality) teaches us about goal-directed action

3 Ways to Get What You Want From Life

Transition from thinking to doing.

If you thought your life might end tomorrow, would you change your priorities for today? I never thought to ask myself that question, until the minute my son stopped breathing.

I’ll always remember his two-year old self, playing happily with his Dad in the other room. My girlfriend and I were catching up, swapping stories and laughing in the kitchen. Suddenly, I heard my husband, Steve, calling my son’s name repeatedly. I ran in to find his little body lying there flat on the floor. His mouth was wide open, but his scream had no sound. His eyes expressed terror as he fought to find air. I pulled him in tightly and whispered “I love you.” He stiffened and shook and went limp in my arms.

I remember Steve grabbed him and ran to the street. Neighbors came out, encircling my family. So much action. So much panic. Yet, I was still kneeling. The thought that I had lost him had paralyzed me. When I heard my son’s cry from out on the street, the way I moved through the rest of my life changed forever. 

Having gone through the experience of feeling that he had left us, the clock and I became inextricably linked. Every second of time increased in value. I wrote out the things that I wanted to achieve and slowly started putting them in motion. Big ideas, small steps — definitely no “perfect plan.” Much like a train, the first jolt built momentum. Over time I found two things occurring: I was becoming more committed to achieving my dreams, and I was happier than I had ever been.

Researchers at the University of Singapore examined the effect action has on life satisfaction.[1] The study found that those high in action, also known as locomotion, had increased levels of well-being. Rewarded by their progress, they were propelled to do more. High levels of assessment, conversely, could lead to regret and negativity. By continuously re-examining real or imagined issues, individuals stood still without progressing toward their goals.

It doesn’t take a life changing experience to get in action. Big ideas, and small steps — definitely no “perfect plan.” Here are three tips on how to take steps towards your dreams today:

1. Replace Your To-Do List with a Must-Do List

Our weekly to-do lists are always growing, never ending, and rarely completed. Focus instead on a daily must-do list, with three critical actions you want to complete. Keep them on a cue card and put them in your pocket to quickly reference when needed. 

Setting daily targets will naturally drive you into action. Albert Bandura and colleagues found that proximal goals are powerful motivational generators. Distant goals, in his words, “are too far re-moved in time to effectively mobilize effort or to direct what one does in the here and now.” [2]

2. Define the Moment the Action will Begin

We set our goals in a stable environment and work to achieve them under constantly changing circumstances. Be prepared for old habits and hidden obstacles to appear.

Beside each of the three actions from your must-do list, commit to when and where they will take place. You can do this by writing out a simple statement: "I intend to perform Action X when I encounter situation Y." Gollwitzer and Brandstatter found that the process of creating these statements, known as implementation intentions[3], increased the likelihood of goal attainment threefold. By defining the moment the action will take place, your brain automatically initiates the goal driven behaviors on cue. This helps overcome procrastination, fears, and other potential obstacles.

3. Watch Who You Spend Your Time With

Emotions are contagious, often transmitted without conscious effort. In a study of 70 work groups across 51 different companies, emotions were found to spread between individuals and across teams.[4] Why does it matter? Different emotions can affect your motivation to get in action and complete your selected tasks.

Isen and colleagues at Cornell University have found that “positive [moods] fosters responsible behavior and effective performance of tasks that need to be done.”[5] Negative moods conversely can reduce task-related motivation. Be aware of the emotions around you, they may help or hinder your ability to take action.[6]

Our son is now five years old. He has experienced similar episodes where he stopped breathing, most occurring at night while he sleeps. The doctors have diagnosed him with a rare neurological disorder that affects the signal from his brain to breath. While frightening to experience, we have been told that he will likely grow up without consequence. The term “likely” for a parent is never reassuring. Since he was diagnosed, we’ve sold our house, changed jobs, moved countries, and had another baby. Having experienced the fear that our son could die tomorrow, we changed our priorities and the way we live today. Some plans have failed, some succeeded. Throughout the process, I have learned a great deal about what keeps our internal engines moving. Assessment and locomotion both have their place and each fulfill their own purpose. But without beginning to put ideas in action, my train full of dreams would still be in the station, patiently waiting for that illusive “some day.”

References

[1] Hong, Ryan. Tan, Michelle. Chang, Weining, “Locomotion and Assessment: Self-regulation and Subjective Well-being.” Personality and Individual Differences (February 2003): 325–332.

[2] Bandura, Albert. Schunk, Dale. "Cultivating Competence, Self-Efficacy, and Intrinsic Interest Through 
Proximal Self-Motivation."Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 586-598. 
  http://libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/f/D_Schunk_Cultivating_1981.pdf

[3] Gollwitzer, Peter M. Brandstätter, Veronika. "Implementation Intentions and Effective Goal Pursuit." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 73(1), Jul 
  1997, 186-199. http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=1997-04812-015

[4] Caroline A. Bartel and Richard Saavedra. "The Collective Construction of Work Group Moods." Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Jun., 2000), 197-231.  
http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2667070?uid=3739568&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21101677125831

[5] Isen, Alice. Reeve, Johnmarshall. “The Influence of Positive Affect on Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: Facilitating 
Enjoyment of Play, Responsible Work Behavior, and Self-Control”. Motivation and Emotion, Vol. 29, No. 4, December 
  2005. http://intrinsicmotivation.net/SDT/documents/2005_IsenReeve_MO.pdf

[6] Brose, Annette; Schmiedek, Florian; Lövdén, Martin; Lindenberger, Ulman. “Daily variability in working memory is 
coupled with negative affect: The role of attention and motivation.” Emotion, Vol 12(3), Jun 2012, 605-617. 
  http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=2011-15460-001

Christina Curtis is a leadership and executive coach based in Colorado.

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