Let’s talk about goals

We’re past mid-January, so most people will have already given up on this year’s Resolutions. The number of hopeful-looking joggers I see on my morning commute has decreased dramatically over the past two weeks. But today I want to talk about goals.

Most people will, at one point or another, set themselves a goal. In fact, most people do so daily without fully realising. Things like food shopping, meeting with a friend, watching a movie… Any future planning directly dependent on your actions can be thought of as a goal.

Goals are generally believed to be good things to have. They inspire you to aim higher, work harder, do more. They give you direction and meaning.

Conversely, they can weigh heavily on your conscience if you’re struggling to achieve them, or plunge you into despair if you think you’ve failed. They can also be anticlimactic (the classic ‘I got where I was going, now what?’ feeling) or short-lived (‘I’ve reached my target weight and can now eat all the cake in the world!.. oops, I’m now back where I started’).

The thing is, I believe, that so many people go about it all wrong. Having attempted thousands of goals in my life (some achieved, some not so much), here are some tips for doing it better.

Ask why

This is one of the most important things about setting yourself a target. You need to know why you’re doing it. And don’t ask just once. Keep going.

Example (not mine):

  • I want to lose weight. Why is that important? Because I’m fat. Why is that important? Because I feel unattractive. Why is that important? Because I’ve been single forever and I’m sure I could find someone if only I were thin.

Stop for a second. Once you get to the bottom of the problem, see if there’s a better goal for you to set. Do you need to work on your self-esteem or try online dating?

I’ll be the first to admit this is a crude example, but bear with me. The point I’m trying to make is that you need to be honest with yourself about why you want to set a particular goal. Are you taking up running just because everybody’s doing it? Are you trying to cover up a problem instead of investigating it?

(For the record, I did work on my self-esteem, and I did try online dating. I’m also working on my weight, but because it’s a health concern. I’ve worked hard to decouple my size from my sense of self. That’s my two cents.)

What do your goals say about you?

One of the key parts of my goal-setting is looking at how I see myself. My goals have to be about furthering the better version of myself, without losing my individuality.

For example, I don’t do running, don’t wear makeup, and don’t smoke – so goals like running a marathon, perfecting my cat-eye technique or quitting smoking would not be relevant.

Whereas I am a messy creative introvert, so deciding to declutter, do more crochet and spend time reading is exactly in line with who I am.

Research – but not too much

Something people often don’t do is research. Say you do want to get fitter. What makes you think that jogging is the best way for you? It’s important to explore the options. Know what’s likely to be effective, what tools you might need (a textbook? a gym membership? support of a friend?) and make sure you’re well prepared before you start.

A word of caution: don’t spend so much time and effort on research that you never actually start. It’s tempting to procrastinate by telling yourself that you’re not ready, that you can’t possibly start until you have your playlist all set up and your hair freshly cut, but at some point you do just have to go for it.

Measurable activities

Now that you’re all ready to go, what are you actually going to do? Example include running for 10 minutes three times a week, or reading 20 pages a day, or eating a piece of fruit each afternoon.

This is a good opportunity for Small Actions, too.

Make it fun

There is no point in committing yourself to a long and challenging process if you’re going to hate every minute of it. Instead, look for a way to have fun while you’re doing it.

Hate running? Maybe try a dance class. Hate exercise altogether? Focus on your diet.

Put off by social situations? Maybe try a virtual environment – an online club or group with no pressure to meet up.

Milestones

Plan for some measurable achievements, too. Be realistic but ambitious. Things such as having read a whole book (or five), knitted an entire jumper, upped a level on Duolingo. Or even having ‘perfect attendance’ for your measurable activity for a set period of time. And make sure to reward yourself.

It helps some people to have a set timescale for each milestone, although others find it too stressful. Try both and do whichever works for you!

And speaking of time, you don’t have to have New Year Resolutions. You can set a goal any time! Personally, I’ve always set birthday goals instead – far less arbitrary.

Goals vs Habits

One danger I have previously alluded to is that once you’re reached your goal, that’s the end. This can mean reverting back to the Old You, or just not knowing what to do next. To avoid this, I try to plan for new habits rather than goals, a better journey rather than a destination. That way the process has so much more value, and can become a new way of life. A lot of my 30 before 30 goals are habit-oriented.

Review

As you work on your goals, make sure to keep track of how you’re doing. I recommend a weekly review, just a quick check-in with yourself to see if you’re on track. Is there anything you could be doing better? Do you need to make adjustments?

Have I forgotten some crucially important trick for setting and achieving your goals? Let me know!

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