Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Look before you leap. Think twice. How often have you been on the receiving end of similar advice when embarking on a new idea?
While the value of a well-considered plan can’t be underestimated, new thinking in neuroscience suggests that the more we think about something without formulating a plan, the less likely it is to result in success. Put bluntly by a Stanford psychiatrist analysing brain activity in individuals learning a new creative skill: “The more you think about it, the more you mess it up.”
If you’re suffering from overthink or ‘analysis paralysis’, it’s time to cast aside self-doubt and your myriad of excuses for why you haven’t pursued that career change or new business idea. Time instead to transform your thoughts into living, breathing realities.
1. Give your dream a new label
If you’ve been stuck in thinking mode for an age, your dream’s description may feel tired and old. “A new label helps you look at an existing problem from a different angle and imagine new possibilities,” says Stop Talking Start Doing author Richard Newton.
Studies have shown we find it easier to come up with ideas on behalf of someone else, so create some distance between yourself and your dream. Use a technique we call ‘What would Beyoncé do?’ whereby you look at the problem and redefine it from the point of view of your favourite celebrity, role model or someone you admire, until you hit upon a fresh definition. You can also use the ‘sorting hat’ method, where you look at your idea from various different perspectives – from a purely emotional point of view, from a business-minded perspective, with supreme confidence, criticism or optimism and so on. Various other creative brainstorming techniques can help you hit upon a new label that reinvigorates your dream. Set a deadline – you don’t want this redefinition work to delay further action.
2. Flick a mental switch
“We cannot solve our problems,” said Albert Einstein, “with the same thinking we used when we created them”. Your brand new definition has hopefully re-fired up your enthusiasm; now tell yourself that this signifies the start of a new era in the realisation of your dream – one characterised by action.
3. Break down your goals – smartly
You may have a very worthy goal, but if it’s the first time you’ve attempted to take action, knowing where to start might prove tricky. For instance, your goal might be to create a website to showcase your personal and professional achievements with the world. Break the journey down into meaningful milestones; make your goals SMART - Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely.
Examples of SMART mini goals to inch you towards that overarching aim of a live website include: 'draw up a list of content I’d like my website to house'; 'research the availability of templates I can customise'; and 'watch an online tutorial for tips on building basic sites'.
4. Little and often is best
If you’ve three months to complete a project, you’ll probably use up that entire three-month period, typically with the majority of activity taking place in the final days or weeks. If on the other hand the same project had a two-week deadline, it’s quite possible you’d deliver the same, shifting plans and resources to accommodate your obligation. In other words, we use up whatever time we’re allotted.
So when it comes to delivering on those SMART mini goals, the key to maintaining momentum and motivation is little and often. Dedicating half an hour three times a week is more sustainable and manageable over the long term than devoting entire weekends to a project which leaves you approaching burnout.
5. Create a personal advisory board (PAB)
Be clear on who can and will help you along the way. This might include close allies as well as individuals you admire from afar and whose wisdom you can glean through online videos and other resources.
Be realistic about what each individual can offer. “No one person possesses all the skills necessary to help you succeed,” cautions Global Vice President, Product Marketing at Sage, Jennifer Warawa in her blog for Virgin Entrepreneur. “Like organisations with board of directors, your personal board of directors needs to exhibit diverse skills. You need multiple people in your corner to bounce ideas off, get perspective on an issue or roadblock, or possibly open doors for you.”
She advises that every PAB should include: someone you admire dead or alive (a senior individual within your organisation or even an historical figure you encounter through biographical literature); someone who will play devil’s advocate (with whom you feel comfortable enough to thrash out the merits of your idea); an accountant (the type of individual programmed to focus on cold, hard data); a diametric opposite (someone who’ll lend a different perspective); and someone who knows you well (a friend, partner, trusted colleague or mentor).
6. Commit, publically
“Once a stand is taken, there’s a natural tendency to behave in ways that are stubbornly consistent with the stand,” writes Dr Robert Cialdini in Influence: The Psychology Of Persuasion.
If you’re of particularly determined character, an internal stand might suffice; if you lean towards procrastination, making a stand on a public platform can give the final push. This could involve asking key members of your personal advisory board to hold you accountable, sharing timely email updates with relevant stakeholders, or blogging your progress.
7. Start a journal
Purchase a new notebook – one that appeals visually and you know you’ll enjoy using. From the front page onwards, document all that will foster positive feelings about your project: successfully completed mini goals; the personal importance of succeeding; relevant past achievements and feedback from your professional and personal life.
From the back page inward, document your fears about what could go wrong. “Rationally and calmly… writing down and articulating these fears immediately makes them more smaller, realistic and more manageable,” says Richard Newton.
The author of Four Ways To Turn Ideas Into Action (RSA) observed during interviews with productive entrepreneurs a candid openness “about the thing that hadn’t gone well with their projects”.
“When giving an account of ourselves, all of us will sometimes feel the temptation to talk up our achievements – the things we’re proud of, and the moments where our skill and good sense won the day. It’s much harder to take a long hard look at what you’ve done and say ‘that was the wrong decision,’ while avoiding the slide into fatalism or bitterness,” writes Sam Thomas.
Creating this space effectively gives you permission to muck up occasionally, knowing that to do so is part of the process rather than a dream-ending disaster.