Goal-setting has become the mark of a successful or “worthy” individual. As a result, goals have become their own kind of currency. We can feel better about ourselves because we have goals. Goals say, “This is who I am now, but not who I’ll be next week.” They give us something to brag to other people about; when we’re feeling self-conscious and think the other person is looking down on us (which, most of the time, they aren’t; they’re equally worried we’re looking down on them), we can pull out our goals to show we’re ambitious, driven, and destined for success. Too often, this is how goals are used – not as a guide towards getting what we want, but as a safety blanket to protect us from unworthiness.
Your goal is set. “I will drop 30 pounds.” “I will get a promotion.” “I will overcome my depression.” What’s the next step? In our critically-minded world, it’s to develop a strategy. Strategies are the active steps that get us where we need to be. They’re often detailed, and tactical, and completely, utterly boring. It’s rare that this strategy fires us up with passion and enthusiasm. More often, it seems like a to-do list, another set of chores that need to be sledgehammered into our already overbooked schedules. In place of carefully structured tactics, I offer the following alternative: fake it ‘til you make it.
This strategy of ‘faking it’ can also be described as “playing pretend.” You are a human, and therefore are a natural at it. It’s one of the first skills we learn as kids, and one of the first things we unlearn as adults. Children leap headlong into imaginative worlds; no doubts, no questions, just a sense of daring and willingness to have fun. The closest adults usually come to playing is daydreaming, which is just “playing’s” damp, lethargic cousin. Playing is active. Playing is constructive. And therein lies the magic of playing as a strategy.
When all you’ve got is ‘fake it’, your only option is to get yourself into gear. Faking it may not be a detailed or elaborate plan, but it’s certainly an active one. ‘Fake it ‘til you make it’ bypasses overthinking and cuts straight to doing. This is sometimes called the ‘activation before motivation’ function, the mind set of doing, even before we feel better. Rather than “waiting” for the motivation, we thrust ourselves in the right direction.
Motivation isn’t inherently bad – but there’s a risk of wearing yourself out getting “motivated” and then failing to take action. We congratulate ourselves for how motivated we’ve become, for just how ready we are, and then we think we deserve a break. ( Procrastination easily sets in if we’re not careful!) And another day goes by when we haven’t worked towards what we want. With activation over motivation, we put ourselves in motion whether we’re ready or not.
Activation over motivation is everywhere. You’ve seen Nike commercials? Just Do It. Beyond being catchy, this is genuinely good advice; get out of your head and take action. Chances are you won’t be 100% ready for the roadblocks anyway, so deal with them as they come. A similar use of activation over motivation is described in Neil Pasricha’s The Happiness Equation. In Pasricha’s guide to living a fulfilling life, the first “secret” to being happy is this: Be happy first. Skip all the nonsense of putting your goal outside of your reach by listing all the things standing in your way and, instead, do it. This is not a denial of problems, it is the healthy self’s way of giving us important pushes.
Faking is scary. It demands we come up with solutions on the fly. Chances are you’ll be petrified of someone realizing you’re a “fraud”, wearing a mask of unearned confidence like a sheep in a wolf’s pelt ( aka the imposter syndrome). But by putting yourself in that position you’re forcing yourself to adapt. As with physical exercise, we grow stronger when exposed to new and challenging training. Diving into the deep-end will find you growing much faster because you’ll have no choice. Ultimately, activation over motivation prompts our evolutionary reflex to adapt. Don’t worry – you’ve kept up so far, and you’ll continue to keep up now.
So go play! Instead of pouring over the perfect workout regime, go to the gym and be a bodybuilder for the day. When you wake up in the clutches of debilitating thoughts, decide you’ll pretend to be the most self-confident S.O.B. out there! Identify the goal, but don’t reach for it; embody it. Trust me; this approach is a lot more fun than making lists.