Gain Momentum with an Initiative

Following Through, New Year's

If you lack momentum on some project, that means your goal or the path to your goal is vague in some way. It is not enough to have a generalized idea of the outcome and the steps involved. You need clarity regarding how your steps will get you from here to there. If you aren’t clear on how those steps pay off, your goal will not guide and motivate action. It will be just a daydream in your mind.

Clarifying a goal to build momentum is doable, but it often takes turning the project into an initiative — a project that gets special time and attention. Let’s see why that is, depending on where the vagueness lies.

A vague goal

When the goal itself is vague, momentum dies. In my Launch program, when a goal is too vague, I typically encourage the Launcher to set his first 2–week goal to be to set up a daily routine so that he can put consistent time on thinking about his major goal and how to achieve it. This gives a short-term tangible outcome to focus on, which is obviously necessary for the long-range success.

This short-term goal is not particularly easy. Working out the difficulties in putting time on task provides Launchers a focus while they build up the knowledge they need to set more tangible mid-term goals.

In particular, this is what I recommend when people set a goal to “find a central purpose.” The problem is, if you don’t already have a pretty good idea of your general direction, it’s not clear where to find one. One way or another, your value hierarchy is not organized. Your interests do not point in one direction.

If you are in this situation, you need to systematically explore your values over a few months. In this process, you mourn losses, face fears, and celebrate past achievements. Over time, you deepen your self-understanding, integrate your values, and start getting excited about the future. Sooner or later, you have a general direction and can switch to the (easier) process of figuring out tangible goals you can achieve.

A goal without a clear path to success

Sometimes the problem is not with the goal per se, but with the path to the goal. If you do not see a path to take that you believe leads to success, you won’t be motivated to take the steps.

For example, we’ve had several people come to Launch with the goal of finding a new job. Invariably, the new job needs to meet 4–5 different criteria. If you want a job that is rewarding and fits perfectly with your other values, it can feel like searching for a needle in a haystack. There is no formula for finding it — there is necessary trial and error. If you take the usual steps of networking, sending out resumes, etc., you may not get any results in the short term, even if you do everything “right.”

This becomes an acute problem if you get discouraged by the lack of instantaneous results or if you feel some pressure to get that new job because you’re not happy with the current one. Suddenly there is a layer of negative emotion on top of routine tasks. It can seem like you’ll have to settle and give up on some important value. To keep at it, you need to develop skill at staying value-oriented, so you can come up with new, creative ways to find leads and deal effectively with the emotional ups and downs that go with the process.

(Incidentally, the Launchers did find jobs within 2–4 months.)

A goal in which you “can’t” do what you need to do

Finally, sometimes you might lack momentum because although you think you know what you need to do to achieve the goal, you don’t really believe you can do it. That’s a momentum killer from the start.

For example, many people come to Launch to lose weight. Let’s say someone sets his specific goal to be, “stop emotional eating.” Now, for a small minority of people, this is enough guidance. All they need to do is to monitor their reasons for wanting to eat and re-evaluate the situation when the reason is “to feel better.” They can “just say no” to that line of reasoning, and it seems to work.

Most people don’t know how to do that. Saying “no” just magnifies the compulsion to eat the “forbidden” food. This is particularly true if you are eating to feel better. The sense of deprivation you feel when you don’t eat that snack magnifies the urgency to do something to “feel better.”

If you have trouble saying “no” to emotional eating, then you likely need some self-direction and introspection skills. You also need other ways to put pleasure into your life that do not involve food. Typically, you will need to learn how to identify and manage bad feelings you’re avoiding and how to re-establish the value context that gives you the determination to do something more constructive than eat when you feel bad. All of this probably requires formulating the goal differently and more positively. For example, “develop emotional resilience skills” might work for some people.

Working out a path as you go

In my article on “Why You Should Pursue Only One Initiative,” I argue that there are two very different kinds of goals — those that are well-understood and predictable, and those that are poorly understood by you. When people say “set a goal,” they assume you’ll set a goal that is well-understood and predictable. But often, the most interesting, ambitious, exciting goals are not well-understood.

In these cases, you need a process that can help you with the inevitable emotional ups and downs. In the Thinking Lab, I offer courses on “Rational Goal-Setting,” “Self-Direction,” “Do What Matters Most” and “Just-in-Time Planning.” These include all of the mental tools you need to get around any mental obstacle.

But if you have an urgent project, and don’t have time to learn the theory and tools before you get started, you could simply join the next episode of Launch, in which I coach people to identify an initiative and work out the path, so they get momentum now on their major goals, and get a real result in the 8 weeks.

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