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Counter-intuitive ways to set and achieve goals amidst rampant uncertainty

I never make New Year’s resolutions. In fact, I used to never set goals – no matter the time of year – because I would inevitably forget about them within a day or two. Then I read Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

The gist of the book is simple: Creative people – in the arts, business, and in life – are motivated from within, not from without. Autonomy, mastery of something, and purpose drive us more than authority or rewards. To illustrate this point, Pink cites the research of psychology professor Carol Dweck (also author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success). 

Dweck set out to study how college students work with goals, and she discovered that most students are motivated either by performance goals or by learning/mastery goals. Students driven by performance goals (‘to make all As’ ‘to ace this test,’ or ‘to get an MBA and get a high-paying job’) seek to look smart and to avoid looking dumb, more than to learn. They believe that intelligence is a fixed state determined at birth.

Students driven by learning/mastery goals (‘to come up with a new way to use an algorithm’ or ‘to refine my mastery of engineering’) want to increase their competence. They enjoy learning for learning’s sake and they believe that talent can be cultivated over a lifetime.

Mastery-oriented students are less concerned with intelligence and more concerned with the tasks at hand. Consequently, they are more likely than performance-motivated students to succeed during difficult times. Over the long term, they’re also generally happier with their lives.

Now, this time any other year you might be devising your workout regimen and setting revenue targets for the next 12 months. But it is hard to imagine meeting even the most “attainable” of goals with our future shrouded in so much uncertainty.

Fortunately research has shown that we can train ourselves to respond to crises – and the uncertainty they produce – with greater openness, flexibility, and fluency. With a little curiosity and creativity, we can advance our goals and find innovative solutions to the unprecedented challenges we face – even amidst rampant uncertainty.

Here are four tactics that can help you do exactly that:

  1. Open yourself up to new experiences & possibilities. 

In the field of psychology, openness to experience refers to our measurable individual interest in art and beauty, our attention to our sensations and feelings, our intellectual curiosity, our preference for variety, and our active imagination. Put simply, it is the drive to explore novel aspects of human experience and the willingness to consider perspectives different than your own.

Openness is also an essential trait of successful innovators and creatives throughout history. With an appreciation of diverse perspectives and a willingness to try new things, you can better navigate daily challenges and discover novel solutions to the obstacles you face. Studies even show that openness to experience positively correlates with increased job performance and creativity.

Even though we value objectivity, curiosity, and an adventurous spirit, humans are creatures of habit and as we grow older we can get stuck in our routines or cognitive ruts. It takes conscious effort to practice divergent thinking and open yourself to creative ideas as you age. Fortunately, recent studies show that you can train your brain to be more open. 

Openness to experience – like creativity – is more than a personality trait: it’s a skill to be cultivated over time. Furthermore, it can be cultivated by a variety of methods, from intellectual engagement to mindfulness, cognitive reasoning to the appreciation of beauty. As scientists and artists who score highly on this trait show, there are a number of practices and behaviors you can build into your days in order to increase your openness.

You can read more on those practices in my Psychology Today article from this time last year.

But for starters, open yourself to two words: What If? In a future-positive sense.

What if we could create better ways to work together?

What if children could return to school feeling energized and alive to learn and contribute?

What if in a post-pandemic world, hospitals integrated artwork as part of the healing process?

Let yourself feel a little pie-in-the-sky idealistic with your own What if? because no dream was ever realized and the human world never got better because people just, “Oh, this is how it is.”

  1. Turn reactivity into creativity.

When deeply confused or paralyzingly uncertain, you want to glimpse the big picture. But reactivity and negative emotions constrict thinking and narrow perception. Creativity can be a powerful asset for working through fear and uncertainty because it encourages an exploratory and curious mindset rather than a reactionary one. It is especially important in times of crisis because creativity allows us to adapt to and survive momentous change.

So, how can we switch from fear to wonder, from reactivity to creativity in confusing times?

Try to monitor your daily reactivity meter. Notice what daily occurrences – whether it’s a slow driver or a disheartening email – push the needle into the red. Note what makes you trigger-happy (or trigger-miserable). By observing the mind’s often visceral reactions, you can witness and thereby choose to mitigate the reactive loop. 

Next assume creative agency and direct the current of your life towards your idea of fulfillment. As executive coach Paul Napper and cognitive behavioral therapist Anthony Rao describe in their latest book – The Power of Agency – we all have different areas of our lives where we exert more or less agency. For example, some people are better at controlling the distracting or distressing stimuli in their environments while others are more self-aware and as such are better able to identify strong emotions and beliefs that might misguide them.

Once you define the areas where you can assume more control and actualize your own happiness, you can better track your reactivity and transform it into creative solutions. In a chaotic world that makes learned helplessness an easy default choice, assuming agency can also be a creative, deliberate choice to stand up for your ideas and ideals, rather than shut down.

  1. Set a focus intention.

I asked the remarkably imaginative and skilled fiction writer Charles Baxter how he got through writing the novel that raised the most self-doubt, Shadow Play.

“I just focused on the sentence. I just focused on writing really good sentences.”

Baxter took out the context. You too can remove the self-absorbed context of your creative work and make real progress by setting a focus intention. 

A focus intention is a simple but effective tool to anchor the mind with its time-specific task. You don’t sit down to write a book. You sit down to write a page. You sit down to write into a scene. You sit down to write sentences. You can focus your mind on such a limited task by using clear, concrete internal language: 

“For the next hour, I am making three sketches for this client’s design project.” 

“For the next hour, I am sketching the rough topic outline for my five-day workshop.”

Behind the worry is wonder. Remember that. Forget the rest.

  1. Infuse your work with more wonder.

Too often, our “breaks” from work are just other types of “work” in disguise or brain-draining distractions that leave us more depleted than when we started. Instead of defaulting to social media or mindless email sorting on your breaks, design your breaks with intention and disrupt your work with wonder interventions. 

Wonder interventions are practices that can momentarily dissolve habitual patterns of perception, open your mind with surprising delight, and train you to glean fresh insights to daily, spiritual, and creative challenges. Wonder interventions can clear the mental debris that often makes us immune to change and wary of the unknown. And we know that the unknown is the province of true wonder and enchanting creativity. Take walks around your neighborhood or in a nearby wood. Virtually volunteer to help your community. Engage in meaningful conversations with the people you are sheltered with, or schedule regular video calls with colleagues, friends, and family to increase your other-focus and expand your awareness of the world during this insular time. 

Actively pursue elevating activities that bring you joy, stoke your creativity, and prompt your appreciation and gratitude. This, in turn, will help encourage creative problem solving, novel ideas, and exploratory thinking so you can find joy and purpose in the pursuit of your goals, even when you’re faced with the unknown.

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