Goal setting for people who suck at goal setting

Welcome to the new year. Around this time, billions of people take new oaths to make 2018 different, better and maybe even extraordinary. That alone is cause for celebration.

Cynics and spoilers say new year’s resolutions are shallow, arbitrary and likely to come undone by February. I disagree. If the new year enlists even one month of runners, dieters, and smoking-quitters, we should rejoice. Without a plan to stay the course, you just drift into open waters to wherever the prevailing current spits you out.

So once we accept that we should set goals, challenges bloom. How do I start? Which goals should I set? Should they be easy or difficult? What if I fail?

The good news is, if you suck at goal setting, you’re in great company. Turns out virtually nobody does this well. So I spoke with two friends that seem to achieve anything that they commit to paper with remarkable consistency. I didn’t want a sermon on the importance of planning or an exposition of SMART goals theory. I knew and believed all of that. Instead, I wanted to know why I find it so hard to set and revisit goals and what to do about it. Here’s what they told me over a drink or two:

1 – Start easy

When you think about what you really really want, it’s easy to slip into idealism. We write down a dream, even if it bears no resemblance to our current reality. We promise to jog 10km a day, even though we don’t own running shoes. There’s nothing wrong with setting rapid, transformation goals (in fact, some people swear by them), but every time I’ve set one, I’ve not only failed, but failed quickly, completely and with a sense of disappointment that shies me away from setting goals again for a long time.

Start with easy goals. One person told me to set goals that at about 120% of your current reality. For example, I’m not a natural reader. I wish I was. Despite my best efforts, I have a mountain of classics on my bookshelf, each 20% finished and gathering dust. Then I realised that going from zero to Crime and Punishment was getting me nowhere. Instead, I gorged on a diet of Lee Child and Stephen King novels, the perfect gateway authors. Smashing through a goal feels great. What doesn’t feel great is falling well short of a goal set so high that you give up entirely.

2 – Start short

How does no desserts for 5 years sound? Terrible right? Goals are all about the long-term, but no amount of discipline or self-control can make a commitment endure with no horizon in sight.

Instead, start short. Commit to a change for an ultra-short period, but be ruthlessly disciplined. If you know you’re impulsive, this could as little as 3 or 4 days of no junk food or no social media on weekdays. When the temptation to follow your impulse starts, you can hold out because the timeframe is so tight.

At the end of your short start, soak up your progress. How good does that feel? Was it worth the temporary discomfort? Could you do it again for a few more days this time? With your immediate impulses dampened, you’re ready to start tackling your next peak.

3 – Keep score

The most disciplined that I have ever been with goals is when I challenged my housemate at gym attendance. We stuck two pieces of paper on the fridge with a number of empty squares next to our names. Each weights session earned a little black tick in one of the squares. Our progress was frequently appraised by our other housemates who commented on each gym blitz and hiatus. Soon, the scorecards were unnecessary, each of us drawn regularly to exercise with unprompted automation.

The truth is we are endless excuse-generators. It’s always a little too hot or cold or early or late or busy to do what we said we’d do yesterday. Most of us will politely agree with your excuses because we’re friends, not coaches.

Keep your score. Somewhere, you must have your own squares with little black ticks. Don’t be afraid of failing, be afraid of cheating or giving up entirely. Keep yourself honest and on track, or have others do it for you.

4 – Recognise success

How can you tell when goal setting has succeeded? When you achieve all your goals right? Surprisingly, no. Both friends I spoke to agreed on this. Goal setting works when you achieve more by setting goals then if you hadn’t set goals.

Take this example: you want to cut down on junk food. You usually have about 3 times a week. You decide on a goal of once a week, which is tough but realistic. You add one X on the fridge each time you indulge in a greasy meal. At the end of the year, to your horror, there are 100 Xs on the fridge, twice the amount you allowed yourself. What went wrong? Actually, by chasing 50, you reduced your 150-strong year of junk meals by a third. That is an incredible achievement. To be sure, there is more to do to hit target 50 and you never set goals to intentionally fall short, but what if you had been a cynic and a spoiler? What if you had just decided to eat good food or bad food according to your mood on the day? Last year that strategy gave you a result that you didn’t want. This year calls for a new one.

Have you started the year with any goals of your own? How do you stay committed to them when the routine of life takes over? Message me or comment below.

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