Aims & Perception: How to Maintain Motivation & Focus on Long Term Goals.
10 Minute Read
What we aim at in life is a topic that we scarcely discuss in today’s world. There seems to be an underlying belief that people vary so much in what they want that no meaningful insight can be gleaned from asking broadly about the purpose aims have in our lives. Since I think that aims are indistinguishable from values and having values are better than not, I have written this article with the intention of helping give context to the importance of strong aims (and therefore values) in one’s life.
This short essay will cover the following:
1) How your brain perceives the world and why aims are needed for perception itself.
2) How your attention and focus relies on goals to operate on your perceptual systems so you can productively pursue your objectives.
3) How your emotions play a role in your action toward a long term goal.
4) How to gain control of your motivation, focus and attention to do what you should do for your long term good.
5) How to set strong aims that can withstand setbacks.
PART 1: HOW YOUR BRAIN UNDERSTANDS THE WORLD
Like everything, focus and attention are evolved processes that we inherited from our primordial ancestors. There are two underlying mechanisms that evolved to regulate our focus and attention. They are perception and aim.
Our perceptual systems most simply are designed to get you from point A to point B. In order to consider how you get from A to B, you have to want to get to B. This is why an aim is entangled in the mechanisms that lead to your perception and subsequently your attention, focus and action. Once you have an aim, your brain has an whats known as an orienting response which tasks your brain to make sense of the world through the lens of that aim. Intrinsic in this process is an unconscious shift in attention.
You might think that when you look at something you see all that is in front of your, but that’s not the case. There is far more information in the world than your brain can process so our brain developed useful ways to simplify our perceptions toward the goal we are trying to achieve. So, when you have a goal, your orienting response changes what you see to broadly reflect that which is an obstacle to your progress from A to B and that which is a path to progression. Your emotions subsequently align with your progression on that goal whereby an obstacle gives you negative emotion and progress gives you positive emotion.
To illustrate this point more clearly, imagine that you are sitting at a table in a cafe, when suddenly, you hear the barista call your name for your order. The journey from the table to the barista requires a shift in perception. Your brain cannot observe every individual fact in the environment and remained focused on the goal of getting to the counter, so your orienting response shifts your perceptions to a simplify your environment. Now, as far as your concerned, every table, person and chair between you and the barista is registered in your brain as an obstacle and the barista is the target. As you begin your journey, lets say that someone steps in your way and blocks you momentarily from getting to your target. Your brain will then release some degree of negative emotion from the fact that your journey from A to B has been interrupted by an unanticipated obstacle. Despite this little hiccup, you continue on. As you get closer to the barista, your brain will continuously feed you positive emotion to let you know that you are getting closer to your target culminating to a short but intense burst of positive emotion upon your completion of the goal.
What can we take away from this example?
That when you have an aim, your perceptual systems map out a path to completion and orient your emotions towards the achievement of that aim.
In other words, you can’t think or focus without an aim because your perceptual systems will not have an orienting response to your goal.
KEY TAKEAWAY #1: YOU CAN’T THINK OR FOCUS WITHOUT HAVING A GOAL.
Our intelligence as humans enables us to consider goals that are more abstract than the cafe example above. Consider for a moment the plethora of things you would like to be different about your life. My guess is that this list extends far beyond your immediate needs for shelter, food and water and instead involve issues of self actualization or realizing your full potential. This might instantiate itself in the form of the desire for a high quality romantic relationship, financial stability, a thriving social life, engaging hobbies, career aspirations etc. Notice that all of those goals I just mentioned are not goals that are immediately achievable, they are goals set for some future time.
Types of Knowledge: Intellectual vs Visceral.
This relates to our attention in pretty interesting ways. As I mentioned, you can’t think or focus without having a goal, but the types of long term goals I mentioned above are not instinctual goals, meaning the way we experience them are less visceral. This is because they require the use of your intellect to understand them and as I mention in Mind Manual #1, most of our actions are not guided by our intellect but instead by our emotions. This is in part because in our experience, emotions seem more real than intellectual facts. If I tell you that force equals mass times velocity, you understand that intellectually but its not really felt. On the other hand, if you’re tackled by a 250 pound football player, you understand viscerally the point that the equation makes above. This example illustrates that there are different types of knowledge and the more visceral the knowledge the less work needs to be done to understand the truth of that knowledge.
So, when we are going through our days wondering why we can’t just sit down and focus on studying or your business, its in part because the goal is not as powerful as a physiological drive for food as an example. Therefore, since our long term goals are not predicated on survival and we wont realize the outcome until much further down the line, our brains are far more inclined to occupy their attention with immediate needs such as hunger. In this way, we are physiologically inclined to struggle with feeling motivated and focused for our long term goals.
KEY TAKEAWAY #2: WE ARE PHYSIOLOGICALLY INCLINED TO STRUGGLE WITH FEELING MOTIVATED TO PURSUE A LONG TERM GOAL.
PART 2: HOW TO GET AHEAD OF YOUR BRAIN
So just how do we evade the biological propensity to pursue short term relief instead of long term good? What enables us to delay gratification and put up with the struggle and suffering that is part in parcel with any long term aim worth its salt?
The answer comes down to two things:
1) Well developed aims.
2) A rock solid approach.
These are two topics I intend to write at length about in the future. Both of these demands their own essays but for the purposes of this article, which is intended to be a type of introduction, I will briefly cover both
Well Developed Aims
To begin, your aims shape your experience of reality. If you don’t aim at anything then you don’t act out the value of anything. If you don’t actively value anything you are in pain (specifically existential angst). This type of pain also seems to make people more impulsive as their brain searches for ways to increase their feeling of overall contentedness - making someone more likely to engage in hedonistic pursuits.
The way a person can avoid this trap is through a form of meditation or visualization about their life. This results of the session should be recorded.
The process should look roughly like this:
1) What conditions would I like to be better in my life? This should include everything from financial goals to relationship and social considerations.
2) What about myself could be better?
3) What would improve in my life as a result of improving on the above listed issues?
4) Who beyond myself would improve as a result of solving these issues?
5) Why would improvement in general be a good thing for me?
The idea behind this process is to develop a set of reasons behind what you are aiming for that powerfully connects to other parts of your psyche and others in your life. Creating a map of reasons like this gives you an increased ability to tangibly experience the positive emotion that would ensue if you did what you should do to solve the issues in your life. This will also buttress your ability to push through obstacles that lay in your path. In general, its good advice to aim at the highest good you can conceive of as this ensures that you are on the path to optimal self-actualization.
KEY TAKEAWAY #3: DEVELOP A WIDE VARIETY OF REASONS FOR WHY DOING WHAT YOU NEED TO WOULD BE GOOD FOR YOU.
Rock Solid Approach
Just because you have an aim doesn’t mean you’re equipped for the journey in front of you. If I wanted to be an NFL offensive lineman, I would need to equip myself with about 200 extra pounds and the requisite skill set to be able to hit my target. So, its important for us to break down and analyze the steps and skills needed to hit your target.
In this section, I will discuss what I consider to be the most important way to stay focused on long term aims.
The Cultivation of Thought Through Eastern Philosophy
We often consider our cognitive abilities as being relatively fixed. However, things such as distraction, busyness and emotional distress can all override our intellectual faculties making it more difficult to focus on what we should. As previously mentioned, the part of our brain responsible for high order reasoning is the only part that can conceive of long term goals. So, if you’re thinking is muddled, you wont be able to feel focused on something of long term significance.
This is where it is useful to turn to Eastern philosophies to guide our thinking. One of the hallmarks of eastern thought is the idea of the transcendent present. This idea posits that in each moment of our lives, if we pay sufficient attention, there is a connection to all things of the past and all things in the future. Now this idea is certainly a bit “out there" for westerners, however it logically extends to some very practical advice.
Your life is made up of the decisions you make and how you act in the world. And there are many moments in one’s waking existence in which we are not paying attention to whats in front of us. This philosophy posits that if only we practiced cultivating the ability to calmly rest our minds in the present and on the task in front of us, we would be significantly happier and more productive in all that we do.
Its difficult to argue with this logic on its own. If we could pay more attention to the task at hand, the conversation with your partner, your kids, the menial task you need to do for your team at work or whatever it is, then you’re life outcomes would more closely mirror your aims.
If you are interested in how to do this, I would recommend starting with a technique called working meditation. Generally speak it is a technique in which you treat your work as an object of meditation.
Here’s how you do it:
1) Start with the understanding that emotional excitement prevents good thinking. Imperturbability while you work is essential.
2) Take a few deep breathes and set the intention of the outcome you would like to produce with this time you have allocated to your task.
3) Engage with your task and endeavour to keep focused on the task with no task switching whatsoever. (That means no checking your email or phone)
4) When you notice your mind wandering return it to the task immediately.
You can practice this in conversation and interpersonal interactions. Endeavour to be thinking of nothing external to that moment and remain calm (this is especially useful if you suffer from social anxiety).
KEY TAKEAWAY#4: ONCE YOU HAVE AN AIM AND A PLAN OF EXECUTION, CONCENTRATE ON THE TASK AT HAND.
With that, I will close out this second edition of Mind Manual. I hope you found it informative and useful. Let us know what you think on Social Media.
Iain Bigford, MBA, BA