“People will kill you over time, and how they'll kill you is with tiny, harmless phrases, like be realistic.”
I’ve always loved this quote. Entrepreneurs are naturally big dreamers, but how many times has a friend, family member or random person in conversation told you to be realistic? For most of us, it’s at least a few dozen.
While most of these naysayers have good intentions, some just downright don’t want us to succeed. Because they’re trapped in circumstances they’re unhappy with, they think everyone else should be, too.
Today I’m here to advocate for the unrealistic. Doing things that most people would find far-fetched is the only way great progress is ever made. Not only that, though, it can be a hugely effective source of inspiration for your business.
Defining Unrealistic Goals
Before we dive too deep, it’s important to define what I mean by an unrealistic goal.
I’m not talking about pipe dreams or things that are logistically impossible, like ‘have a million dollars in my bank account by tomorrow.’ Unless you’ve already put in the legwork and have a cash-generating mechanism in place, it’s not going to happen without a magician’s help. These type of abstract, purpose-lacking goals will only discourage you.
Instead, I’m talking about methodically, deliberately setting goals most people would deem “unrealistic” but that you feel compelled to achieve. This might be something like ‘become a New York Times bestselling author’ or ‘command a $50K speaking fee’ or ‘develop a new personal communication device that will replace the smartphone.’
Sure, they’re not goals the average person would set, but they’re meaningful, actionable and most importantly, can be achieved. These types of goals are the ones that will allow you to smash through plateaus, overcome slumps and stay consistently motivated about your business.
The Science Behind Motivation
Here’s the thing most people fail to understand about motivation: it isn’t constant, and that’s okay. It’s not supposed to be. It’s a common bad habit amongst entrepreneurs to jump from one project to the next, diving into something else before the last thing is completed. It’s not necessarily a good thing, but it’s natural.
Interest level and motivation, like any emotional state, aren’t constant. They ebb and flow. Nobody is ever happy all the time or excited all the time. Just like you sometimes feel down in the dumps or just plain bored, sometimes you’re just not interested in your work, no matter how passionate you are about it deep down. The problem happens when you take this as an indication that your goal is no longer worth pursuing because you’ve lost interest. In reality, it’s simply the natural ebb and flow of interest level over the life of a project.
Turns out, there’s a scientific reason behind it. Research has demonstrated that motivation has a strong link with dopamine in the brain. On the most basic level, those with high levels of dopamine in the reward-seeking centers of the brain are more likely to be motivated to complete a task, while those with less are more likely to slack off.
Aha! That burst of excitement and stay-up-all-night work ethic you get at the start of a project when you’re super jazzed about it? Yep, dopamine is to thank. But of course, thanks to biology, dopamine doesn’t keep flooding your brain until the project is complete. It ebbs and flows, contributing to your interest level and motivation over time.
Which brings us back to unrealistic goals, those huge goals that give that tingly feeling in your stomach. Because of science—the very chemistry of our brains—those goals are the ones that will help us stay excited and motivated about a project over the long haul.
Unrealistic Goals Force You Into Action
If you set a small goal, like ‘get three loads of laundry done today’ (can you see where my head is currently at?) it’s easy to push it off because it takes so little effort; you can always do it later. If the laundry doesn’t get done, no big deal. There’s always tomorrow.
But if you set a much larger goal, like ‘buy my dream house by the end of the year,’ there’s a ticking clock and a whole lot of work to be done. If you don’t make an offer before Thanksgiving, you’re unlikely to close on your dream house before the end of the year. And if you don’t start house hunting by summertime, you might not find the right place in time. The sheer volume of the task—that is, if you truly want to complete it—forces you to start moving now.
Unrealistic goals also force you to take big steps.
When the goal is small, you can take baby steps each day and still get there. Not so with massive goals. If you don’t take leaps every day, you’ll never make it there. Unrealistic goals force you to cut the distractions and focus only on the big action items that will move you closer toward your destination.
The Irony Of Unrealistic Goals And Competition
In The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss tells a thought-provoking story. While lecturing a college class about entrepreneurship, he offered a challenge for motivated students. They were to somehow make contact with three high-profile people they admired—celebrities, business moguls, etc.—and ask them a series of questions they’d always wanted to know the answer to. The student who could show the most impressive results would win a round-trip plane ticket anywhere in the world.
A lofty goal. A hefty prize. And guess what happened?
Not a single student took Ferriss up on the challenge. No one even tried.
“If someone had sent me no more than an illegible one-paragraph response,” Ferriss writes, “I would have been obligated to give them the prize.”
But all of the students were so sure their peers would outdo them that they convinced themselves it wasn’t worth the effort. Hard to believe, right?
And yet it’s a phenomenon we see replicated over and over again in the real-world. Companies hiring for low-paying jobs like retail associates receive dozens or even hundreds of applications for each available position. But high-skill jobs like pharmacy technicians? Companies can’t even find qualified applicants to interview. It’s harder (and presumably more unrealistic) to set out to be a pharmacy tech than a cashier, and yet there’s much less competition.
The road less traveled is never crowded. Set unrealistic goals and you’ll find yourself with plenty of breathing room.
Unrealistic Goals And Timing
There’s one catch about using unrealistic goals to stay inspired that we haven’t touched on yet: timing. In order for unrealistic goals to work, they can’t have an abstract due date. There has to be an equally unrealistic timeline.
Think back to your years as a student (or maybe your years in a boring job you hated). That time you put off an assignment or project until the very last minute and it was seemingly going to be impossible to get it done in time.
But what did you do? By gosh, somehow you got it done, whether it required ten Red Bulls or calling in a favor or even cutting a few corners. You had an unrealistic goal with an even more improbable timeline, and by sheer force of will and ingenuity you made it happen. There was no other option (save getting fired or failing the class)—your inspiration level was high because it had to be.
Pretty incredible, right? In a similar way, you can pair your unrealistic goals with superhuman deadlines to accomplish things you never imagined you’d be able to do.
If just thinking about this is getting your blood pressure pumping, practice this first on a small scale with a task that’s not so do-or-die. Pick something that needs to get done today and set an unrealistic timeline for knocking it out—an hour, say. Set a timer on your smartphone or computer, put your phone in airplane mode, close out your inbox and get to work.
When the clock is ticking down on an urgent task, watch how fast it magically gets done.
A Final Word
Unrealistic goals work, and they’re highly effective for keeping your inspiration level strong. But as with any “hack” in life, they’re best used in moderation.
What’s the biggest thing you want to accomplish in the next month? Six months? A year? (Any longer than a year and your timeline is way too long.) Pick that one thing and set yourself an unrealistic goal. Focus on it, take big leaps and remember to set a deadline. You’ll be blown away as you watch it happen.
What unrealistic goals are you setting for the year ahead? Leave us a comment below and let us know!
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