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:
- We overestimate what we can achieve in a year, and
- We underestimate what we can achieve in a decade.
- We don’t start small enough, and
- 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.