We all have goals. Moreover, most of us probably have a set of personal goals as well as a list of professional goals. But what we often don’t have are the tools and understanding to create a realistic and actionable plan that will get us from where we are today to our desired destination.
This is where the book Science of Intelligent Achievement comes in.
Author Isaiah Hankel presents three tools, Selective Focus, Creative Ownership and Pragmatic Growth, that are designed to get you from point A to point Z with focused determination. The practices related to these three tools will help you block out distractions, use your energy to its fullest and increase your creative productivity.
If you spend your days interacting with a computer, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered those times when you just feel stuck, staring at your computer screen. The more you try to get unstuck, the less you feel able to make any decisions. This is due to the fact that, when your mind is exhausted, no amount of time or effort spent on contemplation can help.
The key to avoiding this kind of exhaustion is to have mental energy, as this is what allows you to be enthusiastic and enjoy what’s going on in your professional and personal lives. But while it may be important, mental energy is also scarce and easily depleted.
According to a 2007 study in the Harvard Business Review, the average person enjoys only two hours of peak mental focus every day, along with an additional five hours of relatively high mental focus. At all other times, there’s a good chance your mental focus will be relatively poor.
So, how do we make sure our mental energy gets replenished each day? A 2012 study by medical researcher Taeko Sasai suggests that sufficient sleep is what’s needed for this to happen. But even then, with high mental energy and especially peak mental energy being such limited resources, it’s clear we need to treat each minute with care.
And that’s where Selective Focus comes in. Selective Focus is about being careful and choosy about how you spend your energy, and the first rule is learning how to say no to certain things that are competing for your attention. After all, you can’t give your time and energy to everyone, no matter how politely they ask.
Saying no doesn’t always come easily or naturally. Many of us were programmed as children to say yes to whatever our parents or our teachers asked of us. When you said yes growing up, you were probably rewarded with attention, praise or even a big, welcoming hug.
But now that you’re an adult, there are rewards to saying no. Through analyzing over 80 studies that looked into the benefits of saying no, psychologist Martin Hagger found conclusive evidence that it not only helps people avoid wasteful and unproductive activity, it also helps them achieve their goals more efficiently.
If you’re interested in mastering a new skill, you may have heard that it takes around 10,000 hours of practice. This may be true, but you can’t just pile on one consecutive hour of practice after another and expect to reap the rewards. Those hours need to be filled with Deliberate Practice, which is the second rule of Selective Focus.
In 1993, psychologist K. Anders Ericsson used deliberate practice to illustrate the difference between average achievement and exceptional achievement. He found that it was the hours people spent on deliberate, high-quality practice that made the difference.
More precisely, Ericsson found that while average achievers worked more hours overall, they would also engage in a lot of non-constructive practice over an entire day. Exceptional achievers, on the other hand, would only engage in deliberate practice, which might consist of one burst of concentrated energy in the morning and another one in the afternoon. This would add up to just three and a half hours of practice a day, but it was more effective than an entire day’s worth of meandering practice.
One of the things that keeps us away from deliberate practice and continually engaged in non-constructive or unfocused activities is that we tend to find certain distractions pleasurable.
Activities like checking email or tidying up your desk can trigger a dopamine release that makes these usually unproductive tasks seem more rewarding than the ones that are aligned with your long-term goals. While such activities may make you feel like you’re “keeping busy,” they can be highly counterproductive if you’re supposed to be preparing your business plan for that upcoming loan meeting.
In fact, rather than keeping busy, it would be better to stop what you’re doing. That way you can think clearly and plan the next steps that will help you reach your goal.
Be warned, though, that if you don’t “look busy,” someone may see this as an opportunity to dump work on you. This is why it’s important to protect your free time as well as your Deliberate Practice time.
If you’re ever unsure about when to say yes or no to a task, ask yourself: Is this going to bring me closer to the goals I’ve set for myself? If not, then it’s probably best to say no.
As the author knows from personal experience, getting a cancer diagnosis can send you searching for answers. He reached out to friends, doctors and therapists, asking everyone for their opinions on how best to fight the disease.
While it’s natural to seek advice when things get tough, it’s also important to be selective in this regard as well, because the attitudes and opinions of others can be infectious and sometimes harmful.
According to a 2010 study from the Proceedings of the Royal Society, being around someone with a positive attitude can improve your own outlook by 11 percent. However, being around someone with a negative attitude can make your own outlook more negative by a whopping 50 percent.
If you don’t want that to happen, you have to be highly selective about the opinions to which you expose yourself, which is why this is the third rule of Selective Focus.
This can make a big difference in your achievements, because if the people around you call your dreams unrealistic, or think you’ll never have the skills to achieve your goals, you’ll probably start thinking that there’s no point in even trying. So it’s best to keep such pessimists at a distance while surrounding yourself with an ambitious and upbeat crew.
If that’s not reason enough to do so, consider the fact that negative influences can even be harmful to your brain.
According to Stanford University biology professor Robert Sapolsky, studies have shown that after listening to 30 minutes of negative speech, the neuron cells located in the hippocampus begin dying. And this is the part of the brain related to problem-solving, so those are definitely neurons worth keeping!
A study from 2013, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, found similar results. After researchers asked people either to ignore or to listen to someone’s four-minute-long negative rant, they found that the “ignoring” participants were better than the listeners at subsequently solving thought and concentration exercises.
The second tool of intelligent achievement is Creative Ownership, which is about freeing yourself up so that you’re working toward your own goals and no one else’s.
One of the primary ways of achieving Creative Ownership is to produce and market your own content. Now, you may be thinking that that sounds great, but that whenever you try to write, the results aren’t so hot.
If you have writer’s block, there’s a good chance it’s due to trying to write about something of which you have no experience. That’s why one of the best pieces of writing advice is to write about what you know.
Try starting by simply writing about what happened to you yesterday. Then go a little deeper by detailing one or two childhood experiences that have stuck with you. When you start to get the hang of writing from your own experience, you can graduate to hearing stories from other people and trying to write those down, and over time you’ll be able to write comfortably about yourself and others.
To help expand your creative side and really get production moving along, you can make use of the Disney method.
Named, of course, after the animation pioneer Walt Disney, the Disney system was outlined in a 2015 study by University of Munich media studies professor Sarah Tausch, and it is aimed at helping both individuals and groups to boost their production.
An important first step is to turn off the nagging inner editorial voice that says your ideas stink or that last sentence was terrible. You’re going to start off with a first draft, so feel free to write whatever comes to mind, regardless of how little sense it makes.
When you move to the second draft, turn your inner editor back on, but only at partial strength. This draft should take the good sections from the first draft, the bits that do make sense, and expand on them in paragraphs that come together in a coherent way.
Then there’s the third and final draft, in which you crank the inner editor to full power by streamlining your story, cutting repetitive bits and any parts that ruin the flow. After this draft you should have an engaging and well-formed text.
So, first is overcoming writer’s block by silencing your editor and letting the words flow freely and easily. Then you hone in and expand on the good ideas before finalizing and finessing your final draft. Eventually, you’ll regularly be able to produce creative content that is interesting and high-quality.
In the quest for independent Creative Ownership, one of the most valuable assets to have is a loyal customer base. The question is, how do you gain customers when you’re just starting out?
One great tool for getting customers’ attention is lead magnets. A lead is essentially customer information, so a lead magnet is something that attracts customers and compels them to give you their details. If you’re a writer, a good lead magnet might be a site where you post your first book chapter for free and potential customers can provide their email to be the first to know when the rest of the book is published.
Let’s say you’re running your own lifestyle improvement business. A good lead magnet may be a blog that regularly provides general tips that show you’re an expert in your field and that you provide quality service. You can also use customer information collected through your blog to send people newsletters and updates when a new post is published.
Lead magnets generally offer something of value for free, so in this department you should expect to operate at a loss, but keep in mind that leads may boost revenue in the long run, and can even add up to their own product. For example, all those tips on your blog can eventually be turned into a book.
The eventual goal of writing a book can serve as good motivation to update your blog regularly. This is also important because your site’s ranking on Google depends on how often you add written content; the more content, the higher you’ll be ranked in search results.
Google can also help you to figure out what customers like most about your business, which in turn can help you to pick the most effective lead magnets for new customers.
Google Analytics and other website tools can show you which blog posts or web pages on your site are getting the most views. If you’re putting that book together, this can help you decide which articles to include. It’s also great to know which lifestyle tips people are most interested in, since you can then plan future articles that expand and follow-up on these topics.
If you find that all of your popular articles are about one topic, this is a clear sign that you may have found a good niche. For example, if your audience is overwhelmingly interested in tips on how to become a successful businesswoman, then you can focus on such articles and end up with a book called Lifestyle Tips Every Businesswoman Needs to Know.
Check out my related post: Do you have a growth mindset?