Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Secret to Achieving Goals?

I have always been a very goal-focused, results-oriented person.  For this reason, failing is incredibly hard on me.  There are certain goals or activities I pursue with the allowance that I can fail, but there are others at which I am determined to succeed.  The former are great because I can learn from them, the latter send me into a temporary depression. 

I think the most common goal people set, especially around New Year's, is weight loss.  With the flood of amazing food and drink, especially that which is inexpensive and convenient, that our culture affords us, and the "lack of time" people associate with balancing work, family, and other priorities, it's not surprising that this is both a difficult task and a common goal. 

I read somewhere that if you set goals, no matter what they are, the only way to achieve them is to focus on one at a time, and have only one goal until you accomplish that.  I questioned that assertion, because I tend to carry multiple goals and achieve quite a bit.  But the one daunting goal I continue to fail at is weight loss, because I've allowed myself to prioritize other things above it, and when that continuously happens, I fail.  For me, this simple realization is all I really needed.  So I'd like to modify the assertion; I think it is just fine to juggle multiple goals at a time.  For many goals, you can make progress in spurts, spend a few hours here, take a class there, draw up an idea this day, take a step that day.  Weight loss, on the other hand, has to be worked on pretty much all day everyday.  A book called "The Slight Edge" would have you believe that every goal is like this - you're either moving forward or you're moving backward.  I disagree with that assertion now too, although it is still a worthwhile read; I think it is really only addressing perhaps the most difficult goals.  Easier, smaller goals can be accomplished without constant attention.

My assertion is that there are discrete-step goals and continuous-step goals.  Discrete-step goals are goals that can be worked on at your own pace, when you have time. Of course, you have to make the time to work on them in order to achieve them, but you don't go backwards by not working on them.  Continuous-step goals, on the other hand, have to be in the forefront of your mind at all times when you're making decisions.  My conclusion is that continuous-step goals must be prioritized or they will never be accomplished, while discrete-step goals can be secondary and still show forward motion and achievement. 

Continuing with weight loss as an example, if I'm going to spend time with a friend, we can either go to the movie theater or go rock climbing.  Obviously, one is better than the other with respect to the goal of weight loss.  Likewise, if I go to the movie theater, I can choose to eat pizza or nachos, or I can live with an iced tea or water.  Seemingly every decision I make is either moving towards the goal or moving away from it.  Yes, it is okay to cheat from time to time, as long as you get back on track in short time.  Depending on your level of self-discipline and control, you may need to create rules to operate from, in order to make such exceptions without falling off course altogether.  For example, instead of cutting out alcohol altogether, allow yourself x number of drinks per week; then you'll have to decide if its worth it to drink now or if you want to save your drink(s) for a different event later in the week.  The same is true of paying off debt.  Most people know how much money they will receive on an on-going basis, and know how much their bills are.  Everything beyond that, from how to spend gifts or bonuses, to spending on eating out or making unnecessary or extravagant purchases, is a decision that impacts whether you're paying your debt off or increasing it.  Unless you have a 0% interest rate, there is no financial transaction that is neutral.  Thus, every spending decision needs to be made with the goal in mind.  If you're really aggressive about it, then you'll spend more time on free activities and be very cautious about those activities which cost $20 or more.  In fact, you can make additional decisions, like holding a garage sale, donating to charity to increase tax deductions, starting a small business, doing freelance work, etc., in order to increase your income to help speed up the progress of the goal.  Similarly, if you're a single woman, you can go on free dating sites and get guys to treat you to dinner so you can reduce even your most basic spending requirements. 

Discrete-step goals can be small or huge goals; either way you can take a break from them without moving backwards.  Getting an MBA, for example, was a goal of mine at one time (and has now been accomplished).  The first steps are pretty basic: review and identify schools of interest, study and pass the GMAT, apply, accept, and pay tuition.  The harder part was going to class, doing the homework, working with teams, studying for exams, and scheduling classes.  Each step moved me forward, and if for some reason, I decided not to start a class just yet, I wouldn't necessarily go backwards unless I waited too long for school policy. 

I've tried various tactics to track my progress towards my various goals.  Sometimes I just track the results of my efforts to lose weight, in the form of a graph showing previous weigh-ins against an aggressive goal line.  Sometimes I assign myself actions like riding my bike for an hour or doing 150 crunches; I can mix these in with actions for other goals like cleaning out the spare room, installing a light fixture, studying chapter 1 of my APICS class, etc.  I've tried visual to do lists that stare me in the face, their blank boxes begging to be checked off.  I've tried tracking them on my phone and on my computer and on Evernote which syncs between my phone and my computer.  Regardless of what I do, I find that I am conscious of my goals and tasks required, and yet I do what I want to do when I want to do them.  So no program or visual or tracking tool is going to change my behavior.  Luckily, I am actually pretty disciplined in some ways; having made weight loss my primary goal, I've spent good amounts of energy moving towards it, allowing only brief cheating periods and getting back on track quickly.  My other goals aren't moving along as fast as maybe I had originally wanted them to, so they would be past due in trackers, but I am okay with that, because I am making progress on my primary goal and am not moving backwards on the secondary goals. 

This may all sound common sense to you, but I think it's really a remarkable insight.  Understanding what goals need to be prioritized and which goals can be put on the backburner is very different from either of the two previous philosophies on goals (you're either moving backward or forward, and, you can only have one goal at any one time). 

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