The first flush of the new year is out of the way and many resolutions have already been cast aside, dismissed like a credit card bill pending a better set of circumstances in which to respond to the call. Now is probably a good time to visit the perennial January question - goals.

Picture from Reuters.com

Now, we "know" that the setting of goals is a good thing. I mean, those of us who have the double-edged blessing of working for pretty-much any sized organisation will have had it drummed into us that that it is vitally important. It also stands to reason that achievement is more likely when the objective is set. But what doesn't often get mentioned is that this is not merely a matter of temporal inevitability like night follows day; rather, it is a likely but no guaranteed sequence like Summer following Spring in the UK (you know it should happen but quite often it seems to go from Spring to Autumn/Winter with barely a pause for breath in between).

Goals can be grand and public in scale and scope or small and intimate. Recently I was privileged enough to get a chance to work, briefly, with a high calibre triathlete whose stated goal is to be world champion. And this isn't just kids playing footy in the back garden ambition either, she has the credentials and the drive to make this realistic. But as impressive as this (and it is) the scale is not the most important factor here (for some people, a goal that big would be blessing, for others, a millstone around their neck).

I've come across people who think that they (and others) should set goals in every aspect of their existence. And those who go for one goal, finding that for the, the exercise of focus and control along one line is either on a scale that other things fall within its scope; or other things are irrelevant by contrast and they will run with whatever; or that the exercise of mission focus down one avenue has a spill-over into other aspects of their lives anyway.

I've had mileage from working towards a statement of intent, and also from a more rigorous planning exercise. I'll talk to both and you can, as ever, use what works for you and discard the rest.

One of the most common reasons that I come across for the wheels falling off is around depth. In order to get these things moving, most of us will require something more than a mission statement. Sure, sometimes it will be enough to declare out loud a goal, a value, but more often something more is required, especially for the longer term objectives. Sports psychologists talk of three different types of goal, a combination of which can cover the questions we will look at below. These three types are outcome; performance, and process. 

The outcome goal, to some extent, speaks for itself. It is the destination, the thing which gives a sense of direction and offers inspiration. But, these are a blunt tool in terms of getting stuff done. Sure, the idea of vanquishing your enemy might whip you into a frothing, berserker frenzy but stripping off, painting yourself blue and running headlong into the foe with your claymore waving is bullshit for learning and difficult to sustain in the longer term. Adrenaline is a callous mistress. She'll exhort you to spectacular things, but what sustains you when she's left? If you've ever woken up after a cracking night out with your mates to find that you have entered a marathon/triathlon/ultra-marathon at some point during the night before, you have an insight into what I am talking about!

Performance goals - a bit more of the sober "how" ying to the raging yang of the outcome goal. I want to win my race. OK, what time does that mean that you need?

Process goals - how do we build to this time? Do you enter early-season competition focusing on just your start; or just your technique or perhaps just your transition? What about your daily training? What will that look like? If weight loss is your outcome, perhaps you look at one meal at a time in your process planning.

There is a double point to this. not only do you get to see yourself making progress; there is a body of psychological research that identifies self-control as being a finite resource. However, it is something which experiences a training effect. It may get tired and worn out but we also build our self-control "endurance" through practice. By focusing on manageable bites of self-control, we build our capacity these on other occasions, when they will not then deplete our reserves.The sports-people amongst us here know that victory is a habit, and the research begins to give us as to perhaps how it becomes such. 

Working with other people it is often easier to see the belief in the goal than it is in ourselves. But even if you think you can , it is still worth questioning your athlete/client/self.

  1. Why do you want x (your goal)? How else might you be able to scratch this itch (the underlying motivation)?
  2. Has it been done before? What is the success rate e.g. statistics about long-term weight loss success suggest that only between 5 and 20% of people succeed. What separates those people from the others? If it has never been done before, how many times has it been attempted? What is known about those attempts? Why did those people fail?
  3. What factors are influential on the likelihood of success? How many of those work in your favour? How many of them are in your control?  Who else do you need to rope in and to what extent? How are you going to keep them interested? The more you have other people involved in your outcome, the more precarious your position. It’s not a bad thing but you will need to look at what persuasion is required and how you can keep them engaged.
  4. What will be the cost of reaching this goal? Both actual costs (time and money) but also opportunity costs. Too often people fail to properly think this aspect through, and no wonder really, we only ever see the glory of the final product from our heroes, and not the blood, sweat, early alarm calls and tears along the way. How many family meals/parties/drinks nights will you have to miss or have to endure quiet and sober, watching everything that goes in your mouth? Are you ready for that? Here’s the biggie, and often overlooked, what are the wider consequences? Apart from your intended goal, what might you gain from following this road? What might you lose? Thinking back to the resources you have, how helpful or obstructive are your friends going to be? If your circle of friends enjoys a curry and a beer or five, two or three nights per week how will they react to you eating and drinking differently from before? Will they try to sabotage what you are doing or will they support you? Will you need to think about getting some new friends? Will your new activities mean that you naturally start spending less time with them? Some of these things you think of may seem insignificant at this point but they are more things that will take you out of your comfort zone – and when you are up against it these things can seem much bigger if you have not prepared for them in advance. It may be time to head back to question 1 and assess where else you might be able to find your grail.
  5. What is the cost of failure? Like the price of entry, you need to have a think about this. I'll probably come off as defeatist  or negative here but it is not meant that way. We need to know the consequences so that we can embrace them. By knowing we can better prepare ourselves for what needs to be done lest we find ourselves confronting this alternative outcome. What is your contingency? Unsupported polar explorer? Your price of failure is high and does not need much of a contingency! Want to be a premier league footballer? The price of failure is highest if you binned your schooling and left yourself little in the way of contingency. 
  6. Is this goal consistent with your values? Are the things you will gain and lose around the edges of this goal consistent with you as a person? If not, be aware that you are fighting an uphill battle and will either need to change your goal; develop a whole new value schema or you will fail at some point. It is one thing to wrestle with habits but going against your own values will lead to either outright disobedience or subtle forms of self-sabotage as your subconscious seeks to bring you back into line with yourself. If you could have this (vocalise your goal here) right now, would you take it? Whoa, was that a hesitation? Good, what was it, what was that qualifier? OK, let's build that in to this process – how does that qualifier impact on everything else?
  7. Here is another chance for all you natural negative people out there. What are the potential barriers to this goal? What are the sorts of things you know will come up to get in your way e.g. birthday parties; doughnuts in the kitchen at work etc etc I am not trying to send you into a spiral of depression and self-flagellation but you need to be honest, where are the sticking points. At this point do not start to say to yourself “yeah but it'll be different this time, because I will do x”. If you can get to “because I will do x” great, hold that thought. It is more likely that you will try to justify it to yourself by saying “it'll be different this time” full stop, end of story! It will be but we will need to invest some time in that. For now, we are just trying to identify what could stop you, what are the roadblocks that the fickle hand of fate will place in your path?
Having answered all of that, you have a narrative. How does it hang together? Try it on. How does it fit? Can you live with this story? Revisit what you want. How does it make you feel now? How will it make you feel to achieve it? Uncertain? Let's go back to the beginning and work through it again. Finesse what you think you want in light of what it is going to take to get there and what you are prepared to put in. The two are not always the same and are completely independent of each other, so it is as well to recognise it and deal with it now!
    There is an awful lot more to this than just waking up on New Year's Day and thinking "right, this year I'll..."

    Food for thought.


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