THE BLOG

What You Focus on Will Flourish

01/17/2014 08:41 am ET | Updated Mar 19, 2014

By Jan Bruce

Goals can't reach themselves. And that's why you not only need to know where you want to go and what you want to achieve, but that you put in the work to make it happen. The key to making progress, rather than just spinning your wheels with fruitless effort, is keeping your eye on the prize. In other words, pay attention.

That would be fine -- if your attention wasn't overtaxed and challenged as it is.

Challenges such as completing a difficult assignment at work, losing weight and saving money are often so daunting that we shy away from them, perhaps giving in too quickly to the frustration or fear that arises when we really begin to take them on. To make these big projects more approachable, it helps to distill the process into three stages:

1. Awareness
We've all heard that acknowledging a problem is the first part of fixing it. So the first step is to recognize that a) there's something you need to work on and b) it needs a little extra attention.

Doing tasks is not the issue. You do tasks every day. You don't need to coax yourself to brush your teeth, buy food, put gas in the car. But larger challenges can be harder to confront, perhaps because you don't want to acknowledge that you're having difficulty with them, you're scared to ask for help, and dreading what's involved (especially when the task isn't clear).

Acknowledge that powerlessness you feel. Recognize that you're struggling, and with what, and you've taken the first and hardest step towards resolution.

2. Intention
Once you've recognized that you want to make a big change, it's time to set measurable goals for yourself and be honest about what it will take to accomplish them.

Sometimes you may shy away from challenges because the path is too hard to imagine or define. Instead, this is the moment to determine what the final outcome will look like and to define a practical, attainable way to get there. Now is the time to be clear to yourself about how much weight you need to lose and by when, or break the daunting work into manageable steps, or commit to saving a certain amount of money by a certain date.

Once you define the solution in a more concrete way, it's easier to focus your energies. And you'll have something to think about as you're reaching for that unnecessary cookie, procrastinating with a less important project, or spending money on something frivolous. Once you have a concrete goal to focus on, it's easier to be honest with yourself about when you're working towards the goal and when you're not, which is a perfect segue to the third step:

3. Accountability
This is where your aspirations and reality meet. Now that you've identified a plan to reach your goal in no uncertain terms, it's time to commit to it and find ways to check in with yourself about your progress.

Sometimes this phase needs some tough love, so remember that there's no room for inertia here: either you're moving things forward, or you're not. For instance, with the example of saving money, if you can get to a point where you're no longer spending more than you make, that's good, but it's not helpful until you actually save something.

For instance, it's great to complete part of the difficult project, but if you're not then moving along to the remaining pieces, you're not really getting anywhere. If you can set up regular checkpoints to measure your progress, you're much more likely to be honest with yourself about the extent to which you are serving your goals, and if the answer isn't clear, you probably need to be doing more.

Together, those three steps -- awareness, intention and accountability -- are a pragmatic way to take on some of the more overwhelming challenges you face. It's easier said than done, but the more you practice, the stronger your skills will be.

And it goes without saying that everything's a priority, nothing is. Focus, by definition, means that some things are left out of its scope. If it's not important, doesn't move you forward, or move you in general, it may be time to let that go so you can focus on the stuff that yields greater rewards.

Jan Bruce is CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, www.mequilibrium.com, the new digital coaching system for stress, which helps both individuals and corporations achieve measurable results in stress management and wellness.

For more by meQuilibrium, click here.

For more on stress, click here.