Achieve Your Goals with Less Grinding

It doesn't always have to be so hard

Pavel Neznanov / Unsplash

Hey all — Dan here. I'm incredibly excited to announce that Michael Ashcroft is joining Every to write a monthly column called Expanding Awareness. It's about unlocking a greater sense of agency, ease and aliveness in your business and in your life by learning to explore and control your awareness.

At Every, we believe that if you want to upgrade your performance you have to start by upgrading yourself. Learning how your brain and body work—what is underneath productivity—is one of the most important steps you can take to reach your goals. That's what Michael will be covering in this column, and it's why I'm so excited to have him join.

What follows is his first article in this new column, I hope you take as much away from it as I did.


A few years ago I accidentally drove a rental car across the state of Vermont with the parking brake engaged the whole time.

As I drove, I found the steering was heavy and the engine was working harder than before. But instead of trying to find what was causing the problem, I pushed down harder on the accelerator. When I arrived, the burning smell was bad enough to make me think there was a fire in the area. That’s when I noticed the brake engaged in the “on” position and I realized why my drive had been such a grind.

I used the word 'grind' on purpose. I was literally grinding down the brake pads on that innocent car. We also use the word to describe what it can feel like to work towards our goals—and we usually use the same grind-it-out approach. When things get tough in our lives it's tempting to just lean a little harder on that figurative gas pedal. This works, in the same way that I was able to push the car harder to overcome the resistance of the brake, but in both cases, grinding  creates inefficiency and even damage.

It doesn’t have to be this way. When it comes to pursuing goals, you can learn to notice when you’re grinding, and instead of leaning harder on the accelerator you can opt to disengage the parking brake. The feeling is incredible: suddenly you can go faster, turn more easily, and set your sights on more distant destinations without worrying whether you’ll make it. 

My aim with this essay is to help you learn how to do this.

You don’t control your behavior, you control your perceptions

If you want to learn how to grind less, the first step is to notice that you already know how to do it. The exciting truth is that you accomplish most goals in life automatically and effortlessly. 

Think of something like grabbing a drink of water. You realize you’re thirsty, you set an intention to drink something, and your body organizes itself to get a drink. You quench your thirst without much thought or effort on how you do it.

Grabbing water is almost never a grind, but this mechanism doesn’t always work so easily when we work towards our higher level goals. What’s going on here?

One framework to start to unpack this is Perceptual Control Theory, which states that we bring about changes in the world by contrasting the perception we want to have with the perception we currently have. Our mind and body then work together to bring the world into a state that aligns with our desired perception. 

Perceptual Control Theory is derived from control theory, which is widely used in engineering in the control of dynamic systems. A simple example is a car’s cruise control, which you set to maintain a desired speed. The control system compares your desired speed with the car’s measured speed and changes the power to the engine to make that happen, automatically adapting to outside conditions like hills.

In engineering, control systems use signals to coordinate actions. According to Perceptual Control Theory we control our perceptions, and to do so we vary our actions. I'll use an example from my own life to illustrate how this works.

When I was 17, the Royal Air Force accepted me onto a ‘gliding scholarship’, where I spent a week learning to fly a powered glider. Flying a plane is hard, and at first I was anxious about the myriad buttons, levers and dials in front of me and what I would have to do with them to get the glider to fly as I wanted.

But at one point the captain just told me to look straight ahead and take a mental snapshot of what I saw. I forgot about the controls for a moment and noticed that there was a little ground visible between the horizon and the instrument panel, and a lot of sky visible between the horizon and the canopy. “That view is level,” he told me. “Whenever you want to fly level, get the view to look like that.” Of course, I still had to understand the controls for this to happen, but all those actions were coordinated by the perception of ‘level’ that I wanted to experience.

When we’re not grinding we’re treating ourselves like we’re expertly flying a glider. We’re setting an intention for a state of the world we’d like to perceive, and then we’re allowing our minds and bodies to do the work necessary to bring about that state of the world.

When we’re grinding there’s something getting in the way of our natural ability to change states in the world. We over-think, over-try and generally don’t trust our innate control systems to work as they’re meant to.

So what factors are required for your perceptual control system to function properly, such that you can trust it to do its thing and avoid the temptation to interfere with it? From the perspective of PCT, you need three things to move unencumbered towards a goal: a clear sense of where you are, a clear sense of where you want to be and for there to be no conflicting goals. Exploring these further can reveal where things might go wrong, how you might know and what to do about it

Be clear about where you are

Control theory relies on the accurate measurement of two signals that represent how things are and how you want things to be. If either or both of the sensors measuring these signals happens to be miscalibrated, then the control system will try to change the behavior of the system in a way that doesn't map to reality. If the cruise control system is set to 60 mph, but the speedometer is off by 10 mph, the control system could push the car to 70 mph, because it believes the car is traveling more slowly than it really is.

Your 'sensors' can become miscalibrated too. If you have a particular habit, that habit will come to feel familiar. This is dangerous, because what feels familiar eventually comes to feel right. This is as true of bodies as it is of emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and worldviews.

Let’s say you have perfectionist tendencies—meaning that your assessment of quality may exceed others’—you’re working on a project and you’re approaching a deadline to submit a draft for feedback. The idea of submitting something below your standards feels wrong, so you grind late into the night until it feels right to share it. However, if your sense of good enough exceeds your client’s, you’re likely to work more than needed, polishing things that perhaps don’t need polishing at this stage. To avoid this, keep in mind that your sense of whether something is good enough is itself something that may need occasional recalibration.

Going further, if your assessment of how things currently are is one way, it's unlikely to occur to you to set the same goals as you would if you perceived things another way. Taking a more personal example, would it occur to you to improve your relationships if you felt that your relationships were already perfectly healthy? If you consider that your feeling of “everything is great” actually means something more like “everything feels familiar”, you might be more motivated to dig into more subtle feelings of discontentment or conflict, should they arise.

All this is emphatically not to say that you should disregard or resist your feelings. I actually encourage being fully accepting, welcoming and loving towards your feelings. Instead, I’m suggesting that feelings should be combined with evidence, reason and the ever-vigilant awareness that they might not reflect the full landscape of what’s actually going on and what you happen to have noticed within it.

Be clear about where you’re going

Once you’re clear about where you are, you need to be clear about where you’re going. Ask any experienced motorcyclist how they handle turns and you’ll get the same advice: look where you want to go, because where you look is where you’ll end up. Or, in PCT terms, be mindful about what you choose as your goal, because that’s the perception that your system will aim to create.

To make a goal is to assert that you want the world to be different from how it is now. While the desire to change the world can sound grand, every single action you take, however trivial, does in fact change the world in some way. To be able to reflect and consciously decide how you want to perceive the world is one of your greatest capacities. Or, at least, to feel as if you can; I’ll leave the question of whether free will exists for dinner party conversation.

But if you don't have a clear sense of what you want or where you're going, there's nothing to motivate and coordinate you into action. Desired perceptions—which we could also call intentions, goals or visions—are fundamentally necessary to do anything at all.

You may even go the wrong way without realizing it. Going back to the example from above of perfectionistic grinding on a client project.  What if you hadn’t realized that you misinterpreted what your client asked you to do? If your vision for your output doesn’t align with your client’s, you can grind all you want, but you won’t get any closer to where you need to be. Control theory can guide systems elegantly towards a desired outcome, but there's no intelligence checking whether the desired outcome is what’s actually desired.

In my last piece I introduced the idea that the set of things you are able to notice in any given moment, otherwise known as awareness, can expand and collapse. This is directly relevant to goals, since if your awareness is collapsed then you are unable to imagine some ways the world could be. Put another way, you can only navigate within the confines of what you can conceive.

This is perhaps why visionary leaders are often regarded with both awe and ridicule. For whatever reason, they are able to imagine a world—to set a desired perception—that other people cannot, which means only they are able to orient themselves towards it. If they succeed in making their vision real, they look to others like magicians, Until they do, or if they fail, they look insane.

So, zoom out from time to time and see if you notice anything that might suggest a course change and then keep your new destination clearly in mind.

Resolve any conflicting goals

Once you know where you are, and where you want to go, the last thing you need to do is make sure you don't have any conflicting goals. When someone is grinding this is usually what's happening—but the conflicts between goals can be subtle and hard to see. 

Have you ever had the kind of experience where, on the one hand, you want to go for a walk, but on the other hand, you haven’t resolved whether you’re going to take your phone with you? This can create a strange effect where your system is trying to solve for two conflicting perceptions—'walk without phone' and 'walk with phone'—at the same time. 

When this happens to me, I end up sort of swaying back and forth between my phone and the door, stuck in a kind of recursive, embodied error message. The way out of this trap is to consciously decide (Latin de caedere: “to cut off”) which perception I don’t want, such that the perception I do want can coordinate my actions without interference. By deciding one way or the other I become free to start walking. 

In the case of working on that project with the looming deadline, trying to solve for the highest quality in too little time usually creates stress, often with only marginal gains in quality. Once one of the conflicting goals is removed—by accepting lower quality or asking for an extension—the conflict goes away and the immediate grind eases.

The first step to actually doing this is to notice that a conflict exists at all. I talked about this in detail in my last piece: if you can't notice that you have multiple conflicting goals, you can't decide to put any of them down.

The second step is to evaluate which goal to keep and which to put down, at least for now. This may be no trivial matter. Deciding to leave your phone at home while you go for a walk is one thing, but choosing to lower your standards on a client project is quite another. This is the domain of introspection, coaching and therapy.

The final step is to learn how to put conflicting goals down in a way that doesn't sneakily add more conflicting goals to your system. Creating a goal to put down a goal is not the same as actually putting down a goal. It's like the xkcd comic where they notice there are 14 competing standards, resolve to unify them into a universal standard, and end up with 15 competing standards.

In summary, when you notice yourself grinding there's probably a bug in one of three places. Either your sense of where you are is off, you’re not clear on where you want to go, or you have conflicting goals that need untangling. Rather than pressing down on the figurative accelerator and powering your way through, you might like to consider taking a step back to look at these three things more clearly. It doesn’t have to take a lot of work—you can’t grind your way out of a grind. Just noticing what’s happening without judgment is a good place to start.

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