To Reach a Target, You Must Ignore It

by Stacey Barr |

Slacklining is the skill of balancing, walking and executing tricks on a thin strap of webbing that is suspended between two fixed points. It’s a bit like tightrope walking, except the webbing is about an inch or two wide, and it has some stretch or ‘slack’ in it which makes it wobble and bounce as you move on it.

It looks harder than it is. But I guess that depends on your approach. I’ve personally found that when you’re just learning, if you set expectations of how quickly you’ll be able to balance and walk – or if you set the expectation that you won’t ever be able to – it will influence your approach to trying.

You’ll either take too long to ‘get it’ or you’ll give up.

Pursuing targets in business isn’t too different. As I’m learning slacklining, I’ve noticed that the best way to make progress is to forget the target altogether and simply let my brain gather data. This means I just put one foot on the line and step up. Then wobble and step off. Then do it over and over again.

My brain is gathering data as I do this, with each and every attempt. It beats me what data my brain is gathering but I notice that without trying, my foot gets better and better at positioning on the slackline. Without trying, I step up with less and less wobble. Without trying, I am staying on the slackline longer. Without trying, I can walk the entire length of it feeling quite stable and have a confident rhythm as I step forward.

And I notice that without trying to reach the target of balancing and walking, I’m getting closer to that target. After about half a dozen 20-minute sessions, I could take a walk of about 7 or 8 steps. After another half a dozen sessions, I could walk the entire length of about 10 metres. Now, I can walk the length of it, spin on the spot and walk back.

Not trying to reach the target might sound counterintuitive, but it’s the essence of improving. It means your attention is on what you’re doing right now, how you’re doing it, absorbing lessons from both success and failure, and practicing. How can you improve what you’re doing now if your attention is on the future?

Say you have a goal for your team to spend more time on priority work tasks, rather than administrivia, rework and distractions. And say you all measure it using % Team Work Hours Spent On Priorities. What many people would do is keep an eagle-eye on what this measure is doing every month, and every month try very hard to hit a monthly target, which in our example could be 75%.

Trying hard means you’ll take too long to ‘get it’, because you’re not focusing on learning better ways, you’re focusing on how far you are from where you want to be. Or you’ll give up because you believe that you can’t do it, you don’t have the right resources or enough budget or the ability to control other people.

Instead, you need to turn your attention away from trying to hit your target of 75%, and instead turn it to how you and the team are allocating their time, what they are saying ‘no’ to, what they are saying ‘yes’ to, and whether they are finding ways to delete or delegate or downsize the non-important stuff.

This paradox of ignoring the target is hard to practice. But it’s the easiest way for your ‘to-be performance’ to one day become your ‘as-is performance’. Set your target, then almost forget about it. Focus most of your attention and energy on practicing, experimenting, testing and learning. Fundamental performance improvement is the natural consequence.


When your team gets together to review and discuss performance, what do you talk most about? Do you talk about practicing, experimenting, testing and learning about what will elevate performance? Or do you go around in circles talking about excuses and obstacles and constraints that justifying why performance isn’t better than it is?

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