Most of my thoughts on the Fine Life site are about trying to be fit and healthy as a busy professional. But, because over a third of all New Year’s Resolutions are health and fitness related (2019 NPR survey;https://pos.org/did-you-make-new-years-resolutions/ ), and with over 60% of goal-setters having fitness goals on the list, it seems appropriate to share some thoughts on the topic.
As with everything else I write about (with the possible exception of what I do for a living), I am not an expert or an authority on goal setting. But, I have a lot of experience setting them, achieving some, and failing at more. My earliest memory of the conscious exercise of goal setting, where the adults were actually labeling it that, was in Cub Scouts. I heard a lot about it through my years in scouting (I did earn the Eagle Scout rank–as did my three boys), some in church settings, and surprisingly little about it in school. Sure, getting your homework done or studying for a test are “goals,” but the “planning your near or far future” kind of goal setting, not much. I also served a religion-based mission, where goal-setting was part of the every-day experience. Then, as I entered into adulthood, I found that I really enjoyed the time management, and self-improvement genre of books. I still do. Over the years, I’ve read a LOT of them. From time to time, I even apply something I’ve learned.
Then, more recently, I’ve started reading the science behind goal-setting and self-improvement and have learned that, well, we are TERRIBLE at it! We are good at talking about it, but very little of the advice, or our goals themselves, ever stick. Maybe you started thinking about new year’s goals in December, implemented your ideas in January, and are already (February) feeling the wind leave the sails. If so, you are not the exception. By July, more than 60% of the population that set new-years goals have given up on them; by the end of the year, forget it (NPR “Resolutions” Survey). I am also not an exception to this rule, with many of my best intentions fading as the months pass.
Given our common experience with disappointing results, why keep trying? I cannot speak for others, but even knowing that my own success rate is worse than mixed, here are a few of the reasons I still go through the exercise:
- Setting goals helps me ask some bigger questions about whether I like where my life is heading. The exercise helps me make course corrections, or even discover and undertake new pursuits.
- Even if I fail a lot, I still make more progress when I consciously set goals than when I don’t. I’ve tried both.
- And, truthfully, I also do it because other people ask me to. For example, every year, our firm asks the attorneys and staff to set goals in various categories of professional and even personal improvement. So, some of my goals are set to help my practice and firm to be better than the year before. There is true value in this for me, not just for them.
Why is it so hard to stick to our goals? Again, there is both old and new real science on this, but here are a few of my opinions:
- I think a lot of our goals are not OUR goals. I think they are on our list because someone or something else put them there. Your family? Your boss? The Jones’s you’re trying to keep up with? It is hard enough to stick to goals we really want; achieving one for someone else, even harder.
- They might be OUR goal, but only because we think we SHOULD, not because we want to. This is a hard one, because it is likely we are right, that we SHOULD do these. But, until our emotional commitment is high enough, it is hard to make the necessary shift.
- We rely on our own self-discipline to make the change. Sometimes there really isn’t anywhere else to turn. But, every science-based study on self-discipline shows that we don’t have nearly enough of it to make most significant changes. We usually need external help of some sort.
Here are some pointers on how to set and keep goals:
- Not really. There are truly thousands of books and articles on this topic. For example, I am reading Atomic Habits, by James Clear, right now.
- Yes, most of them are repeating each other. Very few of them have actually looked at whether the most common approaches work–and many of them do not.
- The standard advice on goal setting may still work for YOU. So, even if it often fails, such advice is not without merit.
- There are science-based approaches to making changes in our lives. They tend to be focused on ways to build in external motivators to counteract our own human nature.
Alright, even though I won’t suggest what you should do to set and keep goals, I’ll share some things I often do:
- I have merged several bits of advice I’ve picked up into what I call a “Role and Goal” exercise. I write a list of all the roles I play (“hats” I wear–husband, father, attorney, partner, runners club president, church leader, committee member, etc.), and then ask, “what is the ONE thing I could do (or stop doing) that would create the most improvement in that role?” Warning: making that list of roles can be a wake-up call, even terrifying–so many things to so many people, and don’t forget yourself. This can produce a long list of goals, but since these are all roles I will be performing, I may as well have a goal in each. Sometimes it also produces a resolution to get out of some of the roles.
- I try to be careful to set ones I personally care about (which also helps narrow the number), and I look to the experts for ideas on how to structure some outside help to achieve them–not just relying on my own self discipline.
- I revisit and modify the goals as needed. These are for my own life, and I give myself permission to change my focus when it seems appropriate. And, I don’t actually care what month it is–constant work in progress.
- I pretend I have a “pause” button, not a “stop” button on my goals. If I am not acting on one I’ve set, I release the pause button, and go again.
- I have learned that I cannot actually “do” a goal. I can only perform acts in pursuit of the goal. I have a new year’s resolution of improving my guitar playing ability. But what I actually DO, is to play chord progressions, scales, and practice songs–regularly. See the difference? So, I try to identify specific tasks that should be done to achieve the goal, and work them into my calendar–not just onto a task list.
Finally, I think there is merit in being less obsessed with “improvement.” It is easy to miss out on enjoying life because we are always looking for what’s next. I believe that one of our most happiness-oriented resolutions might be to set fewer of them.