Stop me if you have heard this before.
You get inspired. Maybe it’s nearing the end of the year and you decide that next year is going to be different. Or your favorite jeans don’t have that loose, comfortable feeling that they used to have. Perhaps you met with your mentor and came away inspired finally to make some changes.
That newfound inspiration leads to setting a few goals. Hmmm…goals. Let’s see. How does that go? SMART. Specific, measurable, action-oriented? Or is it attainable? Realistic. Time-driven. Yes, that’s it. SMART.
So off you go. Dreaming big. Remembering that you once read about BHAG goals. Big, hairy, audacious goals! Yes! I’m feeling inspired now. What would I do if it were impossible to fail?! You are feeling it now. You are on a roll! Lose 20 pounds. Stop eating donuts for breakfast. Make 40 cold calls every day. Don’t come home until you ask for a referral. I’m doubling my sales in 2020!
When we make an intentional decision to change, we get excited. And we do well - for a while. But invariably, our willpower lets us down. Resistance gets the better of us. And we fall off the wagon. Even with our good intentions, we can’t crank up the energy that it takes to recreate the energy it takes to get back on track. It’s as if we know it’s futile. Another chapter in a long line of unfulfilled goals and short-lived bursts of activity. It’s hurts us in the short-term - but it is crippling long-term. If we do this enough, we stop thinking about what could be. We stop aiming high. We start thinking that those that are succeeding have “The Gift.” And we don’t have it. We make excuses. We are reluctant to aim high because…well, we’ve tried that before. And it didn’t work. We sink deeper into our comfort zone.
What if the problem wasn’t our lack of discipline, our willpower, or our ability to follow through on our ambitious plans? What if it was simply this - being goal driven just doesn’t work for most people? What if the answer was to be less ambitious? What if the problem with achieving our goals was the goal itself?
Goals are important. They set our direction. They give us a destination to aim for. But it’s not about the goal. It’s about the process. I love how James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, says it. He says that “goals are results for what you want to achieve. But systems and processes are what allow us to achieve the progress.” It’s the systems and processes - the habits - that drive our success.
So instead of focusing on the goal, focus on the habit. And aim low. For example, if my goal is to do 30 quality push-ups each morning before I go to work, the typical response in starting is to do as many as I can. And keep grunting and grinding until I can get to 20. It’s hard. It’s not something I look forward to. I dread the pain. It takes willpower and a stick-to-it attitude. It’s not easy! Chances are, our willpower will wane. We’ll get discouraged when we aren’t making progress. We’ll miss a day. Then another. Then we stop altogether.
Instead, what if you made it so easy, you couldn’t fail. I want to do 30, but I’m going to start at one. One?! That’s a complete waste of time. Why bother? Yes, for the next week, do one good pushup. Not two. Get down…do your push-up…and you are done. Get on with your morning. But do it every morning. In a week or so, do two. In a couple of weeks, bump it up to three. I know what you are thinking. I’ll never get the outcome I want aiming that low!
Here’s the takeaway - it’s not about the outcome. It’s about the trajectory. I’m developing the habit - and the self-image - of someone who does push-ups every morning. It’s so easy that I’ll do it…and every time I do this easy task, I’m building the habit. I’m strengthening the neural connections. I’m becoming someone who does this every day. I develop the habit of doing push-ups. And once you develop the habit, you are on the right trajectory. When I’m on the right trajectory, I’ll far surpass any goal that I set. In due time, I’ll hit my goal of 30 – and I’ll keep going. For high achievers, the finish line is invisible. We go beyond our original goal – and in time, achieve things we never thought we were capable of.
Have you ever met someone who trained diligently to complete a marathon - and then stopped running? If you haven’t, be sure to say hello to me the next we cross paths. I did just that. Twice. I was goal-driven (train for the marathon) but I didn’t develop the habit. It was pure willpower. I made it to the finish line but once the goal was accomplished, I had no habit to lean on. And I stopped.
Set your goal for the result you want. Then forget the goal and work to develop the habit. And in that process, start slow, aim low, and make it impossible to fail. If it’s too hard, your willpower will fail you. It’s the habit. It’s the trajectory. When multiplied over time, we’ll get the results we want.
When you work on creating habits, you’ll begin to re-program yourself – literally change your hardwiring– and you’ll be the kind of person you have longed to be.