Did your parents try to persuade you to eat your carrots because they would help you see in the dark?
We can now add to this advice with something more relevant to personal development. Yes, goals really do help you see in the dark!
The ‘dark’ I refer to here are missed opportunities. These are the events, people, possibilities and objects that go unnoticed every day.
We have evolved an ability to ignore what our unconscious mind considers to be unimportant to our conscious awareness. If we tried to consciously process every piece of information that our senses picked up, every minute of the day, we would be overloaded with information.
In case you need proof that our conscious minds don’t ‘see’ everything that our eyes see, next time you are looking in the mirror, scan different parts of your face. Even though your eyes are obviously moving in order to focus on different parts of your face, you will not register this motion. Your eyes appear to be motionless.
Question is, how does the unconscious mind prioritise data? What mechanism allows it to filter out data or allow it into consciousness?
Essentially, things come into our conscious awareness if they are deemed important to us. This could be for safety reasons. It is advantageous to our survival if we notice a scurrying insect, react to a loud noise or notice a suspicious character. It could be for physiological reasons; you might be hungry or tired.
It could also be because of our habits. Developing habits is a great way to free the conscious mind for more useful things. We have hundreds of well-worn habits that help us go about daily life more easily. Take driving a car. After a while, you don’t have to think about many of the actions needed to simultaneously change gear, steer, indicate, brake or accelerate. It happens without thinking.
Have you ever set off in your car with loads on your mind and realised 5 minutes into the journey that you are driving in completely the wrong direction? I do it often. In the absence of clear directions (goals) from our conscious mind, the unconscious mind looks to past habit and says “we usually go this way, so let’s go that way again.” For the first 5 minutes of this journey, who was driving? Your unconscious mind, that’s who.
Another factor that determines what gets into our conscious awareness is what we consider to be important to us. This is why goals are so important. Goals are, by definition, important to us. Goals that have an emotional significance associated with them are particularly effective at triggering the unconscious mind to allow data into our conscious awareness. This data often supports the achievement of that goal. We see opportunities that we would have not seen before. The significance of a chance meeting becomes visible to us and we act to build a relationship. A book catches our eye; we read it and find it helps us on our development journey.
So, goals really do help us see in the dark.
But that isn’t the end of this post. You see, the unconscious mind doesn’t just act as a filter for our consciousness. It does things. It makes things happen. Recent studies¹ have shown that many of our actions are determined and acted out at an unconscious level and then communicated to consciousness after the event. We are deluded in thinking that we ‘consciously’ make many, possibly all, our decisions.
I have discussed what enables our unconscious mind to filter data in or out of consciousness. I have argued that goals are one such enabler. It follows for me that goals are also an enabler for the unconscious mind in deciding what to do; what actions to take.
I have often set goals and then forgotten about them. I will have written them down but then stuffed the piece of paper in a draw. On more than one occasion I have found these pieces of paper and realised that some of the goals had been achieved. Reflecting on how this happened, I remembered the people I met, the opportunities I saw and the decisions I made that drove me towards the goal. At the time, however, this goal was not in my conscious awareness, nor were the decisions and actions consciously connected with its achievement.
So, I say again, goals help us see in the dark.
Both our conscious awareness and unconsciously-driven actions are impacted by our goals.
There are risks and opportunities in this process. The risk is that without clear, consciously thought-through goals, our subconscious mind will utilise other filters to direct its actions. Habits and belief systems are two such filters.
Another filter is what we think about. Our everyday thoughts are goals in disguise. If we worry about failure too much, that can become our goal. We see opportunities to fail and miss opportunities to achieve. Our unconscious mind might steer us towards negative people and away from those that might encourage us.
To counteract these risks, we can set goals. The opportunity is in making sure we have thought about and planned our goals well. We need to be enthused about them and think about them often. This will improve our chances of ‘seeing’ opportunities as they appear. It will also improve the chances that decisions made outside our conscious control are decisions that take us towards our goals.
Without goals, all is not lost, of course. It is simply a case of being careful what we think about. As Earl Nightingale said back in the 50’s: “We become what we think about, most of the time.” Positive thinking becomes positive intent for the unconscious mind. Negative thinking risks our unconscious mind following a more negative route.
I believe goals and goal setting are major forces for good in achieving what we want in life. The activity taps into physiological processes that come naturally to us, having evolved over millions of years.
I will be looking at goal setting much more in future posts. I will be sharing some of my goal setting strategies. These have been developed over many years, adapted from others’ great work, then tried and tested.
I know when I am off my game, when I am not focused on my goals. My life becomes a ‘darker’ place. When I’m thinking about my goals, thinking about the positive things in life, I know life is a much ‘brighter’ place.
For me, goals really do help me see in the dark.
¹http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Consciousness_Studies/Neuroscience_1 (pp3-4, The delay before consciousness of “voluntary” actions. Accessed on 7th July 2011)