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.