Your Power, Your Responsibility

Well, it’s official. My scanner-ness has been kicking in full-force lately (as is probably evidenced by the slight slowdown in posts here; although being sick has certainly played a part).

Part of how being a scanner manifests in myself is changing modes of expression. I’ll go through periods where all I want to do is write, write, write. Other times, it’s one — or more — of verbal communication, drawing, music, or just plain experiencing (also known as ‘chilling’).

The past few days, maybe even weeks, it’s the ‘chilling’ phase that I’ve been finding myself drawn to. Part of that is likely due to a lot of changes in my personal life (work, family, etc.), which have taken up a lot of my energy.

Part of it is possibly due to the rediculous weather we’ve been having: it’s harder to feel ‘up’ when you keep getting teased with nice weather, then slammed with snow. And part of it is maybe due to the fact that I’ve started playing World of Warcraft again, which is just plain a good way to take some time and chill. 😉

Modes of Expression or Modes of Procrastination?

Sometimes, though, I wonder if these modes of expression are really aspects of my scanner personality, or if they’re signs of laziness and procrastination. Don’t feel like writing? Let’s pick up a paintbrush instead.

As I was reflecting on this issue, I realized that — of all my modes of expression — writing is the one that causes me the most difficulty in this area. It’s the one that’s hardest for me to look at as purely a ‘mode of expression’ — I very naturally slip into thinking of it as ‘work’. Maybe it’s because of all those papers I wrote in school, or the fact that usually when I write, it’s because I made a commitment to do so.

The challenge, it would appear, is not so much about the mode of expression but the freedom I feel I have to make the choice. In other words, as soon as I feel that I am being restricted, I push back. The ability to make the choice isn’t just a luxury for me as a scanner, but a necessity.

Power to Choose

In the past, I usually have thought of scanners as being paralyzed by having too many options in front of them; too many interests and too many passions to be able to choose between them. If you had asked me to describe the #1 problem I encountered as a scanner, that’s exactly what I would have told you.

But there’s more to it than that.

Another part of the classic scanner dilemma is having the flexibility and freedom to follow whichever passion calls at the time. It’s not just about being overwhelmed by having too many choices; it’s also about being able to make conscious choices to exercise those passions.

Scanners, by nature, like to move freely between their passions.  But sometimes, restrictions on those passions make a scanner feel trapped and constrained. This trapped feeling does not have to be just ‘par for the course’ for scanners.

Learning by Doing

Years ago, when I was working on my Religious Studies honours thesis, I found myself being drawn down by some serious apathy. I didn’t care to do anything, and the more I tried to force myself to ‘behave’, the harder I found myself resisting. I tried setting deadlines, scheduling my time, getting others to hold me accountable, but all I got was feelings of resentment and apathy.

What I finally realized is that my apathy, resentment and other negative feelings were a direct result of one thing: I had been giving away my power. As soon as I took back my power, and decided that I had the ultimate responsibility to make choices that would be satisfying.

I remember that I had chosen to write a thesis because I enjoyed the subject. I started actively choosing when to work on my writing. I focused on choosing what I was doing in the moment, taking responsibility for what I was doing in the moment. In doing so, I was able to choose those things which would make me happy — simply by exerting my own power.

Great Power, Great Responsibility

In the SpiderMan universe, we are frequently presented with the idea that ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ It’s a true statement in many ways, but I think it’s actually quite misunderstood. A lot of people take the saying at face value — that there are some of us that have greater power, and that those who do also have greater responsibility.

But here’s the trick. We all have great power. It is not something that ‘comes’, it’s something that we’re born with. We all have the great power to take control of our lives, to make our own choices, and to live according to our own needs, passions and desires.

What that means is that ultimately, the buck stops here. If we are the ones responsible for our current situations, then we must also take the responsibility to change them if we aren’t happy.

If I was unhappy being trapped by the requirement to sit and write my thesis at time X or Y each day, it was my responsibility to do something about it. My choices were still many: I could choose to ‘suck it up and just get it done’, I could choose to write only when it interested me, I could choose to say ‘screw this, I’m not interested’.

But the key was to realize that I was the active chooser, the one with the ultimate responsibility to make a choice that would dignify and uplift my self.

The Scanner Lesson

So, taking this back to the question I posed earlier: is the desire to drop one thing and move onto another completely a scanner personality trait, or is it also a function of procrastination and laziness? The first one is a good thing — it just means you’re exploring new avenues and pursuing new interests. The second one isn’t something we usually like to see in ourselves.

The answer is, it can be either one. Knowing the difference between the two is where the trick comes in, and it really is just a matter of asking yourself two simple questions:

  1. How am I feeling about moving to the next thing? (Am I feeling good about where I’m coming from and where I’m headed to next?)
  2. Am I moving to the next thing because I want to or because I’m supposed to? (Am I moving on to the next thing because I am ready to, or because I’m not actively choosing to exercise my power?)

The lesson, of course, is true for scanners and non-scanners alike. No matter what your personality (and unless you are a child) you are still the decision maker in your life. That means that whatever choices you make are yours to live by. It is your power, and therefore, your great responsibility.

What I Wish I’d Known

I’m a pretty recent grad (albeit, from two degrees — I just couldn’t get away!), but I like to think that I’ve learned and grown a fair amount in the last few years. So when Trent at The Simple Dollar challenged his readers to answer this big question (What single piece of advice do you wish you had heard when you were about to graduate college?), I paused for a few moments to reflect on what I had learned “lately”.  Here’s what I came up with…

You have choices — more than immediately appear — and the good news is that there are no mistakes.

Now, I admit, it’s a bit esoteric and may not be very clear what I mean at first blush. I think a lot of the specific advice you hear for new grads can be wrapped up in this statement: “Travel before getting a job”, “Never stop learning”, “Don’t choose a job just for the money”

But there’s more to it than that. This isn’t just about an approach for new grads; it’s an approach for everyone to learn to take. It’s not an approach that I’ve fully mastered in my own life, and to be honest I’m not sure I ever will fully master it. But it’s a direction and a philosophy that I’ve found valuable, simply because it does allow me to grow, learn and develop within it.

So with that in mind, let me break it down a bit for you, and maybe show you what that statement means for me today (which, of course, may have evolved further by tomorrow!)

You Have Choices

It’s easy to point to times of significant life change (like college graduation) and point out all the opportunities that lie ahead. We get images of new horizons, broad open paths, and infinite possibilities.

The truth is, new grad or not, you always have new horizons, open paths, and infinite possibilities ahead of you. Why? Because you are always the ultimate authority in your life. You are the one who controls your destiny, because you are the one that can make the choices.

Don’t like your job? It is your choice to stay in it or to leave. Swimming in debt? It’s your choice to continue spending or start repaying. Out of shape? You can choose between watching TV or doing some jumping jacks.

You always have the choice to change your life. Even if it doesn’t seem possible right now, that doesn’t change the fact that it ultimately is your decisions that shape your present and future. Even refusing to make a choice is still making a choice — the one that says that the status-quo is okay.

If you’re unhappy with where you’re at, you do have choices. The only thing that can prevent you from taking advantage of this is you.

More Than Immediately Appear

In some ways, it’s easy to see the choices in front of you. Apple or orange? Walk or drive? Stay or go?

Sometimes, there are even so many choices that it can seem overwhelming — like there are so many possibilities, you don’t know which way to turn.

I experienced this when I graduated; the feeling of “oh my God, now what?!?” My problem wasn’t that I didn’t recognize that I had choices, but that I felt like I had so many options that I couldn’t just pick one. Did I want to do more schooling? Travel? Work for myself? Or for someone else? And in what industry? Something tech related, something more people-focused, in an office, out in the field, … so many choices!

I ended up drifting from thing to thing for about a year before ultimately realizing that my problem wasn’t too many choices; it was that I had another choice, but I had disregarded it out of hand.

For me, the ignored choice was to not just pick one thing to do “for the rest of my life,” but to take advantage of my many loves and passions, and pursue them all. Not necessarily all at the same time (although some fit nicely together), but to not to fall into the trap of believing that I couldn’t continue to explore new things as they interested me.

The reason I hadn’t initially thought of this is because it’s counter to societal norms. In our culture, we focus on the one “thing” you want to “be” for the rest of your life (the sign that you’ve “grown up”). “What do you do” is a question that implies a single answer — but what I realized is that just because it wasn’t common didn’t mean I couldn’t make a choice to pursue a widely varied life.

Eliminating choices is a good thing to do, but sometimes, it’s also valuable to realize that you do have more choices than initially appear. Thinking “outside the box” can sometimes be just the thing you need to set you on a new course.

There Are No Mistakes

Ah, but going outside of the “normal” set of choices can be dangerous, right? After all, aren’t these well-established ideas “well-established” for a reason?

There’s a saying, “common sense is rarely common, and seldom sensical.” While that isn’t true in all cases, that doesn’t preclude the possiblity that doing something differently will turn out alright.

But even more than that, simply making the choice to try something will ultimately make you happier in the long run — even if that choice doesn’t work out the way you thought.

The reason is that making decisions allows our brains to live with and adjust to the resultant new realities. The outcome is that the simple act of making a choice can make you happier. Even if the choice made appears to be the “wrong” one, research shows that our minds are so adaptive that in only a very short amount of time after making a decision, we can be happy with the decision (I’ve written a fair amount about this aspect of choice before, so I’ll just leave it at that for now).

Ultimately, making mistakes is how we learn. If we never lost our balance, we wouldn’t know how to keep it. As I’ve noted before, “there are no mistakes, just opportunities to learn.”

Does It Make A Difference?

Would the advice — you have choices (more than immediately appear) and the good news is that there are no mistakes – have actually “changed my life” if I were to receive it when I was about to graduate — either the first or second time?

To be honest, I’m not actually sure. It certainly is the biggest thing I’ve learned since then. Understanding that I ultimately make the choices that determine the direction of my life, that I don’t have to be constrained to the obvious or normal path, and that any mistakes I make along the way serve to make me stronger and happier has made a massive difference in my own life.

I don’t know that just “hearing” this advice would have impacted me in the way that learning it by experience and trial-and-error has. But maybe, it will resonate with some of you, and help you see things in a different light.

What say you?

Weekly Reads: Free Time Edition

If you’ve been following the posts the past week or so, you will no doubt have noticed that I’ve republished a number of articles from the old Sententia in commemoration of the Chinese New Year. There will be two more articles yet to come in the series, which I suppose is good, because as of yesterday my computer is in for repairs, and so I’ll be somewhat out of commission.

However, never fear; I’ve got a fair number of posts queued up, and I do still have internet access (though somewhat more limited) at home, so the posts should be able to keep on rolling. Comment moderation, etc. will be a bit slower, but I’ll try to keep up on that as well.

Now, the real question is… what will I do with all the extra time I’ll have, not being able to spend my evenings online? It’s way too cold to be spending much time outside… I do have some books I’ll continue reading, but I’m open to other ideas, too! Feel free to leave a comment if you have some suggestions for me…

If you would like to pass on anything you think I might be interested in, post the link as a comment to this thread! I’m always looking for new things to explore. Note that comments on this site are moderated, especially if they contain links, so if it doesn’t show up right away, don’t worry!

Made Me Think

How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months (from Tim Ferriss). I really enjoy language learning, and seem to also have an aptitude for it. Ferriss’ article focuses on applying Pareto’s principle (AKA the 80/20 principle) to language learning, a technique I found very valuable when I studied Latin in University. Students of Latin, check out Anne Mahoney’s list of 1000 Essential Latin Words. The first 250 words make up 50% of the vocabulary you’ll need to know; if you spend some time familiarizing yourself with the list, you’ll find it that much easier to comprehend texts without running to your dictionary every other second. (Then again, I still prefer the natural language method for learning languages, but that’s another topic for another day.)

Wrapping Your Head Around the Project (from LiveDev). I run into this situation often at work: I get really into a project, work on it all day, but am not able to wrap it up before it’s time to go home. So I leave it for the next day — at which point, I just can’t seem to get back into it. Glen talks about this problem — and offers some techniques for getting past it — in this interesting article from LifeDev.

Guided Meditation as a Tool for Speaking with Spirit Guides (from Erin Pavlina). I can remember two times in my life that I’ve participated in a guided meditation, although until reading this article by renowned medium Erin Pavlina, I never really considered it as meditation. Regardless of your aims in mediation — maybe you want to listen to your inner voice, speak with spirit guides, talk to your future self, or something completely different — Pavlina gives some really practical tips to get you on your way.

Communication Concepts

So You Want To Be An Interaction Designer (from Cooper) and So You Want to Be an Interaction Designer 2006 (from AdaptivePath). How had I not heard of Interaction Design (commonly abbreviated IxD) before this week? There is just so much in these two articles that resonates with me and calls to something within me. Is this another fleeting passion of my scanner-ness? Who cares, it sounds fascinating, and I think I’m going to spend some time checking it out. Any Interaction Designers have some favorite introductory books they’d like to recommend?

Six Ways to Get People to Say “Yes” (from CopyBlogger). No, it’s not about Jedi-mind-tricks, although the effect can be almost the same. Whether you’re in marketing and sales or not, there’s huge value in learning the fine art of persuasion. The key is to show people what’s in it for them — and in this article, Dean Rieck gives six great tips on how to do just that.

Choosing a Good Chart (from The Extreme Presentation(tm) Method). If you’re at all involved with data visualization — maybe you have to generate reports for your management at work, for example — you may be used to just choosing charts more or less at random. “Pie Chart? Nah, did that last time. Let’s do a bar chart this time!” But did you know there’s a rhyme and reason to why (and when) you should use different chart types? Check out this easy reference guide whenever you need a quick reminder of what’s what.

Bonus Material

6 Words That Make Your Resume Suck (from SquawkFox). Layoffs are really starting to hit a lot of people hard. If you want to get a jump on the competition, check out this fantastic piece from SquawkFox. Often we’re told to put specifics on our resumes, but its in the examples that this article really shines. Even if you’re confident of your job security, it never hurts to keep your resume up-to-date; it saves a lot of time if you put in updates as they happen, rather than doing one major overhaul every several years!

Company Man – Jim Lahey reveals his recipe for no-knead pizza dough (from TastingTable). Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread cause a firestorm of breadbaking when it showed up in the New York Times a couple of years ago — and it’s what got me into my love of baking. Now, Lahey’s back with a recipe for no-knead pizza dough. I haven’t tried his recipe yet (I love my current kneaded version, from Bertinet’s fabulous book Dough — if you enjoy baking and/or eating fresh bread, this book is a real winner) but if its anything like the original No-Knead Bread, it will be a winner.

Weekly Reads: Contemplative Edition

I’ve had kind of an interesting week, to tell you the truth. I don’t particularly know why, and I can’t particularly put my finger on what has made it “interesting” — a lot of it I think is that I spent a lot of the week “practicing what I’ve been preaching” about choices lately, and the results have been pretty cool:

I pushed through some really big fears (thanks to those of you who helped; you know who you are), stood up for what I wanted and needed in some new and exciting ways, and stopped procrastinating on some personal growth experiments (like my Scanner Daybook) that I hadn’t had the get-up-and-go to do before. Heck, I even just about finished the really evil puzzle that I started over the Christmas break!

But as I sit here and write up my weekly reads, I’m in that somewhat strange contemplative state where you’re not really thinking about anything consciously, but you’ve got that feeling that your subconscious is having a really good go of something. Anyone else know that one, or am I the only crazy one?

I think my reading this week (and really, the past couple of weeks) has added to my contemplative mood. Maybe that will come through a bit in this post… I’ll let you all be the judges.

If you would like to pass on anything you think I might be interested in, post the link as a comment to this thread! I’m always looking for new things to explore. Note that comments on this site are moderated, especially if they contain links, so if it doesn’t show up right away, don’t worry!

Made Me Think

How to Design Your Ideal Life (from Think Simple Now). I just about skipped reading this post after skimming the first paragraph — it seemed like just another “resolutions are bad, make goals instead” piece. Boy, and I glad I didn’t. When I read this heading, it hit me like a tonne of bricks: Live By Design, Not By Default. Yes, that’s what I’d been writing about in my Choice series, but even now I feel as though even just reading those six words, I’m hitting on something really important. I’m going to make either a computer wallpaper or a poster (or both) with those words on it — remind me, and I’ll share it with you :)

The Single Secret to Making 2009 Your Best Year Ever (from Zen Habits). Yeah, I know. One of those titles that you kinda roll your eyes at, and think “whatever you say”. But trust me on this one; Leo Babauta really hit this one on the head: Stop waiting for happiness. Happiness is right here, right now. Let that one bounce around your noggin for a while, then go read Leo’s article. You can come back for the rest of the list later. It’s okay, I’ll wait.

Spirituality, Not Religion, Makes Kids Happy (from LiveScience). Okay, I have to admit that as a former religious studies student, the title does make my toes curl a bit (we generally hate the word “spirituality”). But if you get past the shuddering — and somewhat sensationalist headline — it’s a pretty interesting bit of writing. Some aspects are maybe unsurprising, but the relationship between spirituality and happiness (and not religious practice) was thought-provoking for me.

Oldies But Goodies

I encountered (and in a couple of cases, re-encountered) a couple of older articles this week. They’re still fantastic.

What If You Have Too Many Interests and Cannot Commit to Any of Them? (from Steve Pavlina). Any scanners and renaissance souls in the house? (Hint — if Pavlina’s title ressonates with you, you probably are one!) This one is for you. We can always use reminders that there is nothing wrong with having multiple interests, and that we do have options when it comes to pursuing them all. This article takes a bit of a different approach compared to — say — that of Margaret Lobenstein or Barbara Sher. Pavlina goes beyond saying “here’s how to handle all those multiple interests” to arguing that multiple interests is a powerful tool in the pursuit of personal growth. I think I’m inclined to agree.

Q&A with Lisa Diamond (from the Boston Globe). This interview from 2007 is really a brief introduction to research by Lisa Diamond (Ph. D. Assoc. Professor of Psychology, University of Utah), which led to her book Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire. (Note, I have not read the book, but am thinking I might track down a copy at the library).  The reason for the link, though, is not just for the interview itself — which is insightful — but as a suggestion that you Google some articles related to Diamond and the research which surprised even yourself. Or heck, just do what I’m going to, and see if you can find her book.

Catch It on Repeats

And finally, a big shout-out about the latest episode of NUMB3rs: Arrows of Time. I’m a big fan of the show any way, but this one was phenomenal in my opinion. Action, comedy, drama — yes, it had all of those. But it also is one of the few shows that I’ve seen on TV lately (if ever) that really dives into the heart of the huge role that religion can play on our lives. I’m also hugely appreciative of how the show, and this show in particular, took the risk of having one of its major characters investigate their own Jewish heritage and faith (even if they do insist on calling the synagogue a temple). Kudos for a fantastic episode; American viewers and those handy with proxies can watch it online at CBS if you didn’t already see it; the rest will have to wait for repeats or DVDs (legally, at least).

It’s Not About Self-Discipline: 10 Tips for Reaching Your Goals

The other day, I wrote a post about how you should Never Set Another Resolution, Again — and about how a simple change in focus (from resolutions to goals) can make you more likely to succeed. It seems to be a popular theme in the past couple of days; when I looked through my feed reader, I found a whole bunch of posts about goal setting as opposed to resolution setting.

This Could Be Your Lucky Day in Hell

Photo by Thomas Hawk

But, like I said, simply changing your vocabulary from resolution to goal on its own isn’t going to help you lose that weight, stop smoking, exercise more, or whatever other changes you might want to see in your life. Even when you phrase your goals as SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound) ones, you aren’t guaranteed success. There still is the matter of actually following-through on said goal, and that’s where a lot of people get stuck.

Goals Aren’t That Mysterious

Reaching goals is actually very simple — far more so than people let themselves believe. The key to success in reaching your goals is to make good goals, and then take action on them.

Now you may read that, and feel like closing your browser and walking away. After all, that key includes no magic bullet, no wonder pill, no switch to flip. Yes, reaching goals is as simple as making them and then acting upon them. No, there isn’t any other way to fulfil your goals. But there are ways to make it easier.

So, regardless of the situation, here are some practical tips that you can use to help you get the most out of your goals (New Years, or otherwise).

Tip #1: Make the Choice

If you’ve read some of my recent musings on psychology, happiness and choice, you’ll know that a key to making effective change in your life is to just go out, and choose to do it. The process of making a committed decision is what a lot of people confuse with “self-discipline” — they think that they have to have self-discipline to go out running every day, but in reality, they just need to make a choice to do so.

if you make a decision to achieve a goal, then make it. Don’t waffle back and forth, or you undermine your ability to complete the goal. Similarly, when it comes to actually following through on your goal, don’t let yourself wonder if you want to or not. Just realize that you made a choice to do it, and as a result, not following through is not an option. Don’t give yourself an out; just make the irreversible choice. You’ll be happier that way, too.

Tip #2: Get Clear

Getting clear about your goal is not only about making sure you know what your goal is, but also being clear on why you want it. What’s your motivation? When you care about your goal, and you are motivated by reasons that have huge importance to you, it will be easier to follow through.

One of the best stories I’ve heard that demonstrates this is from Trent at The Simple Dollar (link to story). You really do have to read the story in his own words, but to bring the point back here — Trent made a huge financial turnaround, and the reason he was able to do it was because he was and is extremely clear on the why:

I went into my son’s room, closed the door behind me, and sat down in the rocking chair across from his crib. He was so tiny laying there, less than six months old, and he was sleeping so peacefully there without a worry in the world…

I started trying everything I could get my hands on to see what would work, and every time I was tempted to spend money, I thought about my son.

It was not easy. It still isn’t. But all I have to do is remember the pain of that day – and then think about the promises I made to my son during that long night – and I realize what decisions are really the right ones.

What are your reasons for desiring the goals you want? If you feel in your heart that your goals are worth pursuing and you’re clear on your why, your reasons will be enough to keep you going.

Tip #3: Create a Now-Goal

One of the reasons that goals feel so hard to reach is that the focus is almost always on the end result. Lose ten pounds, stop smoking, spend more time with the kids… all of these things are measured by an end result.

The problem is that we don’t live in the future. We can imagine the future all we want, but you still have to live in the present. This is why people yo-yo on and off of diets. They eat food that they hate in order to drop weight, but as soon as they do (or maybe even before), they get tired of delaying their gratification and cave — and grab the nearest piece of chocolate cake.

Take a health-related example: a “future-goal” would be “eat healthier,” and the diet “de jour” might involve eating brussel sprouts, or whatever your least favorite food might be. How likely are you to realize that goal? But what if you transformed your goal into a goal that you can feel good about both in the future and the present: a “now-goal” could be to “have a serving of fruit with breakfast because I really do like the way that fruit tastes, and I have more energy when I eat fruit to start the day.”

If you create now-goals and focus on things that have an impact on the way you feel right now — you’ll be more likely to continue, because you’re enjoying the process of the goal. Instant gratification doesn’t have to be a bad thing!

The easiest goals are often those which not only have a positive ultimate outcome, but which also have a positive impact on the present moment. Creating goals that feel good while you’re in the process of completing them will succeed, because you’ll want to continue doing them.

Tip #4: Build Your Plan — Backwards

A military squad that goes into battle without plans and tactics will be defeated. A sports team that doesn’t strategize will lose. We know the value of planning ahead, but for some reason when it comes to goals, we often forget to do so.

Part of the problem is that many of us have a hard time making plans, and when we do make plans, they’re so full of holes that we wonder why we even bothered. But if you want to make plans that will actually get you from A to B without all the difficulty, start with the end point and work backwards.

In other words, start from your goal. Ask yourself, “could I achieve this right now, this very moment?” If the answer is no, then ask yourself “what do I need in order to be able to achieve that?”  Then repeat, until the answer to the first question is “yes”.

By doing working backwards from your goal to where you’re at now, you’ll have created an actionable plan. You will know that after the completion of each step, you will have everything you need to immediately start in on the next. Since you have no excuse to delay and no reason to stop and say “now what”, you’ll be able to take advantage of the forward momentum and press ever onward toward your goal.

Tip #5: Keep It Manageable

If you’re anything like me, you tend to go through cycles when it comes to personal develoment. For me, I’ll get absolutely on-fire when I read a book or a great post. And I’ll start to think of all the aspects of my life that could stand to see some growth (truthfully, all of them, but I think that’s true for everyone if we really are honest with ourselves). But the problem is that I get so fired up about so many different things, that I’ll end up not really doing any of them.

What I’ve learned is that the old adage really is true: don’t bite off more than you can chew. Making goals a couple at a time will be far more effective over the long haul than making dozens simultaneously.

Making smaller goals is also a key to being successful in reaching your goals, for a couple of reasons. First, small goals give you confidence and strengthen your goal-achieving “muscle”. Second, small goals give you momentum because they’re over quickly and can snowball into bigger goals. Creating sub-goals, as described in Tip #4, is a great way to get started on this process.

Don’t feel bad, or like you’re not doing enough, if you only make one goal at a time and its something really small. There are no such thing as goals too small or too few; after all, even if you only complete one small goal, that’s still one more than you would have completed otherwise.

Tip #6: Use the Power of Habits

Setting a goal that’s contrary to your habits won’t get you very far. You’re much better off if you work at things the other way around, and empower yourself by creating new habits that support your goals.

You probably don’t have to stop and think very much when it comes time to read something; “how to read” has become so engrained in your brain that you don’t have to stop and think about it. You see some words written and you habitually and automatically read them. (A note: doing something habitually isn’t the same as doing it mindlessly. See Tip #3 :-))

Now consider if eating better, or working out, or not smoking, or spending time with your loved ones, or whatever else was something you did habitually. Wouldn’t it be easier to be in the habit of preparing and eating a serving of veggies with dinner every day, than trying to force yourself to eat those carrots every day?

The best thing about creating new habits is that it only takes about 28 days to do it. So you can try something new for a month, which is much easier than trying to make a huge change “forever”; it’s easier to keep going, for example, if you can say “just 15 days to go!” Then when the month is done, you can either quit (if it didn’t work for you) or enjoy your new habit.

Tip #7: Enlist the Support of Community

A lot of reasons people have a hard time reaching their goals is because they’re trying to make significant life changes alone, when their lives aren’t spent alone. Think of how many people you encounter on a daily basis, and how much they influence you (and vice versa!)

Smoking is a great example of this — if you still go out on your coffee breaks with your smoking buddies, you’re going to find it a whole lot more tempting to have a cigarette. And if your buddies keep inviting you to come out with them, it can be really tempting to go out. You’re far better off to tell your friends what you’re doing. Good friends will help keep you honest and on track.

Even just telling people about your goal — even if you’re not relying on them for help, and even if you don’t really know them — can be empowering as well. There’s something about sharing something with others, either by verbalizing it or by putting it in writing for others to read, that keeps us more accountable.

Whatever your method, it will be much easier to keep on track if you don’t try to do it alone.

Tip #8: Don’t Save It All for New Year’s Day

It’s December 29th, you’ve got a pile of goodies and cookies sitting in front of you, but your body has been asking for a reprieve from the sweets. But… January 1st is right around the corner, so you eat the cookies and spend half the night wondering why you did. Does this sound familiar?

Goal setting ought not be a once-per-year endeavour. For one, it encourages large goals that are too unwieldy and impractical (see Tip #5). By waiting until some auspicious occasion like the beginning of a new year, the natural tendency is to make big goals with big impact. On January 1, the problem is compounded, since we tend to look at the coming year.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with setting a focus for the upcoming year, or even with having a high-level overview of some directions you’d like to take. But those aren’t going to make the best goals — it would be far better to make a series of smaller goals that match up with that focus or overview, instead.

The other problem with waiting for a particular date is that it basically encourages lying to yourself. By saying that you want something to be true in your life, but only after a certain day, you’re saying that you don’t really want it that badly. And if a goal doesn’t excite you, you won’t be encouraged to work towards it.

Tip #9: Evaluate and Re-Evaluate

Just like anything else, you get better at reaching goals the more you practice. As you become increasingly successful at reaching your goals, you’ll find things that work for you (as well as those that don’t). As they say, “practice makes perfect”.

A great tool for reflection is a change journal, in which you write down your goal, and then every day make a note of how you are progressing toward your goal and how the pursuit of your goal made you feel that day. Once your goal has been reached, you can reflect on the whole process, and note any things that you might do differently in the future.

There is great value to be had in evaluating goals while you’re striving for them. Sometimes, you may be partway through your action plan when you realize that your goal has shifted, or that you have uncovered something more important. Other times, you may realize that you’re trying to force yourself to do something that’s not really a good fit for you — something that you thought would benefit you is actually harming you.

Throughout your goal-reaching journey, it’s important to keep in touch with yourself (Tip #3). You ought not use it as an excuse to give up when things don’t immediately go your way — remember that you made the choice to strive for this goal (Tip #1) — but noting how you feel while you’re in the process of working toward your goal can be a great way to identify things you might try differently in the future.

It can also be very encouraging to look back and reflect upon all the goals you’ve successfully completed — when you realize what you’ve been able to accomplish, you also realize how much potential you have to accomplish more. Even goals that you don’t reach (or that you don’t reach in the way you expected) can be opportunities for reflection. Evaluation of your previous goals, successful and not, can be a valuable tool in your goal-reaching toolkit, as you’ll learn more and more about yourself.

Tip #10: Nike Has It Right: Just Do It

The last tip is perhaps the simplest, and I won’t belabour the point by writing on it at length. To butcher a saying, you miss 100% of the goals you don’t make. So just make the goal, and then work towards it.

Make the decision. Be clear about what you’re aiming for. And then go do it.

Never Set Another Resolution, Again

In today’s world, the word “New Year’s” is nearly synonymous with “resolutions”. For some reason, the beginning of a new calendar year draws out the “this year, I want to do X” in so many of us.

New Years Eve 2008-2009 #1

Photo by mescon

Maybe its that the party season (and thus all of its goodies and sweets) are behind us, maybe its because it marks the beginning of a new business quarter or new semester, or maybe its just commercialization (all those diet books and gym memberships!) — whatever the reason, when it comes to the start of the new year, “resolutions” seem to be the words on everybody’s lips.

Set Up to Succeed, or to Fail?

But maybe you, like many others, look back on the year that was, and see a list of failed resolutions and things that didn’t get done. As the New Year approaches, you might be inclined to just say “screw resolutions, they don’t work for me anyway”. Or perhaps, by the time you’re reading this, it’s June. 6 months have passed, and you’ve gained 5 pounds instead of lost the 10 you wanted to get rid of in January.

It seems that the word “resolutions” in our society has almost become thought of as little more than a synonym for”guaranteed failures”. There is a cultural meme, propagated through media and everyday conversation and experience, that a huge majority of resolutions are, by their nature, bound to fail.

One must wonder, why would you put yourself in a situation where you’re expecting to fail? Not only do you give yourself an automatic out if (when) it doesn’t work, but you’re really not giving yourself a fair shot at success.

It’s particularly interesting when you consider the types of resolutions that people set: to stop smoking, to lose weight, to be kinder, to work less, etc. All of these things are good things to want! They are all desireable, and good things to have or to do. They all represent positive life changes, and opportunities for personal growth and development. So why make resolutions about these great things, if we believe that resolutions are bound to fail?

Resolve to Set Goals, Instead

If vocabulary is part of what holds us back from creating the life that we want, then the first step is to change our vocabulary.

In other words, if you want to at least give yourself a fighting chance to create the life you want, to make positive life chances, and to nurture opportunities for personal growth and development, stop making resolutions.

Psychological research has shown time and time again that the conscious and unconscious mind has enormous power when it comes to shaping our perceptions of the world — both emotionally and logically. In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the title character says this very well: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

In other words, resolutions in and of themselves aren’t inherently good or bad, nor are they inherently bound for success or failure. But because we think we are more likely to fail to complete a resolution than to succeed, we set ourselves up for that eventual outcome! We believe that we will fail, so we don’t work as hard to succeed.

It works the same way as if I were to tell you, “don’t think about chocolate cake.”  What did you think about?  A gooey, moist, beautiful chocolate cake, maybe with a chocolate ganache and some strawberries and whipped cream on top. But wait, I told you not to think about it!

The thing is that our minds work best when thinking in the positive. We hear “don’t” but our mind processes the thing we “don’t” want. Choice of words can be hugely important as a result: when we say resolution, the mental warning is “don’t fail!” But when we hear “don’t fail”, our mind processes “fail”!

So if you’re looking for a tip about making resolutions that work, the best tip is simply this: make goals, not resolutions. A simple change in vocabulary can make all the difference in the world. Culturally, we have a better opinion of goals, so simply by reframing the situation, we are more lined up for success.

SMART Goal Setting

There is also a practical difference between resolutions and goals: goals have details; resolutions don’t. Goals have deadlines; resolutions don’t (or if they do, they’re vague). Goals have steps and processes, resolutions only have outcomes. Goals get accomplished; resolutions often don’t. You get the idea.

You may have heard of the SMART model for goals. It’s actually an acronym borrowed from business, which basically states that any goal you make should have the following criteria, in order to give yourself the greatest chance for success. Each letter in the word stands for an aspect of goal creation that, when taken all together, can make goal completion far easier.

S: Specific. “Lose weight” is not specific; “lose 10 pounds” is. “Save money” is not specific; “a 3-month emergency fund” is. “Be healthier” is not specific; “eat a serving of fruit every day” is. If you give your goals more specificity, you’ll know exactly what it is you’re going after, which means you’ll also have a better idea of what steps are needed to get there.

M: Measurable. Set a target: 10 pounds, 3-month emergency fund, 1 serving of fruit per day. All of those targets can be measured, so you know whether you’ve hit them or not. If your goal isn’t measurable, you’ll be like a ship at sea without a rudder — sailing and sailing, just hoping that eventually, you’ll hit land (but never knowing whether you’ve arrived, or not!).

A: Achievable. There’s no point in setting a goal that isn’t feasible and actionable. I could set a goal to be 2 inches taller, but what’s the point of that? There’s nothing I can to do achieve that goal; no action I can take to make it happen. Instead, make goals that involve specific action steps you can take. By making yourself the person responsible for your completing goal, you have a better chance to succeed since (if you don’t) there’s no one to blame if you don’t. Making achievable goals also affects how you state the goal: instead of saying “I want to do X”, say “I will do X”. It makes you feel more in-control of your situation, and helps you believe you can do it.

R: Realistic. There’s also no point in setting a goal that you don’t believe you can complete. Otherwise, you have the same problem as we did with resolutions — you don’t believe you will be successful, so you automatically gyp yourself of your best chance to be successful. You may want to run a marathon, but if you can’t dedicate time to train and physically prepare, you won’t be able to.

T: Time-Bound. The ultimate failing of resolutions is the ultimate success point of SMART goals: the time-frame. A good goal will have a definite timeframe for completion: Lose an average of half a pound every week, for 8 weeks. Eat one piece of fruit every day, for 30 days. Put at least $200 into an emergency fund by the last day of every month. The benefit of setting a time-bound is that at the end of the period, you can reflect on how you did — your successes and your failings — so that you can do even better the next time.

Believing is Half the Battle

If you notice a theme in these five aspects of good goals, you would be right: they all have to do with the way you mentally set-up the goal. Again, it comes down to the mind’s ability to impact our effectiveness and our reality. You see what you choose to see, you act the way you choose to act, and you believe the way you choose to believe. Ultimately, it is your power and choice that makes you ultimately responsible for the success or failure of your actions.

Now, I realize that just simply changing your vocabulary from resolution to goal on its own isn’t likely to be enough to get you over your New Year’s hump. There still is the matter of actually following-through on said goal. The key thing I want you impart to you today, though, is not to simply dismiss the power of the mind when it comes to setting yourself up for success.

Tomorrow, I’ll give you a list of practical tips and tricks for getting from “goal” to “accomplished” — so your homework is to spend a few minutes thinking of resolutions that you’ve set in the past (or maybe that you wanted to set for this New Year’s Day!). Take a bit of time to consider how you could transform those vague resolutions into SMART goals. When we meet again, we’ll look at ways you can turn those resolutions into goals, and those goals into reality.