At first glance this famous Yogi Berra quotation does not seem to offer much practical advice. However confusing it may seem, it can serve to point us in the right direction.
On a recent school field trip to Chicago we were reminded before crossing the border to turn off our data or face potentially large bills from our cell phone carrier. Later other people found their phone displaying the wrong time as it had not made the time zone switch at the Illinois border.
However, I was not concerned with either situation as the defaults on my phone were already set to turn data off while roaming and to automatically adjust to new time zones.
You may wonder what these cell phone stories have to do with the challenges of decision-making? They illustrate a powerful tool that I call “advance decision making”. When crossing the border or crossing into a new time zone there was no further action needed to be taken on my part because my phone’s settings had already dealt with the situation.
In a similar way we can make decisions in advance, set our personal defaults if you will, to ease the difficulty of some of life’s short-term and long-term decisions. I have found “advance decision making” to be very helpful in many different situations. Setting your defaults in place helps prevent relying on changing circumstances or shifting feelings to make decisions for you. You will not have to take further action, just deal with the situation according to your default settings. And like the default settings on your phone you can always make changes to them as your needs change.
I wrote previously about Getting Off the Goal Carousel and the importance of scheduling in those items that would get you to your objectives, rather than gearing up for a specific goal, achieving it, then falling back into the same bad routines and having to set the same goal all over again.
Advance decision making is the key to breaking this cycle. In order to get into better shape as a lifestyle I have now joined some friends in a twice weekly fitness class. I have decided in advance that Tuesday and Thursday at 6:45 pm I head to the gym. No more waiting until after school each day to decide whether or not I feel like working out. I don’t set my alarm in the morning and decide if I feel like going to the pool or going back to bed.
At this point I don’t have a specific “goal” like an upcoming triathlon, however I have the objective of improving my overall fitness and a scheduled routine in place to do that. I feel already that I will likely want to add one more fitness related event into my schedule and when I decide what that is I will add it into my weekly default settings as well.
I have been eating better and doing so more consistently this year as well. I have decided in advance what foods I will eat more of, what foods I will eat less of, and what foods I have eliminated entirely. And I know what days I will break from this routine. No more opening the fridge or the cupboard and deciding what to eat, or how much of it to eat, based on what is there. I don’t wait and see what my body is craving and feed it whatever it feels like at the time. The decisions on what to eat have been made in advance.
In my high school and university years deciding in advance that I was not going to use and abuse alcohol or drugs meant that I could safely move in and out of any social circle and any social situation and not be pressured into doing something that I would later regret. My default settings were locked in and I simply had to follow them. I had many peers who would try to make these decisions in the heat of the moment and later wish they had chosen differently. And of course there were others whose defaults were different than mine and that was their choice too.
In our marriage my wife and I believe strongly in the sanctity of our marriage vows. We have decided in advance that whatever decisions we make we will make them together, with each other, for each other, and that going our separate ways is not an option. After 22 years we don’t wait to see how we feel each day to decide if we will honour that commitment. The feelings that motivated us to commit to each other originally might not be the same feelings we have every day after that, especially as life throws changing circumstances, children, careers, tragedies and triumphs our way. But we have decided in advance that we were going to love our choice everyday.
Does advance decision have other applications? It sure does.
Have children who you want to help with their education in the future? Don’t wait to see what might be left over after your vacation, golf membership, and new car are paid for - decide in advance to put away $200 a month as soon as you can and sit back and watch their college fund grow.
In school and want to do better? Find it hard to motivate yourself to sit down and study with so many distractions? Don’t wait to see if the course interests you or when the assignments are due. Decide in advance to do 30 minutes of work every day on the course you are worried about, decide what 30 minutes it will be, sit down, put your phone away, do the work and watch your grades improve.
Have someone in your home you butt heads with all the time? Don’t wait to see how they are treating you or if they have stopped doing what bugs you. Decide in advance that for the next 2 weeks you are going to say only positive things to them and watch the relationship improve.
Is your toddler or teen driving you crazy? Are you finding that your response to their misbehaviour varies with your mood or energy level? Take the emotion out of your reactions by deciding, and making it clear, in advance what the consequences of their actions and choices and will be. Then follow through on your advance decisions. Repeat this pattern. Both you and your child will see the benefits.
Adults often need help with our gadget settings from younger people who more instinctive with their devices as they are experienced in dealing with them every day and from an early age. Similarly adults can help young people with their life default settings as we have experience with situations they will face having been through them before.
I used to think that some people were just naturally a certain way; whether that be naturally happy or sad, positive or negative. But I have to come to believe that these settings can also be influenced like the defaults on our phone. Perhaps not instantly; but certainly over time. Decide in advance to see the bright side of situations or not to always point out how someone could have done something differently. Research shows that over time you will find your overall outlook begin to change.
Maybe you want to change the trajectory of your life around how you treat people and being more grateful. Decide in advance to be intentional in thanking people more often.
Yogi Berra may not have been very helpful with the directions to his house when he uttered the now famous phrase, “When you come to a fork in the road - take it.” But his instructions serve to illustrate the importance of being decisive and knowing in advance what you plan do when faced with a decision. When you come to a fork in the road, follow what your defaults are set to and you will avoid unnecessary detours and costly delays on your road to a better place.
My mission at this momentous time of year should be to write a stirring tribute to goals, to outline the merits of setting and achieving goals, and to provide some quick easy-to-digest tips on how to set and meet your goals for the upcoming weeks, months, and year.
Instead I must admit I have a problem with goals. My experience has been that setting and achieving goals can be easy; but real change is hard. So sharing a stirring tribute to goals and offering practical encouragement for setting and achieving goals would be disingenuous. Let’s go deeper shall we?
In the last year or so I have set and achieved a number of what we would categorize as classic SMART goals in the area of physical fitness and diet/nutrition.
In the spring of this year I set a goal of completing a local triathlon (known as the “Tinman”) consisting of a 400 metre swim, followed by a 15 km bike, and finishing up with a 5 km run. I knew the distances. I knew the date of the event. I had an idea of how much advance preparation I would need to do to complete the race. I also had the added incentive of trying to finish ahead of my 3 high-school aged kids who were also registered for the event. My goal was Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-Oriented and Time Bound. And I am happy to say I put in the necessary training, completed the race, and did so in a time that was several minutes ahead of my kids! Goal set and achieved. A solid win-win.
Just this fall I set a goal of losing some pounds that had become a steady and unwanted companion. I had a target weight in mind. I knew the time I wanted to lose it by. I had an eating plan to get me there. And I knew what pants I wanted to fit into. Textbook SMART goal. And by early December I had lost the weight I wanted to and had myself some more pants to wear. Goal set and achieved. Another solid win-win.
So what is the problem?
The problem is that I had set, and achieved, all of these goals before. Multiple times. I had completed the Tinman Triathlon in 2007, 2009, and 2011. I had shed those same unwanted pounds using a variety of different methods more times than I care to count. I was stuck on what I call the “Goal Carousel”.
Setting and achieving these goals was relatively easy. What was hard was making the underlying changes in my life so that being fit and eating right were part of my daily life instead of goals that had to be set and achieved - repeatedly.
I have observed this same phenomenon in the classroom. Students learn SMART goals. Some may even go beyond SMART goals and learn how to set and achieve HARD goals (Heartfelt, Animated, Required, Difficult). Students will use these lessons and determine what they need to do on the next assignments and tests to get a desired mark on a course. And some will do just that. Then after the rush of setting and achieving the goal has worn off they find their grades settling back to where they were before. So they set new goals for the next report cycle, just as I did for the next triathlon or the next round of eating better, and the Goal Carousel continues.
Renowned improvement expert James Clear addresses this in his article (http://jamesclear.com/goals-systems) where he encourages people to look past goals to systems. He found that his experiences were similar to mine: that goals, even those that we set and achieve, can actually be counterproductive to the long-term structural changes that we are after and that will get us the true results we desire.
Setting up a training plan and achieving a goal of completing a triathlon, following a plan to shed some weight, or drawing up a homework schedule to get better marks are all well and good. When we do it we feel that we have accomplished something; and we have. Yet this sense of accomplishment can short circuit our desire to dig deeper, beneath the goal, to the fundamental lifestyle changes we are really after. We let up because we reached our goal. But if we haven’t changed our habits we will be back on the “Goal Carousel”: set goal, meet goal, relapse, set goal, meet goal, relapse, repeat.
So how do we get off the Goal Carousel? It takes long-term commitment to sustainable lifestyle changes. I have been on the Goal Carousel of fitness and nutrition instead of making physical activity and eating sensibly part of my enduring everyday routine. Changing our everyday routines in the service of incremental change is hard.
Telling someone I am at the pool swimming lengths for the upcoming triathlon with my kids is an interesting narrative. Going to the pool twice a week, every week, month after month, to be in better shape for the long haul is far more meaningful, but somehow less motivational. Cramming for an upcoming test is easy - most students do that. You can tweet about it and be in the same boat as your classmates. Doing review and extra work when the test is weeks away is hard. But it is the latter routine that will pay off.
Having the house clean to host family is a great goal. Tidying up every day is harder but more effective. Saving up for a family vacation is a great goal. Saving every week, week after week, to pay off a mortgage that comes due in 17 years or for a child’s college college education that is 10 years away is hard. But that is the point. The Goal Carousel can be a fun ride. But the real change you seek will only come through advance decision-making and changing your habits and routines over the long-term.
Instead of waiting for an upcoming race, running out of pants that fit, or some other momentous occasion, decide today what the long-term objectives are that you want to pursue. They can be career moves, financial objectives, fitness or nutrition decisions, or maybe you need to prioritize a person or relationship in your life. Decide in advance what you have to do to achieve your objectives. Understand the necessary changes that will affect your lifestyle and schedule them in. Write them down. Put them in your phone. And stick to the decisions you have already made.
For over a decade in our house we never missed a kids’ hockey game or practice. Sounds crazy to see it in print but it is true. Why? We decided in advance they were important commitments and scheduled other things around them. Treat your long-term objectives with the same respect. Make tucking in your kids, visiting the nursing home, cooking with real ingredients, your weekly savings deposit, time at the gym, or time for your key client your priorities. Schedule them in and stick to your schedule. For the long haul.
You may miss the thrill of the Goal Carousel but the the momentum of keeping promises to yourself will keep you going. And the incredible benefits over time will be worth it.
“What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?”
This simple yet powerful question can be the catalyst for positive change in your life and, in turn, the lives you touch.
A quick internet search shows that variations of this question are attributed to Sebastian Thrun, popularized by Regina Dugan’s TEDTalk, and likely originated with Robert Schuller. Credit to all who have challenged others to take action based on its powerful premise.
At a local coffee shop less than a year ago, a friend of mine and I were discussing this very question. One of the first answers that came to me was, “I would speak to large audiences to inspire them to build a sense of belonging in their communities; to be part of something bigger than themselves.”
It was that question and answer that led me to pursue opportunities to do just that. And after months of crafting a meaningful message, developing networks to help shape the message and the methods to deliver it, lots of conversations with mentors who inspire large audiences on a regular basis, reading and more reading, writing and more writing, I presented my new message to an overflow crowd in a small presentation room at the Ontario Student Leadership Conference in Niagara Falls.
My message was well-received. The assembled student leaders and advisors were engaged throughout. The feedback I received was positive and encouraging. There were some passages I will edit moving forward; anecdotes that I thought would be effective that were not, ad libs that struck a chord that I will expand on. It was rewarding, satisfying, and hopefully a taste of things to come. I am pleased that I have been able to arrange further opportunities to share with larger audiences based on this humble beginning.
But enough about me.
What might your answer to that question be? Maybe it is a grand answer with life-changing potential like a different vocation or living in a faraway land. Maybe it is something within your current environment like asking for a promotion, a raise, or starting that DIY project you have always wanted to tackle. Perhaps it involves starting a conversation with a friend or relative about that topic that has been the elephant in the room for too long.
There are many multi-step plans and self-help strategies to make your answer to this question a reality. They will include concepts like understanding why your answer matters, why you want to achieve the answer, writing down your goal, finding someone to share your goal with, breaking the goal down into manageable tasks, counting the cost involved in these steps along the way, visioning what it will look like when you reach your goal, accessing your allies, waking up early in the morning, eating better, exercising, posting positive quotations and images on your social media, and more.
Meanwhile, as we contemplate our individual answers, might there be some that apply to all of us? Are there things we can all do that we know won’t fail? I believe there are, and that a commitment to doing them can bring positive change in our life, and in turn the lives of those we connect with.
Pay someone a compliment. Tell the person beside you as you read this, or that you drive with every day, or that you raise a child with, a genuine compliment that comes from something you know about them or have noticed about them, and watch them light up.
Offer a helping hand to someone who needs it. Is there a person you know is swamped at work? Or at home? Or swamped in a different way from being alone? Do something tangible to provide them some small relief. Knowing that someone thought to take action on their behalf will mean as much as the help you provide.
Here’s a good one: say you’re sorry. Want a sure ‘can’t fail’ action that will positively impact any relationship? Apologize. You may not even be convinced that what you did, or said, or didn’t do or say, requires an apology. Do it anyway. Long after the injustice (perceived or otherwise) is forgotten, the step you took to bring restoration will be remembered.
Give up something for someone else. Show gratitude. Be optimistic.
The list of things we can do that won’t fail, and that will in turn make our lives better and enrich the lives of others, is longer than we might have first imagined. And the great thing is they don’t require a multi-step plan or a new self-help strategy to achieve. They just need a commitment to putting the interests of someone else ahead of our own.