April 4, 2022
We all have professional goals we want to accomplish, whether it’s mastering a new technical skill, getting better at delegation, or carving out time in our schedule for networking and relationship building. Yet so often, we find ourselves putting these ambitions on the backburner — again.
Sometimes it’s simple busyness, our days eaten up by email and meetings that make longer-term thinking a challenge. Sometimes it’s procrastination fueled by self-doubt. (“Will I look stupid if it turns out I’m bad at programming?”) Sometimes it’s paralysis fueled by uncertainty over where, or how, to get started. (“I guess I could take a course — but which one? How do I know if it’ll be any good?”)
I’ve spent the past several years researching the question of how we can push ourselves to achieve the meaningful, long-term goals we purport to hold, despite the short-term incentives often pushing in the opposite direction. In my new book The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World, I lay out strategies we can adopt to help accomplish our goals, even when the process may be frustrating or challenging. Here are three actions to help you get unstuck and get started achieving your goals.
Hire a coach.
It’s almost certain that if you wanted to improve your sports performance that you’d hire, say, a tennis instructor. And in recent decades, having an executive coach has transformed from a mark of shame into, oftentimes, a high-powered status symbol indicating that your company prizes you enough to invest in your performance.
But it’s rare that we encounter — or even think about — coaches for other situations. That’s a mistake.
Some of us have encouraging colleagues who can support us and provide guidance as we work to accomplish our goals. But not all of us do, and even if you have wonderful cheerleaders in your corner, they may not have the expertise necessary to guide you toward the outcomes you seek. Hiring a coach to help structure your learning, create momentum, and hold you accountable can be enormously valuable in advancing your goals.
That’s what Zach Braiker, the CEO of a marketing and innovation consulting firm, did. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Zach decided he needed to carve out more time for literature. “In the quarantine, the grind of daily routines, anxiety, working from home, higher stress, constant changes, and seeing people less really took its toll on me,” he says. “I knew I needed to do what I loved, and too often I made compromises — focusing on the urgent over the important.”
So he hired a literature coach, an English-speaking Ph.D. student in literature from a Mexican university. Every Friday night, they meet for an hour to discuss a short story they’ve agreed to read that week. “It brings me energy and it cultivates my curiosity,” he says — and it’s a way of ensuring he prioritizes the goals that matter most.
If it’s not possible to hire a coach because of finances or logistics, there are low-cost or even free options available on almost every topic, from online courses to YouTube instructional videos. In the early days of the pandemic before masks were widely available, my mother taught herself to sew them by watching Japanese and Chinese-language videos online.
Create a deadline.
For consultant and speaker Petra Kolber, it started as an idle wish: In response to an interviewer’s question at the launch party for her book, she announced that wanted to learn how to DJ. But when a friend, who ran one of the largest fitness events in North America, approached her afterward, her dream got real very fast. “A year from now,” the friend announced, “you’ll DJ our VIP party.”
It didn’t seem quite real at the time. But as the year progressed, Petra began to realize the enormity of what she’d actually committed to: running the afterparty for a high-profile, 600-person event. “The stakes were high,” she says, “and the potential for public humiliation was real.” She doubled down on her training and the event was a success.
Like Petra, most of us need a deadline in order to take action. Sometimes a friend or client will provide us with one, but if not, we can create our own as a forcing function. Signing up for a class means we will be studying on those nights. Committing to a public performance or showcase means we have to be ready to deliver.
Keep your learning going.
If your goal is tied to around a specific circumstance — presenting at a high-profile conference, or running a marathon, or learning enough Mandarin to greet the client from Beijing — it’s easy to let up once the big event is over. But after you’ve put in all that work, it’s important to solidify your learning, and keep growing.
In the wake of her DJing success, Petra Kolber visited a rooftop bar across the street from her New York City apartment and saw an opportunity. She asked the bartender, “Would you ever want a DJ?” He told her the hotel had just launched a new event series and asked her to perform the following week. “It really wasn’t any money,” she says, “but it was accountability to my dreams.” The ongoing gig enabled her to practice and learn in a low-stakes environment, which was key to her continued growth.
If we want our new habits and skills to stick, we need to find ways to bake them into our schedule on an ongoing basis — for instance, going to the gym with a friend to make it a social ritual, as well as a means of exercise, or downloading a dozen audiobooks on the topic we want to learn about, and systematically listening to them while we’re cooking or commuting.
We’re all busy, and when a goal seems onerous, or the path towards it is unclear, it’s often easier to do nothing and push it off to another day. But if we truly want to embrace long-term thinking, it’s time to get unstuck and move forward.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and keynote speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and has been named one of the Top 50 business thinkers in the world by Thinkers50. Her latest book is The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World (HBR Press, 2021) and you can receive her free Long Game strategic thinking self-assessment.
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