Why Everything They Told You About Goals Is Wrong

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We hear a lot of “achievable goals” talk these days.

And that talk, I think, is mostly harmful: it creates and encourages a culture of middling, moderation-loving wafflers afraid to lay it all on the line for something that’s worth it.

You’ve heard the quote, I’m sure: Dream no small dreams, for they have no power to move the hearts of men. And I feel pretty confident that if Goethe had lived in the 2010’s, he’d have included women there too. (And been just as into selfies as the rest of us.)

It’s not any more complicated than that. If getting or achieving that thing you want actually requires you to set a goal — i.e., it’s not like taking out the trash, where you just have to get off your butt and do it — then that means there are obstacles standing between you and what you want. Some you’re aware of, some you won’t know about until they show up.

My thesis: you’re more likely to stick it out when you’ve got a goal that’s so huge it makes your palms sweat (and makes your friends laugh) than you are with a lame one that leaves everyone’s eyelashes in place and un-batted.

If your goal is compelling (huge! ridiculous!) enough, then when those inevitable obstacles come up, you’ll plow right over them. Or around them. Or through them. And when all of those approaches don’t work, you won’t be able to sleep until you find one that does.

You’ll be obsessed, and I think that’s a great thing.

Of course, you could instead listen to the safe advice and settle for goals that are “achievable.” You’ll probably encounter smaller obstacles than you would with the big goals, but trust me, the obstacles will still be there. And since won’t be as excited, overcoming those obstacles will feel just as hard.

As a result, I think you’ll be just as likely — perhaps more likely — to fail. Ironically, the exact thing you feared when you opted for that energy-deprived goal.

Moderation and balance are words most people love. But those people won’t let themselves think big, and this is why they so often fail.

The Surprising Link Between “Think Big” and “Start Small”

If you’ve read my blog for a while, then none of this should surprise you. But here’s what might.

While I think your goals should be unreasonable and scary, your resolutions — the habits you resolve to create in order to get those goals — should be achievable. I’ll even go a step further: these initial changes should be tiny. Not just achievable, but fail-proof.

(And by the way, once you’ve set the goal and are chomping at the bit to get started, your habits are the first place you should look. They’re a tangible, approachable place to start, and one that you actually have control over.)

So don’t confuse goals and resolutions. Big and crazy and exciting goals are wonderful, but they don’t make for good resolutions (whatever time of year you’re resolving, New Year’s or not).

Instead, you want your resolutions to be the habits that will help you achieve the goals you’ve set. And you want them to start small.

How small? Ridiculously so:

  • If you want to write a novel, your resolution for each day could be to sit down and write one sentence (thanks, Hemingway!). Chances are you’ll almost always write more than that, but if “one sentence” is all it takes to win, you’re way more likely to sit down and write than you are when you promise yourself 500 words a day.
  • To start flossing, floss just one tooth.
  • To start running, aim for two or five or ten minutes (I know you’re not going to try anything less than ten, so go ahead with it, and if you find yourself procrastinating, then pull it back to five).
  • Walking works too, or you could count your steps instead of setting a time limit. I’ve actually used my vívofit to do this for a few of my runs recently, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that when I took off with the aim of “running for 3600 steps” instead of “running for 20 minutes,” it helped me to maintain a quick cadence (something that inadvertently slows when I’m just running for time).
  • To start eating better, start with only one meal. Make your breakfast a smoothie, for a example.

It might seem like I’m being daft here. Certainly, to make any real progress on those giant goals I wrote about a few paragraphs ago, these tiny steps won’t cut it.

But they’ll help you get started. And that’s a lot farther than most people get.

With any of these, I’d suggest an initial term of seven straight days. Do that, and you start to build the habit muscle (and it’s just like a muscle), without draining your willpower. Get seven days in a row without failing, and you can let yourself increase.

By, you guessed it, a little bit.

But don’t underestimate the power of a little bit, when a little bit is every day, and growing every week.

How I’m Starting Small this Year

I took a solid month off of running between mid-November and New Years. Not one run. I’ve got plenty of excuses, but they’re excuses.

So how am I getting back into it?

I’m doing the #WriteAndRun31 challenge, running and writing every day in the month of January. For the running half of my commitment, I started out with runs of 20 minutes. After succeeding each day for the first week of the year, I increased to 25 minutes, and that’s where I am now. If I’m successful for the next seven days, I’ll go to 30 minutes. And so on.

(Yes, 20 minutes is much more than the five minutes I suggest for some people starting out. Choose an initial amount you know you’ll be able to do … then lower it by a few minutes, and you’ll be good.)

Will this work? While I can’t say for sure, it’s exactly what I did back in 2012, when I was feeling completely unmotivated about running. Those daily, 20-minute runs became 25-minute runs then half-hour runs, and eventually hour-plus runs in what turned out to be a 75-day runstreak. And all that habit-building — all at easy, aerobic-zone pace — became the base training for my 100-miler just a year later.

Dream Big, Start Small

We make two big mistakes. It’s said that:

  1. We overestimate what we can achieve in a year, and
  2. We underestimate what we can achieve in a decade.

Translation:

  1. We don’t start small enough, and
  2. We don’t dream big enough.

I think it’s time to change both of those. Are you with me?

This post is the second in a series of six posts (one per week) that I’m doing in partnership with Whole Foods and Garmin to start the year. As compensation, I received Whole Foods gift cards and a Garmin vívofit, both of which I’m using to create the content for this series.

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Comments

  1. ((((love this))))

    and entirely agree.

  2. I think these are really good points. Starting with something small each day makes so much more sense than scrambling to try and do something big that you put out there for yourself. I kind of laughed at the writing one because one of my goals IS to try (a children’s book, mind you, but still it’s a book haha0, so I like the idea of the sentence a day. Just makes it so much more manageable come the day I plan to be done the writing part. Here’s to a great 2015!!

  3. Totally awesome way of looking at goals:-) I’ve always felt this way, even in the face of the obstacles of folks telling me how nuts I am, ha, ha.

    Thanks for posting. Gives me inspiration to get out there.

    • Great minds. The way I see it, there are two ways to find out whether I’m dreaming big enough:

      1. If people don’t look at me funny when I tell them my dreams, then my dreams aren’t big enough. (This is hard to do when your friends and family are so supportive!)
      2. I know that I’m not dreaming big enough if my dreams don’t scare the crap out of me.

      Doug.

  4. I absolutely agree with this! I had a rather complicated system of goals and daily activities and although I did okay with it initially, I was unable to sustain it. So, I went back to the drawing board and developed larger long term goals and shorter, easier to do steps. Now,I commit to 10 minutes a day for each goal. Often, I do more, but I can stop at 10 minutes and feel like I am moving forward. So far, it is working much better.

  5. You email came at the right time today. Just getting over a PF injury and wanting so badly to test the foot and get back out running. I like your idea to start small, do it for a week, and add more, one week at a time.
    So today after work I will put feet to the ground and start my way back. I know I can walk for 20 minutes for the next week. Lets see if my foot can take it!
    Thanks for the motivational boost today
    Kathy

    • Shailendra Dhamankar says:

      Having just recovered from PF myself I know exactly what you are going through Kathy. PF takes a while so whenever you try running next, if it hurts take 1 full week off before you try next. Otherwise continue alternate days increasing mileage slightly until 3 back to back runs with no pain at which point you are back.

      But back to Matt’s post. I follow every single article of yours Matt and I really can’t agree with you more. Your articles are not just well written and true – I have actually tried the tips and tricks myself and have seen them succeed. Reading these articles seem like looking into a mirror for me. Its so encouraging and refreshing. I started running in 2011, ran my first marathon in Oct 2012 in 4:06. 2nd in May 2013 in 3:48. I got too excited to see myself shave 18 minutes and signed myself up for # 3 and # 4 just 4 and 8 months away from my 2nd marathon respectively. What happened? I aimed for 3:30 for both and failed both times finishing with 3:46 and 3:50.
      I then took a full 9 months until my next one(#5) which I ran last Nov, employing many of the exact same techniques you described, got to the start line with the same goal(3:30), finished in 3:25! I have now signed up for # 6 in June and am shooting for 3:10 (will get me a BQ). I believe I can do it because I have understood what is that unique collection of discipline, humility, planning, hard work,training and nutrition that it takes for continued success in marathoning.
      Hopefully I will be able to apply it in other fields of life as well.

      Thanks Matt for being such an inspiration

      Cheers,

      Shailendra

  6. thank you Matt. I’m starting a blog on triathlon and I’ll definitely use your “write one sentence” goal to get started. I’m more afraid of what people will think- will they think the articles are silly? will I sound weird? It’s scary to put yourself out there. Thank you for the boost!

  7. When I started trying to learn a foreign language I asked advice of someone who could already speak several languages about how to achieve true mastery and fluency – she said “learn 10 new words every day”. And it works – a few years on I can speak Dutch and I’m well on the way to speaking Chinese. The power of this method comes from the other things that follow from the 10 word rule, like where do you find the words? Well by following a book or audio course, reading, watching TV or speaking to people. How do you remember the 10 words? You need a method such as flashcards or Anki. Set the simple goal of truly learning and remembering 10 words every day and you can’t fail to learn a foreign language!

  8. Great advice, Matt! I just set my goal for the first half of this year – to run a marathon in June. Since I’ve been slacking in the running department lately, I’m going to start right now with 2-3 mile runs 2-3 times a week, and work my way up from there.

  9. Great post! For 2015 as I turn 50, the goal is the Ultra Gnarly Bandit series. 4-100 mile races plus 1 100K over April-October. Dream big! I’ve run 3 100s during the summer but not 4.

  10. Funny cuz I just went from this post to your page on going meatless and the first advice there is not to go cold turkey, but do it with smaller, shall we say “achievable” goals. No worries. I just thought it funny. I’m here as a running meat-eater interested in getting more plants and less meat, possibly leading to no meat. Just exploring. Thanks for the info.

  11. When I was in high school, my career goal was to be a conservation minded primatologist. I met, and spoke Jane Goodall three times. School was challenging for me because it took me a long time to get schoolwork done. I worked on school, right away at 3:30, after the school day, and worked till it was done, around 10 to 11 at night. I always got behind too, so on the weekend, there was more work to be done, usually around 8 hours. Every time I did not want to do an assignment, I just visualized myself treking through the mountains of the Virunga Volcanos, looking for mountain gorillas. I wanted it so bad, and it motivated me to do well.

    Fast forward to now… I finally finished college with an anthro degree, due to failing chem. five times, and getting kicked out of university three times. I burned myself out completely. And, I had to figure things out again.

    However, I have had a crazy, awesome thing in my life all these years, and it was the thing that has kept me going. My Bassoon. After an attempt at an enrironmental ed. career, I am going into music. I learned through the music degree that I have several learning disabilities. And, that means I have to schedule my day around myself, and I can’t rest. So, my crazy goal now. Become a Bassoon prof for students who have learning disabilities and they want to learn more about music. I am very interested in doing some motivational speaking on the side too.

    The key to crazy goals is to have that one thing that keeps you going. For me, that is working out. Running, riding, core. I love it. I live for my next work out. Healthy eating rocks too. Good quality sleep. Time management, and a support system. It does not hurt that there are other self-improvement focused people out in the world too. We all inspire each other.

    Here is to crazy goals, and small habits daily to achieve them!

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