On Defining Goals

6 minute read

I recently read an article in Garden & Gun (an excellent magazine if you love the culture of the South) on three women who returned to their family farm to make a living off what they could grow and create from their own labors. One of the women was a musician who had struggled through a large part of her life and found upon returning to a simpler life that she could escape from what the author called “hobbling introspection”. This phrase struck a powerful chord with me as I often times find myself hobbled by introspection and navel gazing. Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about goals and resolutions and growth and the means to accomplish things. I find that occasionally the focus on such things lapses into hobbling introspection and little or nothing comes from the exercise. The question is “how best to avoid that?”

In the article, the woman returned to the land which can easily be translated into “started having to get up at 5 in the morning to milk the damn cows”. Waking at 5 AM for the physical labors of a farm leaves little time to worry about the existential meaning in your life. Having just moved back into the big city, I probably won’t be able to get a cow that needs milking anytime soon. Other people know that having a family provides. A crying child is just a powerful motivator as a full udder depending on the perspective. While that’s still an option, it’s probably not happening in the next 9 months for sure. And so those of us with no farm and no kids but a desire to quit navel gazing and wasting time introspecting are left to fill the time on our own.

Which is why some of us define goals/resolutions I think. My goals for the new year have almost always been about growing and learning as well as gaining new experiences. Two main problems come up with goals like that. One is making them specific enough to be actionable. Goals that are nebulous are typically difficult to implement so over the past few years, I have started having goals like “Spend 180 hours on languages”. This is an actionable goal but it brings up the second problem and that is tracking progress. Growth requires direction and if you can’t know that you are moving in the right direction the effects are lessened. Because so many of my goals are countable, it would help to have an activity tracking tool. A quick Google search gives me 85 million possibilities so that should fill my time for the next century. Still, it’s important to have a way to know you are on the right track. Last year, one of my goals was to spend 180 hours on The Sports Pool Hub. I didn’t track my time at all but I’m pretty sure I accomplished that. Still, it would be nice at the end of 2014 to say “I actually spent 200 hours on it and my, that sure is rewarding”. Without the confirmation that the goal has been reached, we lose the largest effect of establishing goals, the feeling of reward.

This makes me think of a book I read last year (2014 goal: read 12 books. I made it to 11), The Power of Habit. It’s an interesting book that looks at the habits of individuals, companies and societies. The development of habits in individuals was the most interesting to me and is most relevant to accomplishing goals. In the book, author Charles Duhigg details what it is that causes us to develop habits, good and bad. By analyzing this development, he gives us tools for breaking bad habits and replacing them with good ones. This also leads to noticing how more and more of your behaviors are actually just habits that you have fallen into. There are three main components to a habit.

The first is the cue. Every habit starts with a cue. For a smoker, it might be stress or a drink. For a runner, it might be the alarm going off at 5:30. All habits have a cue. Finding the cue or establishing a new one is a key to breaking or creating new habits. The second is reward. We get a reward when we do the behavior that the cue kicks off. Puffing on a cigarette gives us the hit of nicotine that lowers the stress (though not really, it just transfers the stress from our mind to our cardiovascular system but we don’t have to worry about that until we drop dead of a heart attack). Finishing a run gives us the reward of feeling strong. This is a critical part of establishing a new habit and the reward at first often needs to be external in nature. Want to establish a new exercise routine? Make the reward something you like such as a smoothie or cookie. When you finish a run, have that smoothie and soon your mind will associate the reward with the cue and the habit making it more likely you will continue.

The third component of habits is the most important. Everyone knows that habits are easy to develop when things are going well. When life is smooth, we can all get out of bed and go for a run. However, often bad habits were developed in times of stress and in times of stress, we fall back into a routine that solved that stress before. It’s the craving that causes that and that’s the third component. Craving is the internalization of the habit. You have to find ways to crave the new behavior. If you are replacing smoking with running, the craving for nicotine must be replaced with the craving and desire to be stronger and healthier. I’m reminded of an idea from The Happiness Hypothesis. In that book, Jonathan Haidt talks about the rider and the elephant. The rider is our conscious mind. The elephant is our sub and un conscious mind. The rider on an elephant cannot control the behavior or direction of the elephant by force. He must have other methods for that control. Craving is one of them. If we can cause our sub and unconscious minds to crave new behaviors related to our goals, we can succeed at them.

So for my goals this year, I’m hoping to find ways to establish habits through new cues, rewards and cravings to accomplish them. My first way of doing this is to set up a schedule for the activities. Establishing a schedule is beneficial because it can provide the cue. If at 5:30 AM, the first thing you do is lace up your sneakers to run, that alarm becomes not a cue for waking up but a cue for running. Many of us know that we are most productive with a schedule. The second way is to more accurately track effort on the goals as that becomes a reward. Running a faster mile than you did last month provides reward and leads to craving. The combination of these two things should establish a base for building cravings for the new goals at times when life is off schedule or stressful. This will help to keep the elephant on the path towards the goal while the rider eventually reaps the benefits.

My Measurable Goals for 2015
Spend 180 hours on Spanish
Spend 180 hours on The Sports Pool Hub
See 12 movies
Read 12 books
Write 26 letters
Write 52 things (blog posts, stories, whatever)

My Goals that the measurable goals come from
Most of these boil down to Produce More, Consume Less which might be the motto for 2015.
Write more
Code more
Hunt more
Save more
Read more
Grow more
Buy less
Want Less
Complain less