Our big goals are usually long-term: we want to lose weight and keep it off, we want to retire early, we want to travel the world.
Traditional wisdom about goal-setting says to picture, vividly, the goal you want to achieve. Don’t just say you want a boat; picture the exact boat. Where is it harbored? What’s it called? How does it feel stepping onboard?
These kinds of visualizations help to solidify your objective and make it emotional. Essentially, the logic says, “if you know exactly what you want and you continually focus on it, then you will find a way to get it.”
Here’s the problem though: you can’t run a marathon when you’re using binoculars.
It would make for an entertaining Boston Marathon to watch, but runners know the challenge is keeping up their stride, not knowing where to go. The same is true for you.
Clarifying your goal is a great place to start. But once you know it, leave it in the back of your mind. Below is a series of steps that build your momentum and keep you on course to reach your personal finish line.
Step 1: Imagine the person who achieves your goal.
Rather than spending energy trying to visualize your goal, instead, visualize yourself the day before you achieve your goal. How is that “you” different from the “you” of today? When does future-you wake up? What does future-you do first thing in the morning? Do you know a specific person who’s achieved this goal? What are they like?
You don’t have to become superman/superwoman. You’ll be surprised what a difference a few small changes will make. Try to walk through a hypothetical day focusing on those certain behaviors, attitudes, and values that you believe make future-you the kind of person who achieves your goal. Use friends and people you admire to help get ideas.
Step 2: Make small habit changes with big emotional payoff.
Let’s say your goal is to run a marathon. The day before the race you are already a “marathon runner.” You’ve got more red blood cells and a stronger cardiovascular system. You’ve learned how much to eat before a race to provide energy without making you feel sick. You’ve developed mental games to fight through the lows to your 2nd and 3rd winds. You can’t fake that kind of development - it takes time.
Today, the most crucial step you can take to reach your goal is to find one or two small habits you can permanently change in your routine. They need to be simple, easy things that give you a natural emotional boost. When it comes to habits, the best resource I’ve found is Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit. His research finds that all habits are made up of three things: Cue, Routine, and Reward.
- Cue - some event that makes you start craving a certain reward
- Routine - a pattern of behavior
- Reward - the payoff you started craving when you were triggered
Duhigg finds it’s best to start with existing habit cues and try to swap out the routine (and reward, if necessary). Here are a few practical examples:
Replace your afternoon snack of potato chips with carrots
- Why? Future-you probably makes a habit of eating healthier since it’s less likely to cause cramps during the race
- Cue: You start having trouble focusing in the afternoon around 3pm
- Routine: You go to the kitchen, grab a bag of carrots (which you always keep stocked), and take a napkin-full back to your desk to munch on
- Reward: The crunch makes you imagine yourself running that last stretch of the race and your muscles feeling energized by all the healthy food you eat.
First thing when you wake up, stretch for 5 minutes
- Why? Future-you probably has learned you can avoid injury and speed up recovery by keeping your muscles from getting too tight.
- Cue: You wake up in bed and roll on your back.
- Routine: You swing your legs over the side of the bed and start your stretches by standing up tall with your arms overhead and taking a big breath.
- Reward: That deep breath and alternating tension and release of your stretches feels like keeping a race car engine in tune - you feel like an athlete. By the time you’re finished you feel your blood flowing and you’re completely alert.
Take a short walk with a friend or colleague every day after lunch
- Why? Future-you likes to fight off the post-lunch food coma by getting moving and bringing someone else into your healthy habits.
- Cue: You take your last bite of food or see your colleague in the cafeteria.
- Routine: You clean up and head outside for a brief walk.
- Reward: At the end of your walk you take a deep breath, smile at your friend and head inside. Even when it’s not sunny, it’s just a nice little moment that you always look forward to.
Schedule a weekly fitness class and plan your week so you can always keep it
- Why? Future-you knows that peer pressure is a good thing, and having friends who expect to see you in class helps keep you motivated.
- Cue: Every Sunday night you always watch a certain tv show. Then the credits roll.
- Routine: You go on your Peerfit account and rebook your class for that week.
- Reward: You see your confirmation email pop up in your inbox and you imagine yourself enjoying that hour getaway for “me time” and the sense of accomplishment and fun you always feel after class.
“Small wins” are especially important because it’s easy to get discouraged when you only focus on your end goal. Celebrate every time you follow through on a healthy habit - you are becoming the person who achieves their goal!
Step 3: Check in on your progress and keep adding habits.
The last step is simply a continuation of the first two. You should periodically grab those binoculars: has your final goal changed at all? Does future-you look different than you first thought now that you’ve started trying to walk in their shoes? If so, make small adjustments accordingly.
Continue to change your habits to more closely match ‘future you’. Remember, this is where the real work happens. Know that every habit you change makes you better off, regardless of the final outcome. You will become a more self-aware, self-controlled person. And, the really cool thing is: once you master this process, you’ll find it gets easier and easier to achieve your other goals. Eventually, you may start thinking purely in terms of turning yourself more and more into the person you want to be and not even worry about the outcomes!