I wasn’t going to write about this topic this week but it could be somewhat urgent for some of you. Mid-January is a critical time for the fate of many annual goals, and I’m sure a lot of people are already making a particular mistake that kept me stumbling for years. In fact, I’m convinced most failed goals fail for this exact reason.
This time next week, 2016 will be 5% finished. So if you’ve got goals this year, you should be around one-twentieth done by then.
If your goal is to be a regular gym-goer, for example, then you’ll want to have two full weeks of gym-going under your belt. If it’s already a grind, then you’re probably not going to make it.
There’s an interesting paradox when it comes to fitness in America. There is a tremendous demand for this thing called fitness, and yet only a fairly slim minority end up actually making it a part of their lives. Visiting aliens would be confounded that we appear to worship this particular quality yet don’t usually embody it.
It’s not a matter of not knowing what to do. In the internet age, anyone can find, for free and in only a few minutes, dependable step-by-step instructions on how to get to whatever kind of fitness that’s humanly possible: marathon runner, bodybuilder, yoga adept, martial artist, or anything else. The same is true for all kinds of other goals: making more money, starting a website, learning French or piano or calligraphy.
What do you really have to do to get into shape? Join a gym, find a well-regarded program online, and do what the program says. We know what we have to do, and we want the rewards of doing it, so why don’t we just do it?
Often we begin well enough, but the different aspects of our lives have a way of competing with each other, and a month later we’re barely holding it together, and two months later we barely remember that we tried.
The typical refrain, from both the achievers and the non-achievers of a particular goal, is “You have to want it badly enough.”
We hear this message all the time. If you’re within a decade or so of my age you probably spent much of your schooling in classrooms whose walls were plastered with a certain kind of inspirational poster, often featuring cute animals or Einstein, and preaching about persistence and dedication. These might look familiar:
These posters have since been memed to death, but in our culture we still emphasize perseverance and willpower as the critical factors in whether we achieve our goals or not. The message has been drilled into us: the people that keep their eyes on the prize are the ones who make it. All you need to do is to stay focused on the horizon and everything will fall into place.
If you keep your eyes on the horizon, you’ll trip over your feet
The reason it’s relatively uncommon to achieve even a paint-by-numbers goal like losing weight or learning an instrument isn’t that we lack vision or desire, it’s that we have the wrong idea about how people actually achieve goals.
After struggling with fitness for so many years, and finally having it click in 2014, I can tell you that desiring the prize—the slimmer waist, the bigger income, the finished book—is not what most of us are missing. A minority of New Year’s resolutioners will still be lifting, running, and non-smoking in September, and an extra-strong long-term desire is not the reason.
Our idea of the successful goal achiever is that they’re willing to sacrifice their comfort and ease in the present for more comfort and ease in the future. They willingly accept a harder life now, with all of its early-morning workouts, overtime hours and spinach-beet smoothies, so that they can one day have what they want. Once they’re there, the crap they endured is behind them and it will all feel worth it.
To most of us, our initial enthusiasm gets us through a few weeks of the labor itself. But then the enthusiasm wears off, and all we’re left with is the labor, which was never more to us than a ball and chain accompanied by the promise of something great a few months down the road. Returning to normality becomes increasingly tempting, until we give out and skip the gym one Monday, then skip it again that Wednesday, and we’re back at square one just in time to eat 30 wings at the Super Bowl.
The great myth about goals is that they require us to trade quality of life now for quality of life later. This doesn’t work unless you’re a robot. We’re too interested in keeping our lives enjoyable. You cannot voluntarily make all your days worse for months in the name of optional rewards in the future. A good goal has to improve your life now, and nearly every day between now and the final result. The long-term reward is never going to drive you to keep living a life you don’t like in the short term.
Your friend who is always posting her Crossfit achievements on Facebook—do you think she hates lifting, and is just suffering through it to have that beach body come summertime?
Your successful entrepreneur-friend, who has doubled his income this last year—was he simply forcing himself to work on his app so that he could get to the payday and finally enjoy life again?
People who change their diets and lose weight aren’t choking down lettuce casserole every night, they’ve discovered how much better it feels to eat a modest, home-cooked meal than to eat a whole box of tacquitos.
The incentives that keep people moving towards their goals are things that happen now, in everyday life. They’re not just a bright glow on the horizon. The work we do on our goals has to be gratifying in the short term too. At least some aspect of getting there has to be fun, or exhilarating, or otherwise appealing.
It’s not a tradeoff, it’s a better road altogether
I probably wouldn’t go to the gym if there weren’t any long-term rewards, but I would never see those long term rewards if I didn’t find that it feels awesome today to beat my numbers from last time, or if I didn’t love the feeling of walking home with that proud, post-workout soreness. Our desire for short-term gratification is often demonized as a goal-killing weakness, but usually it’s what’s missing.
Of course there will be times when we have to use willpower as a kind of afterburner to get past tough bits and bad days. But it can’t be our main source of energy.
So what if you don’t like lifting or running or going to French class?
Don’t worry. I can almost guarantee you that if the end goal is appealing, there is some way you can find a path to get there that is also appealing.
Many of us get stuck in “not for me” syndrome. We have a bad experiences exercising or taking classes, and we think that we’re just someone who happens to hate exercise. I don’t believe there’s anyone in the world who is incapable of finding intense physical activity really gratifying, if they just looked around until they found the right form of it.
Of course, that requires a spirit of experimentation. For me, I tried running and hated it. Then for some reason I went back to it and kind of liked it, got better at it, and liked it more. Then winter came and I hated it again. So I started boxing, and really liked it, then started lifting barbells and loved it, and now you can’t stop me from going to the gym. The path meandered for a bit, but I’m firmly on it, and I know I’ll never have to grind my way to my goals.
We do need to use a bit of that willpower-boost to find what we like about getting into shape, or practicing guitar, or studying Japanese, but if it’s really something we want in the long-term, we can find bits of that joy and fun throughout the whole path.
So forget this idea that it’s about suffering now in the name of later. You’ll never make it if that’s your strategy. The goals that become real in the future only work because they make life better today, and every day.