1: Lumberjacks.  

The researchers divided this ferociously independent group into teams. “Some teams were told to work smart and fast, but no pressure, do your best,” writes Steven Kotler in The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.

“Others were given quotas. This much wood for a good week of work, this much wood for a great week,” he writes. “It’s important to note that there was zero financial reward given for meeting these targets. The goals were simply set, and that was the end of it.”

The results? “Time and again the lumberjacks who had been given targets to aim for ended up gathering far more wood than the controls,” Steven writes.

The researchers were University of Toronto psychologist Gary Latham and University of Maryland psychologist Edwin Locke, considered the godfathers of goal-setting theory. Beginning in the late 1960s and in the decades since, in dozens of studies in dozens of fields, their work has demonstrated that setting goals increases performance and productivity by 11 to 25 percent.

“That’s a fairly extraordinary boost,” Steven comments. “At the upper end, if an eight-hour day is our baseline, that’s like getting two extra hours of work for free simply by building a mental frame—that is, a goal—around the activity.”

2: This week, we’ve been looking a the importance of motivation to achieve peak performance. Motivation, Steven writes, is comprised of drive, goals, and grit. We began by exploring the components of drive and the importance of intrinsic motivation. Today, we shift our focus to goals.  

Creating goals is one of the easiest and best ways to increase motivation and enhance performance. “If intrinsic drivers are about creating the psychological energy required to push us forward, goals tell us exactly where we want to go,” notes Steven. “When we know where we’re trying to go, we get there much more quickly.”

More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle observed that establishing a desired outcome or target “was one of the primary motivators of human behavior,” Steven writes. “He called goals one of the four foundational ’causes’ or big drivers of change in the world.”  

To understand how we can use goal-setting to achieve peak performance, we also need to know how our brains work. “Every second, millions of bits of information flood into our senses. Yet the human brain can only handle about 7 bits of information at once, and the shortest time it takes to discriminate one set of bits from another is one-eighteenth of a second,” Steven writes.

“By using these figures,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, “one concludes that it is possible to process at most 126 bits of information per second.”

Which isn’t much information. “To understand what another person is saying takes about 40 bits,” Steven writes. “If three people are talking at once, we’re maxed out. All other incoming information is invisible to us.”

And it’s not just voices we tune out. “The vast majority of everything happening in the world falls into this category,” he writes. “The system is constantly overloaded, so much of reality is constantly invisible.”

What do we pay attention to? First, everything we are afraid of. “Evolution shaped the brain for survival, so anything that could threaten that survival always grabs our attention,” Steven writes.  

“But what else is important for our survival? Our goals, and anything that can help us achieve those goals. Because the brain is a prediction engine and consciousness is a limited resource, fear and goals are the basic building blocks of our reality.”

3: But not all goals have the same impact. “We found that if you want the largest increase in motivation and productivity, then big goals lead to the best outcomes,” says Gary Latham, the previously mentioned goal-setting theory guru. “Big goals significantly outperform small goals, medium-sized goals, and vague goals.”

Next, we need commitment. Our goals must line up with our intrinsic motivations or our needs. We “have to believe in what [we] ‘re doing,” Gary explains. “Big goals work best when there’s an alignment between an individual’s values and the desired outcome of the goal. When everything lines up, we’re totally committed—meaning we’re paying even more attention, are even more resilient, and are way more productive as a result.”

Which is why we began this week with passion and purpose. “Big goals work best when we’re passionate about the subject of the goal (the idea that surrounds it) and its end result (the bigger purpose the goal serves),” Steven writes. “When these conditions are met, when our values, needs, and dreams are aligned with the big goal we are pursuing, only then do we get the maximum boost in performance.”

Tomorrow and next week, we are going to break down three different types of goals (1) massively transformative purposes, (2) high and hard goals, and (3) clear goals. Each type of goal serves a different purpose over a different timescale.

More tomorrow!


Reflection: Am I a conscious goal-setter? Do I have an ongoing, repeatable process to create high-impact personal and professional goals?

Action: Stay tuned for more information on my class to make 2023 the best year of your life.

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