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Tell me if this cycle looks familiar:
Start to get things on-track
Choose self-improvement project
Feel the thrill of your own potential
Take pride in early success
Watch as life rears its ugly head and chaos creeps in. Stumble. Fall
Feel like a flaming sack of garbage
Fall into existential funk
Has it ever occurred to you that you’re not actually a flaming sack of garbage?
I just wanted to throw that out there.
What is far more likely is that you’re not so good at choosing goals. That puts you in good company. I regularly meet smart, capable people who are absolutely awful at this. So, if this is your challenge, you might be setting yourself up for failure without even realizing it. The good news is that you can change this pretty quickly.
Why do we choose the goals we do?
Sometimes, it’s just the most recent thing we’ve seen. The newest thing often seems like the best thing.
Sometimes, we see someone who seems happy or successful and we want the same. We feel like if we had their money or their abs or maybe their sweet Jet Ski, we too would feel pretty great.
And sometimes, we just feel like there’s something we’re supposed to do.
There are all kinds of reasons but without a way to prioritize choices, we can set ourselves up for failure. And then we start that cycle at the top again. This is a colossal bummer. But it’s also eminently fixable. Here’s how:
Don’t choose brittle goals
A brittle goal is one that will shatter when it meets even mild resistance or difficulty. Brittle goals often have hard numbers attached to them. 100 days of yoga. 5 lbs of fat-loss per week. 0 cigarettes.
These things sound great when you put them on paper. And they might actually be. But if missing a couple of yoga classes, gaining a couple of lbs, or hacking a single dart (how Canadian is that?) are enough to make you want to give up, then it’s going to be an uphill battle.
Brittle goals are often unnecessarily constraining. Like not believing it counts as a workout unless you’re bleeding from the eyes. Or that it doesn’t count as a vacation unless you visit a specific number of museums or restaurants. Or that food is always a bitter contest between you and calories.
By the way, that whole “food is just fuel” thing is pretty much one of the most joyless things a human can say.
Brittle goals often fit poorly into the existing framework of your life. I recently spoke with an entrepreneur was having a bad time. She had an absolutely brutal schedule and couldn’t find time for her own health. And yes, she felt like a flaming sack of garbage about the whole thing. I suggested that normal human beings don’t complete 70-hours of work per week AND THEN have tons of energy left over for new things.
This was a gifted psychologist, by the way. Which is a reminder that even the most capable of us can still fall prey to brittle goals.
Brittle goals often force you to depend on circumstances outside your control. If your time-intensive goal depends on zero work emergencies, you will have trouble. If your restrictive eating goal depends on your coworkers all being onboard, bonne chance! Some things are out of our control. Accept those things and focus on what is in your control. Yes, that advice sounds like it belongs on a fridge magnet but that doesn’t make it wrong.
Strict does not always mean brittle
I’m not saying that choosing a strict goal will result in failure. Many people are dialled right in when it comes to their health practices. They’re savage about making things happen. But their goals can probably still take a real beating.
Before you start your next initiative, take a moment to visualize things going wrong.
Imagine how a minor misstep might feel. Will you be able to manage it? Do you have course-correction strategies? Will you be fine? If the answer is no to these things, you might have a serious case of brittleness.
I’ve seen my fair share of fitness heartache. People often quit because they feel like they’re wasting their time. But I don’t believe in that. If the human race were so dead-set against wasting time, then >90% of what you see on your screen could be packed into a boat, pushed downriver, and set ablaze. Wasting time isn’t the problem because we don’t get mad at a lack of results IF we’re enjoying ourselves. We get mad at working really hard, suffering for our goal, AND THEN not getting results. Who wouldn’t?
As a fitness guy, this breaks my heart because movement is enjoyable – and can be for everyone. But high expectations threaten that relationship.
And that brings us to what brittle goals really are, at their heart. They’re joyless and transactional. And that’s the problem. Instead of loving the process, you love the outcome. It’s like marrying a horrible human being because they’re rich.
Resilient goals are different
Resilient goals are ones that can take a beating without breaking. They are enjoyable for their own sake. But they also just happen to take you in the right direction.
Resilient goals are engaging. Not in the social media version of the world (addicting) but more in terms of being compelling and interesting. Even if a given day isn’t successful, you know that you’re learning, growing, and moving in the right direction.
Resilient goals are a fit for your lifestyle. They fit neatly into your day and take priority over all your other bullshit.
Resilient goals fit with who you are and what you believe in. They strengthen your sense of competence and identity.
Resilient goals add to your sense of control.
In Daniel Pink’s books, Drive, he outlines the top three types of motivators.
Play or curiosity
Consistency with values and identity
Something that is not pleasurable in the moment but will lead to a future benefit
You’ll notice that avoiding bad things did not make it to the top of the charts. This really isn’t about avoidance or taking away. It’s about adding the good stuff.
You game for a little bit of goal-setting? Write down somewhere between 5 and 10 of the ideas for exercise, nutrition, and general self-care that you have swirling around in your brain. And then group them by the above three categories. At the very least, take a moment to think about them.
1st of all
Did anything make it into that first category? If not, you’re not alone. Many people skip enjoyment altogether.
2nd of all
Think about a process that you legitimately enjoy. What happens when your results plateau? You keep doing it anyway because it’s a healthy, fun relationship, not a transactional one.
Everything plateaus at some point. I have never ever seen a completely straight line in any kind of health outcome from weight loss to strength gain. In fact, the only people who dependably see results are the consistent ones. So think of consistency as your first decision-making filter.
Finally, before you start your next self-improvement campaign, ask yourself if you’ve chosen something that:
Is based on a realistic assessment of your available time and emotional energy
If it doesn’t fit the existing framework of your life, are you ready to overhaul everything?
Enjoyable(or at least interesting)
Making consistency easy is essential. It’s what we’ve built our entire organization around
Can take a beating
Did you know that railroad iron actually gets stronger as it rusts? Look for things that gain character – instead of losing value with every scratch and ding
Has value – even when results are not forthcoming
On your deathbed, you will not regret being kind. Or eating lots of vegetables. Or learning to push your own limits. If you see the innate value of your goal, you will build a relationship with it that goes deeper than action and reward.