It’s that time of the year. People are jotting down new year’s resolutions, setting out the professional and personal achievements they want to have reached by the end of the year, and overall everything just feels new, fertile, and ripe to be undertaking this exercise. But how many are setting the same goal they set for themselves last year, the year before, or even 5 to 10 years ago? The key that many are missing is the ability to set sustainable goals.
A wise man once told me: “Life is not about flashes of brilliance, it’s about consistency”. This saying goes to the heart of building sustainable goals. But what are sustainable goals? This oxymoron implies an aim or desired result (goal) which becomes more achievable or attainable by avoiding ‘big-bang’ changes. To determine whether you are on a path to sustainability, you can ask yourself: “Can I keep this up in the long-term?” If the answer is “no”, you are likely to fail at making long-term changes.
Often the attainability of a goal is measured (as it is in the SMART principles) by whether you are able to achieve your goal within a specified time period. However, many goals require a change in how we do things, not only for a month or two but over the longer term. This is specifically the case with personal goals. If you want to quit smoking or get your master’s degree, this may require a lifestyle change.
If you want to quit smoking, for instance, you don’t want to employ a strategy that will get you to the end of the 31st of March and then you return to the status quo. This will likely be a change you want to make and sustain well into the future. Similarly, if you want to achieve a time-bound goal, such as getting your master’s, you will likely also need to make lifestyle changes. Although you can approach this as a short-term goal (as I suggest in a previous post) by keeping a very rigid and intensive schedule for the year or two that you are registered, a year or two is actually a really long time!
In this post, I provide a few points to consider while you set your goals to help you make long-term changes.
Start small and build your way up
When we are amped to get something going, we often overdo it. Many moons ago, when I first started with my morning runs, I used to run 3 mornings in a row: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday (at 5 am, eek!). Needless to say, this routine didn’t last more than a few weeks.
Last year I wrote about a habit tracking system discussed in a YouTube video by Thomas Frank. In this video, he explains how you can build habits in a more sustainable way by avoiding change that is too disruptive to your current way of doing things but also using a systematic way to learn why you may be failing at reaching small milestones.
By following a system like this, you are really committing to building a habit of success. Achieving positive outcomes on a regular basis can also help rewire your brain to think differently about what you’re doing and your probability of success. Trust me, it’s much easier to achieve something if you are not doubting yourself every step of the way, but changing your thinking can also help you bounce back if you’ve failed.
In order to plan for the long-term, you must adjust things as you go. If things are not working out, try new variations of what you are doing. Last year, I swapped around my running days towards the middle of the year. I used to run on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, but because I had to wake up so early, I felt that it was quite disruptive to my schedule. I tried Tuesday and Wednesday instead to get it out of the way early in the week and that was a welcome change during the last few months of the year.
I tried similar tricks with my research. Sometimes I would work through the night, but that disrupted my daytime schedule. I now plan my writing and reading in my first slot each morning while I am still alert.
You have to experiment via trial and error, but avoid burning yourself out. If something is not working, avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater, just change your approach. The Thomas Frank video referred to in the last point explains how you can keep a record of when and why things don’t work out, so you avoid them altogether.
Start with what you have
I can be very impulsive. This is a good thing because I tend to avoid dwelling on issues for a long time as I have a desire to find a solution as soon as possible. The bad thing about this is that I often do things I don’t need to do. Like shopping impulsively when I have decided I am doing something. I thus often tend to make a financial investment before demonstrating to myself that I am in fact really serious about my goal.
How many of us go buy new running shoes before actually going for a run in the shoes we have? There is, however, room for a really good strategy here. We are often encouraged to reward ourselves for reaching milestones. Having reached a milestone is also a demonstration of the fact that you have in fact committed to reaching your goal. Why not buy the new running shoes after having met your first milestone? Like after having followed your running schedule for a full 4 weeks?
This way you make sure you don’t waste money on something you weren’t really serious about and you get in the habit of rewarding those small wins.
It doesn’t have to be new
The point about building sustainable goals is that you want them to eventually become sustainable habits. Even if your goal is to get your master’s and you get it, you have demonstrated to yourself that when you set out to do something, you do it, and you do it well! You get stuff done. This is a habit you can apply to various aspects of your life.
If you have found something that works for you, evaluate it. What is it about this thing that works for you and how can you continue doing it? This may also help you to build your new goals on the same principles.
Is it the disappointment of failure or the exhilaration of victory which drives you the most? If it is the fear of failure, think about what failure would look like in your new goal and find strategies to avoid it. If you are driven by victory, think about what it will feel like to look back on your life one day and realise that you achieved what you set out to do.
But, above all, remember to try! We all know the good saying: you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. So, shoot your shot, even if you fail, you will learn what not to do and move closer to knowing what does work for you.