We repeatedly begin projects, large or small, start working on goals, long- or short-term, say yes or no when asked to do something or to participate with others, and make choices about how to spend our time. And far too often, we don’t stop to consider what we hope will happen as a result of the actions we’re about to take.
This isn’t to say we can’t come up with an explanation as to why we’re doing something—or at least why we think we’re doing it. Explaining ourselves to ourselves comes naturally to us. But having a reason for doing something isn’t the same thing as identifying the desired outcome.
You could be going on a job interview because you hope to get hired or because you’re thinking about quitting your current job and are testing the waters or because a relative hooked you up and you feel obligated…or…or…or. Those are some reasons you might have for keeping the appointment for that interview.
Let’s say you’re hoping to get hired. What’s your desired outcome? Maybe it’s simply to have a job so you can pay your bills. Or maybe you want to move up into a more challenging or more prestigious position. Maybe you’re looking for a congenial group of co-workers so you can expand your circle of friends. Or you might want a calmer work environment with less stress than you have now—or a more stimulating environment. It could even be a combination of factors.
If you’re clear about what you hope will happen as a result of getting the job, you’ll be better able to evaluate whether or not to take it if it’s offered to you. At the interview itself, you’ll be able to ask more informed questions and pay attention to things that are relevant to your concerns. Knowing the desired outcome you’re looking for is pretty important since it increases your chances of getting it. But if you accept the job offer without having identified your desired outcome, you set yourself up for being disappointed. Sure the money’s extremely good and the work is interesting enough but you don’t get to interact with very many other people and, as it turns out, the social aspect is really important to you. In fact, you realize you’d be willing to earn less in exchange for having more interpersonal interaction.
So you have the new job, which looks good on paper, but it isn’t as satisfying as you thought it would be.
In addition to changing jobs, we get into or out of relationships, take up hobbies, move from one part of the country to another, decide to go back to school (or drop out), sign up for a gym membership, start a diet, buy a complete new wardrobe—or a set of patio furniture or an expensive camera or a car. We not only fail to identify our desired outcome, we also fail to identify potential obstacles we’re likely to face along the path to getting it.
Included in the “Reality Check” exercise my clients complete when filling out a Goal Action Plan are these three questions.
- Imagine a positive vision (fantasy) of achieving your desired outcome and describe it. How will your status quo be changed?*
- Describe your current reality in regard to your desired outcome.
- Compare your positive vision of success with your current reality.
*Please note, though, that if all you do is generate a positive vision of your desired outcome and focus on that without doing anything else, you are less likely to be successful in achieving it because you’ve actually tricked your brain into thinking you’ve already got it.
Answering all three questions is a form of mental contrasting that can help you see your situation more realistically and identify the obstacles to achieving your desired outcome. If you know the obstacles you’re likely to face, you can figure out how to deal with them ahead of time instead of being blind-sided by them. Or you may realize there’s an obstacle big enough to be a deal-breaker, at least for now.
When we perform mental contrasting, we gain energy to take action. And when we go on to specify the actions we intend to take as obstacles arise, we energize ourselves even further. —Gabriele Oettingen, Rethinking Positive Thinking
Evaluate and Motivate
The more clearly you can visualize your desired outcome the better you’ll be able to evaluate how likely it is that the action you’re contemplating is the best path to getting there. If it is, great! That clarity can be highly motivating. If it isn’t, that’s great, too, because you can change or revise your plan and save yourself the time, energy, and effort of going off on a wild goose chase.
The longer-term your goal is or the more entrenched the habit you want to change or the more difficult or complicated the course of action you’re contemplating, the more imperative it is to identify your desired outcome. The unconscious part of your brain is hooked on instant gratification. Changing the status quo tends to be gradual, mundane, repetitious, and tedious. Being able to remind yourself not only what you’re aiming for but also why it’s important to you can get you through the slog.
But developing the habit of identifying your desired outcome is useful in all kinds of situations, such as responding to a social media post, attending a staff meeting at work, choosing a book to read, or planning a vacation. I recently got together with a friend to work out details of an upcoming trip (the reason for our meeting). But a big part of my desired outcome—and hers, too—was the opportunity to spend time discussing subjects of mutual interest, including current events. Identifying my desired outcome affected both my frame of mind and the amount of time I reserved for the meeting.
It’s a truism because it’s true: it’s considerably easier to get what you want if you know what that is.
Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.