4 Powerful Steps To Set Yourself Up For Success

“I’m so annoyed,” Tom, my coaching client, said. “The perfect situation came up, just like we talked about. Charlie asked how he should get the data we needed, and rather than ask him what he thought he should do, I told him exactly how to do it!”

Tom and I had been working on developing a coaching approach to leading his team, and he was frustrated for missing this opportunity to try it out.

I reminded Tom that learning an unfamiliar skill requires building new brain circuits, and slipping into doing things the way we’ve always done them is the brain’s automatic response. This well-grooved neural pathway can easily trip us up when we aren’t paying attention. In order to shift out of our regular habits, we need to engage the brain’s braking system, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC), creating space between the default action and trying something new.

Creating A New Response

By harnessing the power of neuroplasticity, we can cultivate more effective skills and habits. Every time we apply a newly learned skill or behavior, we activate connections between neurons, which in turn develops new neural pathways. The popularized Hebb’s rule pioneered by Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb explains that "neurons that fire together, wire together." Every time we practice the new skill, we strengthen the synaptic connections, making it easier for the brain to follow this new neural pathway.

Conscious Prioritization

Here’s the tricky part, though. Our brain is continuously bombarded with information from our environment—if it isn’t a text coming through, it’s an Instagram or Facebook notification, a weather alert or email notice. Meanwhile, our other senses are being hit from every direction. To help it cope, the brain filters out what it deems unimportant, leaving us to only see a fraction of what’s actually happening around us.

By being proactive and setting daily goals, we can influence what gets through the filters and noticed. This way we help define what we want the conscious brain to focus on and increase our chances of seeing and hearing things that can help us achieve our goals.

When learning a new skill, I often encourage clients to prioritize the same goal for several days, varying it from day to day based on their experiences from the day before, until the skill becomes second nature. When they are ready, they set a new goal.

You can make technology work for you by setting daily reminders on your phone and in your calendar to take time to set the goal and keep it top of mind.

What also helps the likelihood of achieving the goal is how it's framed.

If/Then Implementation Intentions

As demonstrated in a study by Gollwitzer and Brandstätter, we are three times more likely to succeed with our goal when we formulate it as an implementation intention, using an if/then statement. Specifying the cues to look for (the "if") and the skill or activity that should follow ("then") helps the brain keep track of the goal and lessens the chances of distraction. It becomes easier for the brain to perceive the cues as they appear and execute the behavior or action, building a strong connection between the two and generating a new neural pathway over time.

In response to our conversation, Tom structured his goal as follows: “If someone is stuck or asks me how to do something, then I will ask questions about what they think.” Being an audio learner, he decided to use his phone to record his goal every morning and got in the habit of doing it while his coffee was brewing. Pretty soon he didn’t need the calendar alert, although he said he's kept it on to remind himself to be intentional about his day.

Checking In

Last but not least, we talked about the importance of checking in with himself at the end of the day to see how he was doing. Taking the time to acknowledge successes helps us stay motivated, and recognizing the missed opportunities brings them front and center the next time they come up. Tom tweaked his goal as he got better at recognizing and using this skill and created a list of opportunities where he was trying them out.

Four Powerful Steps To Practice

Understanding what goes on in the brain and how to develop a daily goal-setting habit has helped Tom and many of my clients improve their leadership skills. Try out these four steps to set yourself up for success.

1. Consciously prioritize.

Put a daily reminder in your calendar and on your phone for goal-setting. Taking a few minutes first thing to decide where you want to focus your attention will determine the filters you bring to the day and influence what you notice.

2. State your goal.

Declare your goal by framing it as an implementation intention (if/then) statement to help consciously prioritize the cues you are looking for and the behavior or action to follow.

3. Check in.

Set a second reminder at the end of the day to check in with yourself. How did you do? In which situations did you notice the cues and apply your goal? Which ones did you miss?

4. Reset for the next day.

Take a moment to acknowledge your successes, and let go of the misses. Recognize that you get to try it out again the next day.

Repeat this process for the same goal for as long as it takes until you notice you consistently apply the skill. Once you’ve cracked the new skill, be sure to set a new goal. This way you will be well on your way to fulfilling your potential.

If you prioritize goal-setting, set implementation intentions and take a meta-view of your actions, then you will be set up for success.

What do you think? Ready to try it out?