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Tonianne DeMaria


Dream BIG… But Get Those Dreams in Writing

The brain is a pattern-seeking, ambiguity-hating energy hog

Published: Wednesday, June 15, 2016 - 16:58

No doubt you’ve seen evidence of its ascendance: The cottage industry that’s become a multibillion dollar “motivational industrial complex” of sorts. Its rallying cry, “If you think it, you can achieve it!” is plastered just about everywhere these days. From gilt-framed posters of eagles soaring high above Alpine peaks, to bland, bald, and barefooted Ziggy offering up a side of sentimentality with every calendar-month cartoon affirmation, to treacly tidings engraved on necklaces and bracelets “perfect for the graduate in your life.” They all echo a variation of that familiar exhortation: Dream the impossible dream!

However, simply dreaming the impossible dream can actually prove counterproductive, rendering many goals quixotic at best.

Ay, there’s the rub

The brain is a pattern-seeking, clarity-needing, ambiguity-hating energy hog. When it comes to actual goal achievement, it needs tangible, achievable steps it can carry out one after the other, in sequence. It likewise wants these steps to be innocuous enough that they don’t trigger a fear response by engaging the amygdala—the brain’s fight-or-flight mechanism. Science shows when goals are made concrete and then broken down into constituent parts that are actionable, the likelihood for success is significantly higher than if they simply remained a thought exercise.

Merely fantasizing about a goal isn’t just demotivating, it can lead us to self-sabotage. That’s because the brain has difficulty differentiating between projected success and success that has been realized. As such, it produces serotonin regardless. This “happiness molecule” tricks the brain into thinking it’s already achieved what is otherwise still an aspiration, thus preventing any impetus for follow-through.

Holding big audacious life goals in our head, or even our daily list for that matter, consumes energy. It zaps our metabolism, draining us physically and emotionally. Writing down all the things we would like to accomplish helps us clarify them, reducing uncertainty and easing anxiety. It likewise holds us accountable and lightens our cognitive load. The subsequent dopamine release—the “motivation molecule”—assists with the momentum needed to see those tasks to fruition.

To grunt and sweat

If it matters to you, and it needs to get done, put pen to paper. Not only will writing down goals help you clarify them, breaking them into actionable steps also will help you make progress toward completing them. The act of seeing your progress will in turn trigger the reward response, incentivizing you toward completion.

The next time your inner bard contemplates whether “to Personal Kanban or not to Personal Kanban?” remember, writing down your goals and decomposing them into actionable steps on your Personal Kanban is an essential part of the achievement process. The visual and kinesthetic feedback produced by completion is a reward in and of itself, creating a virtuous cycle in which confidence, motivation, and momentum can transform those seemingly impossible dreams into reality.

For more on how Personal Kanban can make your goals actionable and achievable, sign up for an upcoming webinar or an online class.

The author offers apologies to Cervantes, Shakespeare, Peter O’Toole (whose voice she learned, was actually dubbed), and any literature majors who might be reading this.

First published May 27, 2016, on the Personal Kanban blog.


About The Author

Tonianne DeMaria’s picture

Tonianne DeMaria

Tonianne DeMaria is partner and principal consultant at Modus Cooperandi, and co-founder of Modus Institute and Kaizen Camp. She is co-author of the Shingo Research and Publication Award-winning book, Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, and the upcoming Why Kanban Works and Kidzban. DeMaria is passionate about the roles collaboration, value-creation, and happiness play in “the future of work,” and appreciative of the ways in which lean thinking can facilitate these ends. She helps clients create cultures where effectiveness is valued over productivity; learning and continuous improvement is ongoing; innovation can take hold; and where healthier, fulfilling, and more integrated lives can result.