It is the time of year when people evaluate their previous year’s goals and plan for the next. It is the time when New Year’s resolutions are made. It is also the time where people lament ones they failed to keep.
Setting goals is beneficial. They are how we demonstrate commitment and achievement. They motivate us to better ourselves.
Take learning a new skill, like a programming language or library. This requires acquiring tools, reading or watching tutorials and/or working with teachers then practicing the new skill until proficiency is reached.
People approach goals in different ways. For example, learning the basics of a new programming language can be crammed into a weekend, fitting into our “busy” lives and short-term focus.
This may be sufficient if the need is urgent. However, this is not possible with larger or sustained goals.
A few years ago I realized I needed to lose weight. Superficial attempts at exercise or the occasional healthy meal were insufficient. I needed a sustainable system not just reach an arbitrary weight target.
First, I had to want to lose weight. There is a difference between imagining oneself attaining the goal and the often underestimated effort required to achieve it. For example, in his book “The Element”, Ken Robinson compliments a keyboard player saying he’d love to play the keyboard that well. The keyboard player disagrees:
“You mean you like the idea of playing keyboards. If you’d love to play them, you’d be doing it.”
Second, I had to create a system that would make me succeed: “No excuses!” My schedule was unpredictable so gym memberships and other organized activities were out. I had always enjoyed running so I purchased a treadmill. Diet was solved by subscribing to a calorie- and portion-controlled food delivery service. I enjoyed running and the food so it became almost harder not to follow the plan.
Third, I had to make time to exercise and the discipline to stick to the diet. My unpredictable schedule meant a exercise a regular times was not possible. I fell back to priorities: other things had to fit around exercise like Stephen Covey’s big rocks analogy.
Fourth, I weighed myself morning and night to track progress. Many weight loss programs recommend weighing less frequently but, as long as the downward trend continued, the raw measurements were less important than the accountability – the scales were always there looking back at me and never lied.
Yes, I occasionally ate too much or missed a run or three but I just picked myself up and resumed. Patience and persistence conquered the dreaded weight plateaus.
I eventually reached my target weight and celebrated my success. I lost a quarter of my body weight over eight months.
More importantly, I developed habits for keeping my weight down and increasing fitness. Reaching my target had become both inevitable and irrelevant. I kept going afterwards. A year later I ran a sub 96 minute half marathon. During lunchtime at work. For fun.
Without realizing it, I stumbled upon thinking about achieving as systems or habits, like in Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” or Scott Adam’s “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big”. Goals are only milestones. Systems or habits allow you to achieve them.
I now look at goals differently. First, is the goal important enough to change my habits? I cannot do everything. I try to pick what I will fail at or others will do it for me.
Second, do I want the goal enough to change my habits? I try to separate what I want from what others want. Failing that, I look for sources of fun or rewards for doing so. Motivation is half the battle.