In a study at at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, researchers wanted to find out what motivational techniques work best. They had the subjects do sit-ups for ninety seconds once each day for four days. Those who were given the instruction, "do your best," averaged around 43 sit-ups in the ninety seconds. But those who were given specific long-term and short-term goals managed 56 sit-ups per ninety seconds by the last day. For example, one of the targets given was, "do ten percent more than you did last time."
Targets improved performance. Definite purpose does better than indefinite purpose. Better in the sense that you perform better, but also better for your health, happiness, and a sense of meaning.
If your purpose is ongoing or long-term, set landmarks or targets. Slavomir Rawicz was in a forced labor camp in Siberia. He and six men escaped from the camp and set a big goal: Make it to India alive. They made the river Lena as their first objective, and felt great satisfaction when they achieved it, even though it was not very far compared to how far they had to go. Next they wanted to reach the northern end of Lake Baikal because they knew they could follow it south and it would take them almost out of Siberia. Lake Baikal is a very long, banana-shaped lake stretching four hundred miles from the northern end to the southern tip.
In this way, one target at a time, they kept their concentration strong and their spirits high as they attempted to reach their impossible goal. Each target was a win and gave them a feeling of accomplishment, and it kept their motivation high. They made their way, incredibly enough, all the way across Siberia, moving south, then across Mongolia and the infamous Gobi Desert, and then all the way across the Himalayas and finally to India. They were fugitives being pursued by the heartless USSR secret police. They did it with only an ax and a knife. But four of them made it alive to India (it took them a month to cross the Gobi desert and two of the men died in the desert).
Use your purposes with skill. If you feel overwhelmed and stressed, concentrate on the smallest unit you can: This plate, this piece of paper. Deal with only this small unit until it is complete. Then choose another small unit. If you look at your purpose and it seems huge and discouraging, focus on the small unit task.
Michael Lotito is in the Guinness Book of World Records for eating an airplane. He did it by grinding the whole airplane into a fine powder, and then adding a little to his meals every day. Break something into small enough units and even a huge task becomes quite easy. You might think, I can't eat an airplane! but you can swallow this little teaspoon of grit in a glass of water.
Break your purpose down into targets. Make a list of targets, put them in order, and then get to work, accomplishing those targets one after the other until you have succeeded.
Adam Khan is the author of Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot, Principles For Personal Growth, and Slotralogy: How to Change Your Habits of Thought.