Imagine you can work for just four hours a week but take home a five-figure pay cheque. Sounds impossible? That’s what author Tim Ferriss did and wrote about, in his bestselling book The 4-Hour Work Week.

Most of us choose to set realistic, achievable, and measurable goals. We like to meet objectives than risk failure. But the other school of goal setting, with proponents such as Ferriss and actor Will Smith, makes a case for being unrealistic with your dreams. In fact, Smith cautions us that being realistic could be the path to mediocrity.

Bigger can be better

Psychologists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham’s 35 years of research found that bigger goals push us to do better. They lead to the highest levels of performance, as they:

  • Make us focus on activities that matter.
  • Energize us, physically and mentally.
  • Increase our persistence.

But not always

Building a counter argument on the need to be practical, Alejandro Chaban, author and entrepreneur, shares an example. If a person aims to run a full marathon just weeks into training, s/he is going to exhaust themselves, and possibly fail. But as a long-term goal, this would be achievable. Realistic goals:

  • Decrease failure.
  • Inspire because they are achievable.
  • Bring positive emotional and psychological effects.

What is the right way to set goals, then? The jury is still out. And given that as individuals, we each have unique personalities, there’s no one size that fits all.

Let’s shift the lens

We invite you to focus more on the path than the objective. Heidi Grant Halvorson, motivational psychologist, says that to be successful in achieving goals, it’s necessary to understand the difference between believing that you will succeed, and believing you will succeed easily. She categorizes the mindset of goal achievement into two:

  • Realistic optimists believe they will succeed, make success happen through planning, persistence, and choosing the right strategies. These are the people who send out more job applications, find the courage to approach potential partners, and work harder on exercises.
  • Unrealistic optimists believe that success will happen to them. They rely largely on positive thinking; focusing on concerns or obstacles bogs them down. Though positivity is crucial, such optimists lack discipline, and make short-sighted decisions.

She found the same pattern recurring in several studies: realistic optimists expect challenges on the path towards their goal and work hard to overcome them. This effort takes them towards success. Not just the nature of their goals.

The message: whether your goals are exceptionally ambitious or realistic, work out a way to achieve them. In Halvorson’s words, “Don’t just visualize success — visualize the steps you will take in order to make success happen.”

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