Many years ago, Sir Edmund Hillary, conqueror of Everest and all-round Kiwi hero, was explaining in a documentary that the key to climbing mountains was to focus on putting one foot in front of the other.
I remember my reaction.
'Ed, that's kind of obvious.'
Now I realise that his advice was profound and we can use it whenever we are striving for a goal.
Sir Ed's advice was to put the focus on action, not the goal.
He certainly had his goal of standing at the top of the mountain in mind (and he wasn't short on determination). But unlike the advice from pop psychology, he wasn't suggesting that being hungry for success or vividly imagining himself admiring the view was the key to reaching the top.
Instead, his focus was on what we should do to get there - a steady, relentless rhythm of steps.
We can do that.
Monitor your progress
More than 130 studies have confirmed the power of monitoring our progress. On a mountain, we'd take regular breathers, look down - and up to see how far we have to go. Looking down and up is just as important for goals at work and at home.
Add mini-goals. Take breathers to note how far you've come and how far to the next mini-goal.
The risks of being obsessed with the goal
Let's say you are on Mount Everest and obsessed with reaching the summit. Now the weather closes in. Do you keep going and risk almost certain death, or abandon the attempt and try again next season? Obsession with a goal can impair our judgement and blind us to changing circumstances.
In business, is it still the right goal or has the market changed? Smith Carona was determined to be the best typewriter company in the world, long after personal computers came in.
Being obsessed with a goal can also blind us to other vital issues. In the late '60s Ford Motor Company was determined to produce a cheap sub-compact rear-drive car with a tight timeline. The obsession meant that at least 27 and possibly 180 people died in fireballs because the fuel tank was in the wrong place and not reinforced. The goal of getting the Ford Pinto the market was more important than correcting the faulty design.
In our business lives, obsession with goals can lead to pressuring customers so we can reach sales targets, poor customer service or compromising our relationships at home.
Adding too much optimism to our obsession with a goal can be a trap too. Researchers have found that the most optimistic goal-seekers are the least likely to succeed. They don't expect setbacks and find them crushing.
Monitor your behaviours as you continue your steady, relentless rhythm of steps towards your goals. It's behaviours plural because there could be a combination that accounts for your progress. If they are working well for you, you might be able to make more of them.
Maybe you'll discover behaviours that are holding you back. How much time did you spend on irrelevant activities? Maybe you'll realise that you didn't spend enough time on focused study, practice or consulting others.
If your goal is to lose weight, monitor, not only what the scales reveal, but the number of times you resisted the biscuits and cheesecake.
If getting fit is your goal, monitor that with some objective measures, such as your heart rate. Also monitor your behaviours, say the number of times you went for a run, climbed stairs or walked more than 3,000 steps a day.
So, the keys to success? Action and regular monitoring of both progress and behaviours. Not just goals and certainly not just dreams.
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