How to use vision to enhance goal pursuit

Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See the World

By Emily Balcetis
Published: Feb 25, 2020, 1st edition
ISBN-13: 978-1524796464
Recommendation: Avoid | Maybe | Get It | Must Have


watchingLeveraging How You See the World to Supercharge Your Goal Pursuit


In the book Clearer, Closer, Better, Professor Emily Balcetis suggests that successful people view the world differently than most. She says their visual perspective plays a role in their success. And if we were to adopt their practices, this would increase our chances of achieving our goals and dreams.


There are 2 factors why vision plays a crucial role:


  1. Our mental states have an enormous impact on our energy levels. If we are feeling positive, this sensation can amplify our efforts. If we are feeling negative, even a bump can feel like an insurmountable mountain.
  2. Our faith in our visual experiences tends to be greater than any of our other senses. Because vision is a long-distance sense, the brain relies heavily on it to predict the environment.  Based on what the brain expects to happen, our behavior is what it thinks is the best way to handle the situation. As a result, how we see the world influences our mental state.


Hence, Balcetis suggests that when it comes to setting and meeting goals, how we see our plans, progress, and potential makes a massive difference in whether we succeed or fail.

Based on her research, she highlights 4 practices to leverage this interaction:


  1. Narrow your focus of attention
  2. Materialize your plan of action
  3. Adjust your visual reference
  4. Widen your bracket


This review will discuss the 4 in more detail in the takeaways below.


Takeaway 1: Narrow  Your Focus of Attention to Increase Your Motivation


One of the significant challenges facing goals, especially long-term ones, is that it’s hard to keep your motivation up. It’s one thing if your tasks are fun, exciting, and inherently rewarding, but short of that, many find goal tasks to be a bit of a grind.  So, what do you do?


To help address that, Balcetis looked at long-distance runners. These folks have to keep their motivation up despite the growing fatigue they experience as they continue towards their goal.  She noticed something interesting about the most successful runners. They did not think about the goal line when they started the race. Instead, they would fixate on the runner in front of them or some nearby landmark. As they pass their immediate target, they shift their attention to the next one. In other words, they never thought about the goal line. They always narrowed their attention to something close by. They would focus on the finish line only when they passed the halfway mark or were closer to the goal.


She conducted an experiment in her lab to see if the above observation was more general. In her setup, she did 2 manipulations. As they were in a gym, the goal was immediately visible. So, one group was told to focus on the finish line, whereas the other group was told not to focus on anything. The other change was she added weights to the participants to make it more challenging for them. When she ran the study, she noted differences in people’s motivation, affecting their progress. She writes,


When a goal looks closer rather than impossibly far away, our mindset inspires us to double down on the pursuit of the challenge.


She found that the focus group felt 17% less effort than the non-focus group and reached the finish line 23% faster.  


The above is consistent with the goal gradient hypothesis, which states that as you feel you are getting closer to the goal, you are willing to exert more energy and effort, even if you initially think you are at the limit of your capacity. In short, seeing that you’re not far from your “target” gives you the extra boost to get there.


Balcetis argues that by narrowing your focus of attention to immediate subgoals, you get 2 benefits:


  • Motivation boost – You get energized since you have something closer to go after. You have greater confidence that any extra effort will pay off.
  • Minimization of distractions – As your attention focuses on the target, you aren’t distracted by other things.


So, the key to implementing this takeaway is knowing when to narrow your attention focus. Initially, don’t focus on the end goal (unless it’s close) but on the few achievable milestones along the way. Keep these targets small and reachable. Achieving them improves your perception of competence and encourages you to keep up your effort. Only as you get closer to your final goal should you start focusing on that. By doing so, even if you are exhausted, the goal proximity may be enough to give you the extra boost you need to finish.


Takeaway 2: Materialize Your Plan of Action to Make Progress. Don’t Just See the Goal Itself


One popular approach towards goal setting is to use vision boards, where you collect visual representations of the goal you want to achieve. These can be pictures, quotations, or any visual aids. You then paste them onto a board, which acts as a visual reminder of what you want to accomplish.


While vision boards are a great way to instantiate your dreams and goals, Balcetis writes that you must be careful using them. Research has found that if you use vision boards to imagine what it’s like at the finish line, they work against goal pursuit. In short, your brain can’t differentiate between real and imagined. So, thinking about achieving your goal lowers your motivation to invest in the effort needed for progress. The reason is because part of your brain thinks you’ve already made it.


But the outcome is different if you channel your visualization on the goal tasks. Balcetis cites a study where students visualizing themselves doing the work scored higher than those who imagined getting good grades. The latter did worse than average because they didn’t put in the effort. They had satiated themselves with the visioning.


Hence, Balcetis argues the key is getting yourself to take action towards your goal. To achieve that,  you need to materialize your action plan. This step gets your brain thinking about what needs to happen next. To do this, she lays out a 3 step plan:


  1. Consider what goal success looks like and what it means so you know where your efforts lead to
  2. Create a concrete plan of action starting from where you are to where you need to go
  3. Foreshadow what to do if you encounter any obstacles along the way


The first step is similar to the vision board but asks you to think about the different ways that signal goal success. To illustrate, imagine you’re running a race. You can consider success to be any of the following:


  • Winning first place (obvious)
  • Being in the top 100  or 1000 finishers
  • Finishing within a personal time limit
  • Just completing the race and not giving up
  • Having fun


The advantage of the above is that you have a concrete sense of what success looks like and multiple overlapping endpoints to choose from.


The next step is creating the work plan – this is critical because when you identify the essential tasks you need to do, you direct your energy towards execution. For example, imagine the difference if someone asked you to make a cake. Most of us would struggle if we didn’t have a recipe to follow. Having a blueprint tells us precisely what to do when.


The final step is about foreshadowing failure. Unfortunately, not everything will go as expected. But when you anticipate what obstacles get in your way, you can develop a contingency plan. And you do this under more calm circumstances and ahead of time. 


As Balcetis writes,


If we find ourselves thin on resources, short on time, troubled by a lack of progress, or stymied by the complexities of what we’re working to accomplish, trying to troubleshoot solutions on the fly might not be the ideal approach. In other words, drowning in a sea of troubles is not the best time to begin searching for a life preserver. It’s better if we already know where one is.


From one of her studies, Baceltis found:  


When the goals were difficult to meet, considering the challenges and planning solutions preemptively led to over 50 percent more progress on those specific goals. This was in comparison to the progress made on stated goals for which no planning prompts followed. Moreover, when they had anticipated the challenges and solutions, participants reported feeling much happier that day. Materializing hurdles and planning how to handle them improved productivity and mood.


So, by following all 3 steps in materializing your action plan, you identify and prioritize what you need to do during your day. This planning increases the likelihood of getting things done and progressing toward your goals (and achieving success).


Takeaway 3: Adjust Your Visual Frame Around Supportive Elements


As stated earlier, our mental state significantly impacts our energy levels (mental, emotional, and physical). It can push us to go further even when exhausted, but it can also hinder us if misused. So, if you know how to be more positive or less negative, you can influence how much energy you have.


The third takeaway is how to use your visual frame to adjust your mood.


More neurological real estate is taken up by vision than any other sense (taste, touch, smell). This observation is not surprising when you consider how strongly we trust our visual experience. To illustrate, Balcetis, in an interview, says that we might question what we taste, feel, or hear, but we tend to have strong beliefs about what we see.


Evidence of this can be seen in the controversy stirred up by the black/blue vs. white/gold dress. In this case, people looking at the same dress saw it as blue and black or white and gold. Each side could not imagine how the other could see something so different than what they saw.


Similar to narrow focus, Balcetis suggests that altering how you view the world can create the “right frame of mind.” For example, if you focus on negative elements, this increases your negativity bias.  It can get to the point where even strongly positive actions, such as praise, can be viewed as sarcasm or having an ulterior motive. The result is a vicious cycle where it becomes impossible to see anything beneficial.


But the same can be said of its opposite. If you focus on positive elements in your environment, you can kickstart a positivity cycle.  The key is to trigger this visual frame in 2 ways.


First, if you see something negative, shift your attention to something positive. An example is if you’re giving a speech and see someone frowning in the audience. Rather than ignoring them (which can make things worse), focus on a friendly face. Your brain tends to expand on what it focuses on, preventing the negative element from hijacking you. Note the negativity bias tends to be strong. So, it’s important to reframe your perspective as soon as possible.


The other approach is to be proactive and direct your gaze on supporting elements in your environment, such as focusing on the friendly face first in the earlier example. But these can include things that motivate or inspire you, such as quotations or reminders of past wins.  While similar to vision boards, these visual elements should encourage you to take action, feel better about yourself, or overcome barriers to success.


Remember you want to progress and not get lost daydreaming or being distracted.


Takeaway 4: Create a Wide Bracket to Explore Options for Getting Stuff Done


The wide bracket in Takeaway 4 is about expanding your view/perspective about a goal or task. It may seem the opposite of Takeaway 1, which emphasizes narrowing your attention. But the 2 are complimentary. The main difference is where and when you apply them.


The wide bracket is most useful in 2 spots. When thinking about your goal, it’s good to understand what success means. Traditionally, we view goals as being specific, but in the OKR (Objective Key Results) mode of goal setting, popularized by companies like Google and Intel, they have discovered that there are many ways to define success.


In OKR, the goal is replaced by the objective you want to achieve. Unlike traditional goals, objectives should be vague but emotionally inspiring – your why for taking action. The key results are deliverables that, if met, would be examples of achieving that objective. These outputs need to be specific and measurable, but unlike a goal, which typically has one target, you should have several key results. This is where the wide bracket comes in.


You want to generate all the different key results that would satisfy your objective. Think of them as features of what you want to achieve. The point is you don’t have to hit all of the key results; instead, if you hit any of them, you have proof that the objective was met. [OKRs are not discussed by Balcetis but are presented here to describe how wide brackets can work].


The other area where the wide bracket applies is flushing out your work plan. You want a broad view of all the tasks you need to complete and see if an ordering makes sense. For example, you may have linearly developed your workplan, but that doesn’t mean it has to be done in that order. Say you’re writing an essay. You have the conclusion but need time to crank out the introduction. But for the week, you have less time in the beginning but more towards the end. In this case, you might want to use the shorter times to get the conclusion out and use the larger blocks for the introduction. This approach goes against the typical writing introduction first and conclusion last. But taking a wider bracket by not looking at the day but the week, you can optimize your strengths and energy levels to move the progress bar.


As Balcetis says,


The key is knowing when the right time to use either…Indeed, a narrow focus can inspire us when we are nearing the end of our journey, but a wide bracket may motivate us better when we’re just starting out.


In summary, using the wide bracket is powerful when you want to first consider the breadth of options available before narrowing things down for execution.


Cons: Gaps and Issues


Nothing significant stood out regarding knowledge gaps, though 2 things would have made the book better. First, it would have been nice if Balcetis had cited more research studies to strengthen the case of generalizability. She only uses her personal goal of learning to play the drums as the overarching case study.


The second is more the lack of “walking the talk.” You would think that a book that espouses the power of vision would use a lot of diagrams, pictures, graphs, or visual aids. But the book has about 7 visuals in about 240 pages of black and white text. And frankly, even those are not exciting.


More visual examples demonstrating her principles would have made her argument more substantial and the book more valuable.


Much of the book’s Con Issues come from the writing — the first centers around her goal of learning how to play the drums to implement the 4 principles. While having a personal story can elicit empathy, drums may be a far stretch for most people. Having a  more popular or relatable use case would have been helpful.


The second is her text tends to ramble and not get to the main point. It also did not help that the book’s index was weak, so finding things was arduous. In addition, while more of a pet peeve, it wasn’t clear how the 4 principles tie to the “Clearer” of the book title. There wasn’t anything in the text that addressed dealing with ambiguity or improving clarity.


Finally, before reading the book, I watched some of her interviews where she discusses the book’s contents, and she does a far better job in those than in the book itself. She’s straightforward and to the point. So, I suggest reading this Q&A and Professor Andrew Huberman’s interview. If you examine these 2 sources, there is no primary need to get the book itself.


Summary and Recommendation


The crux of Balcetis’ argument for Clearer, Closer, Better centers around the powerful influence vision has on shaping our perception of the world around us. In turn, you can use this connection for goal pursuit because how we see things affects our energy and motivation levels. Specifically, she cites 4 ways you can achieve this:


  1. Narrow your focus. In the beginning, don’t fixate on the finish line unless it’s close, but on immediate goals, as this will motivate you to make progress.
  2. Materialize your plan of action.  Pursuing your goals takes a lot of work, so you must know what to do when and how your efforts translate to success. By making your workplans tangible and concrete, you increase the odds of pulling them off.
  3. Center your visual frame around supporting elements. As what you see affects your focus, you must consider what supports your goal and what detracts from your efforts. So, where possible, focus on the positive and not the negative. You want to create a positivity spiral to keep your motivation and energy up.
  4. Widen your bracket to consider options. Sometimes, you need to broaden your horizons before narrowing your options. You don’t want to jump to implementation immediately. Instead, take a holistic view of everything you need to carry out and see where they can be aligned or complementary.


Overall, Balcetis makes an excellent case for how we can leverage vision to chase our goals and dreams. Unfortunately, the writing is not strong. As stated in the Cons, her interviews did a better job.  Hence, while the book has valuable content, I suggest Avoid It. Just watching Huberman’s interview alone, while an hour long, covers most of the critical points in an easy-to-understand manner.


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