There are few better ways to witness the sheer power of human potential than to watch a runner cross the finish line of a marathon.
It’s incredible to see months and years of training, determination and self-discipline culminating in one moment of pure achievement. What fascinates me is I have never once seen a runner slow down as he or she approaches the finish line. Despite their exhaustion, marathoners actually sprint with the full force of their remaining energy. How?
When runners are 26.1 miles into the 26.2-mile race and can finally see the finish line, a special brain event occurs called “the X-spot.” Their brains release a flood of endorphins and other chemicals that give them the energy to accelerate.
The X-spot illustrates how forceful goal attainment can be in terms of increased energy and focus. When your brain recognizes that success is not only possible but now probable, the reaction is physically powerful. Similarly in football, running backs are said to have a “nose for the end zone.” With the goal line right there, players’ brains sanction the release of greater energy rather than reserving it for later rewards. They are thus flooded with increased vigor, speed, mental clarity and toughness.
Of course, this phenomenon doesn’t occur only in sports. No matter what your goal is—whether it’s finishing a marathon, completing a big project at work or losing 20 pounds—your brain behaves in the exact same way. What if we could access that increased energy, focus and drive not just as we approached the finish line, but at any point in the race?
Positive psychology research reveals we can. The brain releases its accelerants, not just when a runner sees the finish line, but as soon as the runner realizes the probability he or she will succeed. By changing our perceptions of the distance to the finish line, we can prime our brains to release those chemicals earlier to accelerate our success.
Painting the Target
As part of a Navy ROTC scholarship, I spent a summer during college training in different warfare specialties. One week, my fellow cadets and I were invited out on one of the Navy’s crown jewels, an Aegis class destroyer. These extraordinary ships were the first of their kind, built entirely around the cutting-edge Aegis combat system and SPY-1 phased array radar—they were basically a super-high-tech floating guided missile system. The 9,200-ton behemoth had more than 90 missiles and could use a series of interconnected systems to scan for potential threats and shoot them down.
The technology employed by these ships is beyond the scope of my understanding, but at the basic level, when a missile fired from an Aegis ship neared its target, it was able to detect energy coming from that target and adjust its trajectory and momentum. This is called “painting the target,” and these ships do it with incredible precision.
Why do I mention this? Because “painting the target” is exactly what your brain does anytime you push toward a goal, mapping a path toward success and constantly reading signals about what it will take to get there. Your mind is a goal-oriented machine, subconsciously making assessments about how far away a goal is (proximity), the likelihood of achieving it (target size) and the effort (thrust) required.
Research coming out of neuroscience labs across the world is finding that these variables are not based only on objective measures. They are based largely on our perception. Unless you can see into the future, you can’t possibly know how far away your goal is, your likelihood of attaining it or how much effort it will take, but you can control how you perceive the proximity of the goal and the effort required to succeed.
You have the power to accelerate the speed at which you hit your target simply by changing your perceptions. Here are the strategies to help you.
Strategy I: Increase Proximity
In 2006, researchers at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business did a series of fascinating studies. One looked at perception’s impact on goal attainment through the lens of participation in a customer rewards program at a local coffee shop.
Here’s how it worked: All customers were given a stamp card and were told that every purchase would count toward a reward; in this case 10 stamps equaled a free beverage. Then they simply recorded the dates people purchased coffee to see if they bought more frequently as they got closer to earning their free coffee. Indeed, that’s exactly what happened.
This is where the research took a really interesting turn. Researchers repeated the experiment, but this time half the customers got “buy 10, get one free” cards, and the other half received “buy 12, get one free” cards with the first two already stamped. In both cases a person needed 10 coffee purchases to get a freebie, but fascinatingly, customers in Group 2—who perceived they had a head start—burned through their stamps significantly faster than Group 1.
These findings have huge implications for how we should set and structure goals for ourselves individually, and for our teams.
Give yourself a perceived head start by designing goals with some progress already worked in—if your New Year’s resolution is raising $1,000 for charity, don’t start at zero; start with some money you’ve already accumulated so you can feel you’re already on your way. Or structure sales targets to include the previous month or week of business. The distance to the goal may still be the same (for example, if your original target was $10,000 and you’re starting with $1,000, you can simply raise your target to $11,000). Your team will work harder to get there because the target seems closer—just as it did for the customers who received a 12-punch coffee card with a “head start.”
Create X-spots for your team through repeated positive feedback, shorter goal horizons and visual displays of progress. This could be as practical and simple as making weekly goals rather than yearly ones. Set a milepost at the 70 percent mark. If the goal is to return 10 client calls, be sure to note when you’ve completed that seventh call. Simply knowing you are nearing the finish will cue your brain to release those success accelerants that increase your drive and productivity.
The newest research from goal attainment labs adds another important dimension to the X-spot theory. It sounds counterintuitive, but researchers at the University of Chicago found that in situations where you’re less committed or motivated, the best way to accelerate growth is to look not ahead to the finish line, but behind at what you’ve already accomplished.
The more you’ve invested in a task or challenge, the more you begin to care. This is called “escalation of commitment,” and you have probably seen it at work many times. The more money, time and energy you’ve sunk into a project, even an ill-advised one, the more you feel obligated to keep putting in extra effort to get something out of it. Even if you weren’t fully committed to the task at the outset, highlighting the effort already invested tells your brain to release more success accelerants.
It’s a strategy that can be incredibly useful in the working world. Maybe you need to staff a new department but you hate dealing with the hiring process. Instead of dwelling on how many more résumés you must sift through and how many candidates you’ve yet to meet, note how many are already done.
Whatever the target, and no matter how frustrated you feel, take a few minutes to write down all the strides you’ve made so far. Look how far you’ve come, how much time and effort you’ve already invested. Those points of progress are X-spots—reminding you of past success will help your brain perceive that you are nearing the ultimate target, which will energize and motivate you to speed up.
Strategy II: Magnify Target Size
The proximity of your goal isn’t the only thing that matters when it comes to constructing a reality in your brain. Just like those state-of-the-art Aegis missiles, your brain is constantly calculating the size of the target or how likely you are to hit it.
Target size refers to the perceived likelihood of attaining a goal, not how important or ambitious the goal is. Think about darts. The larger the bull’s-eye, the more likely you are to hit it. Does that make hitting the bull’s-eye a great accomplishment? Not particularly, but it does make it more achievable, and that fact isn’t lost in your subconscious.
One of my favorite experiments on this involves golf. Using a video projector, researchers surrounded a golf hole with illuminated circles to see whether golfers would perceive the actual hole as larger or smaller, even though they consciously realized the hole was the same size it had always been. Then they looked at whether the golfers’ perception of the hole’s size would affect performance—indeed it did.
When the hole looked bigger (because of projected images of tiny circles surrounding it), the golfers made significantly more putts. When the hole looked smaller, they missed significantly more. This study shows that when we perceive a reality in which success is likely, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Fortunately, there are some simple ways of improving your chances of succeeding, simply by increasing the belief that you’ll do so. Let’s say you’re struggling with a challenging project that a client asked for at the last second. Remind yourself of all the previous projects you have completed that were even more difficult and rushed. Suddenly success will feel more likely.
Research geeks know that “N” refers to the number of participants in a study—we want N to be as high as possible because the larger the sample size, the more reliable the data. It turns out N is one of the factors used by your brain to determine the likelihood of success in the real world—except N equals the amount of competition you face.
For example, what do you normally think is most predictive of students’ SAT scores? Scores at their school over the past decade? The amount of federal funding received by their school? Socioeconomic status? Nope—it’s N. Amazingly, researchers found a significant correlation between the number of test takers per location and their SAT score—the more test takers in a room, the lower their SAT scores.
Why would greater numbers of people in the room lower one’s score? The reason lies in target size. When we perceive there are fewer competitors, we perceive greater likelihood of success, which results in increased engagement, concentration and performance.
So how do we utilize this knowledge? If you’re starting a business, consider targeting a relatively untapped market, doing something no one else has done. Or at least set up shop in a part of the city where you won’t have to walk past your competitors’ offices every morning.
Multiply “Park Factors”
I love baseball. It’s so much about science and numbers—on the other hand, baseball is slow as a drunk tree sloth, so there’s not much else to do but think about the numbers.
According to sports statisticians, different stadiums are better for hitting home runs than others. And it’s not just the size of the park that matters: “Park factors” also include wind, building features that block wind, temperature, altitude, humidity and so on.
Players know exactly which stadiums are good for hitting home runs and which aren’t. So what happens if a player is moved to a team whose ballpark has greater park factors than his current one—say 28.8 percent better? Statistically, one would expect that he should hit 28.8 percent more home runs.
But an analysis found that the player actually hits 60 percent more home runs (and weaker hitters benefit most). Why? The answer lies in the target size. If you believe you have a higher likelihood of hitting a home run, you’re more likely to swing for the fences.
In business and life, just as in baseball, our perceptions can affect whether we give something our all. One way to increase your “park factors” is to set reasonable goals.
Let’s say you want to increase your clients from 15 to 25 in the next month but aren’t optimistic about your chances. Why not set the seemingly more doable goal of adding five new clients in two weeks’ time? The number of clients to add within a certain time frame hasn’t changed, of course, but adding five clients at a time seems less daunting.
Strategy III: Recalculate Thrust
The third accelerant of success is the amount of energy, or “thrust,” your brain perceives is necessary to hit your target. Research shows that we perceive certain tasks as requiring far more mental energy, effort and resources than others. The more mental effort—or thrust—we believe is necessary to accomplish a goal, the more likely we are to give up.
In 2011 I gave a talk at a major animation studio in California, and one of the attendees observed, “When I’m doing normal work, I usually have tons of energy afterward to work out. But when I’m being especially creative, I have a boost of energy, but then feel too exhausted to work out. I sat at my desk the same amount of time, but it’s like I put in three or four days of work.”
You have probably experienced this effect many times. The reason is that cognitive function and willpower are like muscles. If you’re doing tasks you know well, which use a part of the brain you work out often, you can put in eight hours and not feel exhausted. But any time you have to use new skills or intelligences you access less frequently, an hour can seem as depleting as three or four normal days of work.
The reason for this lies in your brain’s levels of glucose, its primary source of fuel. Because difficult tasks require more glucose than simple ones, trying to use parts of your brain that are out of shape and thus have to work harder comes at a high cognitive cost. Try to routinize what you have for breakfast, when you take coffee breaks and so on. This way, you don’t waste valuable mental energy deciding trivial things.
Researcher Roy Baumeister has found that your brain’s self-regulation, or willpower, is exactly like a muscle in your arm. You can strengthen your willpower, but only if it’s rested. You wouldn’t try to help someone move furniture immediately after lifting weights at the gym, so why would you try to do your most important work after making lots of other emotional and cognitive decisions? Do your most important work early in the day and never schedule two really important meetings back to back.
Remember, it is your perception of the amount of time and effort involved that matters most in goal-attainment. If running an errand way across town seems as if it will take forever, Google-map how many minutes it actually takes. Just as the belief that a task will require extreme effort drains our enthusiasm, so does the belief that the task or project will take a long time. In almost all cases, thinking about a task in terms of discrete units will make it seem much less difficult and daunting.
Stop Watching the Clock
The longer you think it will take to accomplish something, the more difficult you perceive the task to be. And as we’ve seen, the harder your brain thinks something is, the harder it will actually be to achieve it.
Emotional expectations play a large role in shaping our perceptions of time. Today, if a website takes seven seconds to load, we’ll be long gone, whereas 20 years ago we would have marveled at the miraculous speed of our brand-new modem. The point is, time is very subjective and relative.
A one-year economic downturn might seem plenty survivable to a 60-year-old entrepreneur who has ridden the financial roller coaster before. In the grand scheme of things as she sees it, a year isn’t such a long time. But the same recession could seem utterly catastrophic to a 25-year-old who opened shop at age 22.
There are a lot of practical benefits to perceiving time like someone more experienced. Just think, if you’ve been running on a treadmill for 20 minutes but perceive it to be only 13, you’re more likely to have seven more minutes of stamina. How about putting a towel over the treadmill’s clock when you start running? If you want to harness all your energy to work longer and harder, all you need to do is change your perception of how long you’ve been working. Ironically, the key to managing time is to lose track of it.
We’ve all experienced how time seems to fly when we’re fully immersed in something. This happens when your brain’s timekeeper, located in the cerebral cortex, diverts resources to other parts of your brain that are working hard. It therefore doesn’t have enough resources left for its primary job—keeping time. As a result, time seems to go faster, allowing you to work harder and longer.
As I learned during my stint in the Navy, a weapons system can have the fastest missile in the world, but if it’s not locked on its target, it will whiz right past. Similarly you can try to master the success accelerants, but if you aren’t on the right trajectory—meaning you aren’t chasing goals the right way—you won’t accomplish much.
In my work with companies, I have seen over and over again that fear is a terrible motivator. We spend our lives trying to avoid the rocks, and as a result we end up steering right into them. The more we dwell on the possibility of losing a client, not getting promoted and so on, the more our brains aim us straight for our pessimistic assumption.
I saw this vicious cycle being lived out by a 60-year-old investment banker from a prestigious firm in New York. He opened up and told me that when he was growing up, his family didn’t have much money and the lack thereof had caused a lot of strife, resulting in his parents’ divorce.
His cash-strapped childhood was so painful that he vowed to avoid repeating it when he became a father. That’s why he went into banking. Yet his fear became all-consuming. He constantly worried about making money, and the more he worked, the less time he spent with his family. Pretty soon he was missing piano recitals, ball games, birthdays and other important life events. In the end, his wife couldn’t take it and filed for divorce.
The point is this: What we focus on becomes our reality, which is why it’s so important to train our brains on real, meaningful, positive goals. This is true in just about every realm of life you can think of.
One technique is to keep visual cues in your environment to remind you. But one of the most misapplied ways of doing this is “vision boarding,” a strategy in which people cut out magazine pictures of their wildest fantasies and put them on a corkboard in their bedroom or office. Problematically, these boards almost always reflect unrealistic, commercially motivated visions of what life “should” look like.
Unrealistic fantasies are the siren calls that tempt our boats toward the rocks. That does not mean vision boards are bad; they can be helpful if employed correctly using realistic goals based upon real benchmarks that are attainable in the near future. If done properly, vision boarding can help us achieve our real aims (eating more healthfully this month than last) versus the ones society wants us to have (six-pack abs).
Of course, visualization doesn’t take the place of action; it’s not the means to your goals. It’s the accelerant that gets you on the right trajectory. The would-be marathoner may imagine himself crossing the finish line to a roaring crowd at first, but he has a long way to go—he gets there by laying out a plan that might take months or years. Along the way, he’s looking backward at the work he’s already put in and ahead to the next morning’s run, which is just a little bit longer than his last jaunt.
Positive genius is all about focusing more of your brain’s resources on success rather than failure. Whatever your personal or professional goals may be, keep your eyes on the target—recognizing how close it really is and how excellent your chances of hitting it are—to create X-spots, those special brain events that provide the energy to accelerate, along with the drive and focus to succeed.
Shawn Achor is a Harvard-trained researcher and best-selling author of The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness. Get a daily dose of happy at Shawn's Facebook page.
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