When I first became a practicing goal-setter, I wasn’t very successful. I’d write down big goals and then have no idea how to even begin. Eventually, I made a discovery that seems so simple I didn’t believe it would work—until I tried it.

It now is firmly established as my most dependable operating system. It starts with picking a number, any number.

You don’t have to be a math whiz to put numbers to work for you. Assigning a number to a project can help you focus and, also, give you a finish line.

Open-ended goals have a way of never reaching completion, but attach a numerical addition and getting started is much easier and the finish line become much closer.

Here are a few ideas to get things rolling.

° Pick a number under ten and use it as your goal setting guide. For me, it’s the number five. You might prefer three or six. Then instead of thinking, “I need to get more clients,” set a short term goal to get three (or whatever your favorite number dictates) new clients.

Of course, you can repeat this exercise as often as you like, but your chances for success increase enormously when you work with a smaller number that seems reasonable.

Years ago, when I was floundering around trig to get my speaking business launched, I met a successful, but unhurried, seminar leader who told me her business plan was “Do one, book one.” As soon as she’d finish a program, she’d spend time marketing until she’d booked just one more.

It’s a policy I’ve used ever since with great success.

° Stumped about your next steps? Challenge yourself and your subconscious mind by asking idea-generating questions such as, “What are three ways I can grow my business right now?” Or “Who are four people I could collaborate with?”

You may surprise yourself with how quickly you begin getting answers.

° Write a tip sheet. Don’t forget how useful numbers are in writing tip sheets which can be turned into articles. Six Ways to Get More Exercise is an easier article to write than one called How to Get More Exercise.

Using numbers also is a reminder that when you write a tip sheet the intention isn’t to tell everything you know. That same intention also simplifies goal setting since it brings your focus to one part of the bigger project.

° Subtract things from your life that you no longer want. Instead of trying to unclutter your life all at once, for example, get rid of nine things a day until the job is done.

Go through the junk drawer and throw away nine things or toss out nine magazines or find nine things in your closet you never wear and put them in a bag for the thrift store.

Assigning a number to a necessary, but not necessarily pleasant, tasks can break through procrastination and get positive momentum going. It’s the same reason setting a timer can help you get more done.

° Pick a number, any number, and then pick one of the projects listed below.

° Ways to get into the conversation
° Books to add to my library
° New profit centers to design
ˆ Fascinating things to study
° New adventures to schedule
° Self-bossers to invite to breakfast
° Fresh marketing tools to create
° Media interview to book
° Non-essentials to eliminate
° Ways to support other entrepreneurs
° Articles to publish

Or add your own projects to the list—and then get busy making them happen.

After a career in the insurance industry, Dave left to start his own business. Unfortunately, he chose an enterprise that seemed to be financially promising, but didn’t really come from his heart.

After two years, the business folded—and Dave was ready to pay attention to the dream that had nagged him for years.

What really excited him was the idea of doing seminars and speeches. In fact, he recalls, he spent years going to see every speaker he could.

“I’m not sure I ever heard much of what they said,” he confesses, “because I was always so busy watching how they delivered their message—and I kept wishing it was me on the stage.”

As Dave discovered, we may find our dream by paying attention to someone who is living theirs.

I’ve been doing housework for as long as I can remember. As the oldest of five children, I was handed a mop early on.

While I would never pretend to love cleaning house, I do love the outcome so I do my best to focus on the results I’m going for on housecleaning days.

My daughter, on the other hand, decided it makes more sense to turn housecleaning chores over to professionals. On a visit to her home, I watched in amazement as the cleaners came through her house and had it sparkling in no time.

What really grabbed me was that these professionals approached it in a completely different—and far more efficient—way than I had ever done.

I paid as much attention as I could without interfering with their work and I’ve adopted  many of their methods.

Everyday millions of people get up to do their work. A handful of  them will do it with excellence, joy and delight. Whether they’re fixing a leaky faucet or performing a concerto, when you see such a person, pay diligent attention.

Open your heart and mind to fully appreciate their performance. You don’t even have to analyze what they’re doing or how they do it.

You may, however, silently affirm that you want to deliver your goods and services with as much passion as you see them doing. By noticing and appreciating excellence in others, you expand your own capacity to produce it.

The January 16, 2006 issue of Time magazine had a special section on How to Sharpen Your Mind. One of the articles in this section was a profile of financial guru Suze Orman who has built an information empire as an author, columnist, speaker and TV personality.

So she must be a multi-tasker to accomplish all this, correct?

Not at all. Orman is a master at focusing on one thing at a time. “I came to this conclusion after watching the way racehorses win,” she says. “They come out of the gate with blinders on and go for the finish line.”

Orman does the same. “I don’t care what my competition is doing, I don’t care how their books are selling. All I care about is what I do, and I do absolutely nothing else while I am doing it.”

The reason why we fail to see much of the excellence around us or fail to focus like Suze Orman does is that we live in a world that’s loaded with distractions. Cellphones ring,, sirens blare, traffic and airport noise increases every year, and our attention is diverted without our even noticing.

While we may not be able to eliminate every distraction, we can practice paying closer attention to the things that inspire or inform or teach us—and lower the volume on distracting things.

Do so and you’ll be enhancing your capacity to focus.

The rewards are great as Danny Gregory points out  The Creative License. He writes, “The world is always full of  opportunity, of possibilities, of stimuli, of pots of gold.

“When you finally start to look around, to see clearly, to live in the now and dump your baggage, you can’t help but notice. When you notice the world, you notice it noticing you.

“You hear lyrics to songs you used to fast-forward through. You read poems carved in monuments. You open your fortune cookies. Small wonder the world suddenly seems to be flowing your way. It always did but perhaps you were too busy paddling upstream to notice.”