Focusing Your Mind Like a LASER

A laser is focused light.

Light is all around us: in the sunlight outside, the fluorescent lights overhead, the screen that you may be staring into right now. A laser takes that light and focuses it into a high-powered beam that can cut through steel, destroy missiles from space, or accompany the Allman Brothers. In fact, LASER was originally an acronym for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.” I love that acronym, because it shows a laser is essentially amplified light.

Similarly, the energy of our mind is usually diffused over many different thoughts, fears, memories, and time-wasting daydreams. With mind hacking, we are focusing this mental energy, much as a laser powerfully focuses light into a diamond-cutting beam of power. This focused mental energy lets us set and accomplish the tiny goals that move us toward the big goals. Just like the original LASER, there is an acronym that can help us define a good sub goal: one that is Limited, Achievable, Specific, Evaluated, and Repeatable.

Limited: A good sub goal is small. Dr. Peabody asked recovering alcoholics to list every item on their schedule for the next day, including periods of rest. For the alcoholic, crossing “take a nap” off a to-do list might seem silly, but it provides positive momentum: I set my mind to do this small thing, then I did it. A limited sub goal like “Work on my app for three hours this week” is better than “Add new feature X to app,” since feature X may end up taking forty hours.

Achievable: A good sub goal is something you can actually accomplish. Again, being able to point to a tiny goal that you achieved creates an upward spiral, where making progress motivates you to make more progress. “I will exercise for twenty minutes, three times this week” is a better sub goal than “Lose forty pounds by May.” Small successes tend to snowball into bigger successes.

Specific: A good sub goal is simple and clear. Most people have only a vague idea of what they want in life, and a vague idea of how to go about getting it. The skills you’re learning in this book are teaching you to be specific with your mind about what you want, and now you must be specific about the next step in getting there. For example, “I will research online schools for half an hour today” is a better sub goal than the vague and fuzzy “Look into going back to college.”

Evaluated: It’s important to figure out, “Did I do it?” Write down your sub goals, so that you can come back on a daily and weekly basis, and see whether you actually accomplished them. If not, why not? Evaluating your sub goals can help you identify the issues that are holding you back (“I was too busy,” “I got caught up in a TV show,” “I overslept”), figure out strategies for overcoming them, and create better sub goals in the future.

Repeatable: Repetition is key. While some sub goals are one-shot deals (“Enter motocross competition,” “Introduce myself to world leader”), the best sub goals are the ones that you can turn into a regular habit, a flywheel of success. “I will go to one support group this week,” “I will study for half an hour today,” “I will practice my concentration game this morning,” are all tiny goals that will be immensely powerful if repeated over time, like a LASER.

An easy way to get started with these tiny goals is to simply ask, What’s the next step? If you want to get free of your anxiety, what’s the next step? (Practice your concentration game today.) If you want to start your own llama grooming business, what’s the next step? (Spend an hour researching competitors this week.) If you want to win the Nobel Peace Prize, what’s the next step? (Get rid of your semiautomatic weapons.) Then run them through the LASER test, and act.

You already know the laser-like power of these tiny goals, because you’ve been practicing them for years. When your fourth-grade teacher gave you daily multiplication drills, when your boss asks you for a weekly status report, when a social media website encourages you to “make your profile 100% complete,” they’re all leveraging the power of tiny goals. In mind hacking, we’re now managing ourselves, setting tiny goals rather than having others set them for us.

To paraphrase former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Creighton Abrams, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Sir Tim Berners-Lee didn’t try to swallow the entire World Wide Web; he just took the tiny bite of drafting up a proposal for his boss. Day by day, piece by piece, he built the tools needed for the Web to flourish. You can eat the elephant too, if you focus on taking one bite at a time.

Psychologist Richard Wiseman created a large-scale scientific survey involving over 5,000 participants trying to achieve big goals like the ones we’ve been discussing: losing weight, starting a business, or learning new skills. One of the key findings was that people who broke their goal into a series of tiny goals were far more successful — in essence, creating a step-by-step plan for getting to their goals. “These plans were especially powerful,” Wiseman reports, “when the sub goals were concrete, measurable, and time-based.”141 Focused, in other words, like a LASER.

Skillfully defining these tiny goals, then acting on them, gives you a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. Tiny goals give you confidence to tackle bigger goals. Like a cartoon snowball rolling down a hill (I’ve never seen a real snowball do this, but it looks fantastic in cartoons), these little goals accumulate. Doing just a little bit builds your momentum to do more.

But there’s another reason to think in terms of tiny goals: it’s fun.

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