Where To Start When You Have Absolutely No Clue

It’s one thing to have goals. It’s quite another to actually know how work toward getting those goals achieved — especially when those goals are big.

You may have heard that the solution is to “break the goal down into bite-sized chunks.” Or “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” But what about when you don’t know what those chunks or single steps are? In this post, I’ll give you a practical approach you can use to help you get started when you don’t know how.

(The following is applied in part from Barbara Sher’s Wishcraft, with my own twist based on my experiences, of course!)

Identify the Reasons You Can’t

This part is easy. Imagine your goal. Now, in your best devil on the shoulder voice, list the obstacles to reaching your goal. No money, no time, not an expert… I’m sure you can come up with a few.

Now, get creative. For each obstacle you identified, ask yourself all the possible ways you could overcome that obstacle. For no money, your options might be robbing a bank, begging on street corners, getting a grant or scholarship, whatever. Nothing is off limits.

For each solution, identify what you like about the idea and what you don’t like. For example, I might like the immediacy of robbing a bank, but the whole go-to-jail and be-a-criminal doesn’t work for me. Use this second list to generate even more ideas (it’s amazing how ideas will flow when you start focus on finding solutions, rather than on the problem itself).

Finally, once you’ve exhausted your brainpower entirely, look at your list. Pick one solution to each obstacle — the solution you like the best. It doesn’t matter if you know how to accomplish that piece or not. The actual plan of attack is what comes next…

Obstacles Turn SubGoals

When your brain has recovered enough from all that feverish brainstorming, it’s time to look at what you’ve come up with. All those obstacles that were in your way before should now be turned into mini-goals.

If you’re like me, some of those mini-goals look immediately do-able. You look at them and know exactly how to do them. And that’s fantastic! Set those aside for the moment, and focus on the ones that you have absolutely no clue where to begin.

Now for each mini-goal, you’re going to create a reverse flow-chart. You do that by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Can I do this tomorrow?
  2. If not, what would I need to do first?

For each answer you come up with for question #2, repeat the process, until the answer to question #1 is “yes”. Then put it on your to-do list for tomorrow.

That’s it! It’s really no more complicated than that.

An Example of the Reverse FlowChart

Here’s an example from Wishcraft:

  1. Getting into medical school is a subgoal in its own right. Now, can I do it tomorrow?
    • “Hardly”
    • “What would I have to do first?”
    • “Well, I’d have to apply to medical schools.”
  2. “Can I apply tomorrow?”
    • “No. There are two things I’d have to do first: get high scores on the MCATs, and send for application forms.”
  3. “Can I send for applications tomorrow?”
    1. “Not until I’ve decided which schools to apply to.”
    2. “Can I decide which schools to apply to tomorrow?”
      1. No, first I’ll have to go to the library and read catalogs. (I can find out about regular loans and scholarships at the same time.) And that I can start doing tomorrow.
  4. “Can I get high test scores tomorrow?”
    • “Obviously not. First I have to take the tests.”
    • “Can I take the MCATs tomorrow?”
      • If I did, I’d flunk them! First I’d better take some kind of premed review course.
      • “Can I take a review course tomorrow?”
        • No—first I’ve got to find out where there is one. I can do that tomorrow, by making phone calls to all the, local universities, college and medical schools. Another thing I can do is dig up my old college class notes and start reviewing them on my own.

You can see the full flowchart (from Wishcraft) below to see how it would all come together (click to enlarge).

flowchartLarge

Now Go Do It!

If you follow these easy steps, any goal can be made achievable. Simply by changing your mindset from “I can’t do this” to “How can I do this”, you will allow your own creative nature to bring all sorts of fantastic solutions and actionable steps to mind.

And if you’re still having trouble getting started, there is help. You can catch up with the #ideaparty that happens ever Thursday starting at noon EST on Twitter (go to http://search.twitter.com and search for #ideaparty). You can send me a message on Twitter (@maverickstruth) for some brainstorming help. Or you can go read Wishcraft (by the way, did I mention it’s a free PDF and it’s one of my favorite books, all time?).

Weekly Reads: Battlestar Galactica Edition

I spent much of my spare time during the past week watching Battlestar Galactica (the new version). It was my first exposure to the show — new or old — but from what I hear, I might have had my geek cred revoked if I didn’t. Midway through the second season, I can’t say that I’m necessarily hooked, but I do find it a fascinating show to watch.

For one, it’s deep. Want an action show? Sure, you’ll get bits of that here and there. But it’s a show that is not so much about blowing things up as it is demonstrating all that goes into making a society. From culture and religion to politics and control, from love and desire to hatred and jealousy, from morally right to lawfully right, it’s a show that dares to look at the unvarnished side of humanity — all the while, showing that it is our imperfections that make us what we are.

What’s most phenomenal is that it does it all as a cohesive story, with a flowing plotline. It’s not so much a TV show with independent episodes, as a space drama that just happens to be broken up into 1-hour blocks. Seeing the connections, understanding the relations, and discovering the patterns are part of what is so engaging about the show. So, I’ll keep watching.

Besides, I now understand the namesake for Fathom-Lord Karathress in World of Warcraft’s Serpentshrine Cavern. Although I dare say that FLK was a touch more of a pushover than Starbuck 😉

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 containing multiple links are flagged for moderation, so if your note doesn’t show up right away, don’t worry!

Made Me Think

You’ll probably notice a theme in this week’s set of links. There’s a good reason for that. This week, it seemed as though a lot of what I read was really connecting with other reads. Maybe it’s something in the blogging water, or maybe it’s just a connection that my subconscious was wanting me to make. Either way, rather than listing everything I found, this week I’ve tried to pick a select few links that I think show the common thread most clearly.

The Number One Dream Killer: Doing What Works (from Zen Habits). The subtitle kind of gives away the “punch line” for this one. In this post, guest author Jonathan Mead argues that what really kills our dreams isn’t that we do what doesn’t work… it’s that we do what does work. Why I pulled it out is that this is an article about comfort zones — and, more specifically, about how staying with “what you know” (and with “what works”) doesn’t really get you anywhere. The take-away message is that if you want to actually live your dreams, you’re going to have to step out of what you know works, and take a chance on something that may not.

Succeeding by Helping Others Succeed (from Steve Pavlina). A lot of times, we know what “works” for us, and it’s really easy to focus only on that. In this back-to-basics article, Steve Pavlina points out that success isn’t just about us as individuals. If you really have something that works, what good are you doing if you just keep it to yourself? Instead, Pavlina suggests looking for ways to help others succeed — and then takes that as a jumping off point for launching yourself into a whole new direction — for both your life, and your career.

Top 10 Tools for Landing a Better Job (from Lifehacker). And what do you do when you’ve established your new direction, and now just need to get there? For most of us, there are two options: you can either do it on your own as an entrepreneur, or you can do it with others who are already doing it. When it comes down to the nuts and bolts of getting that dream job, this list from Lifehacker is a good place to start. While the tips may seem a bit obvious, it never hurts to review even the basics. Current economic climate or not, the little things do still count.

20 Steps to Better Wireframing (from ThinkVitamin). This ThinkVitamin article is targetted to designers and developers who find themselves tasked with the creation of wireframes — those basic outlines which help determine the future form of an application, website, etc. Now, such a topic may not seem to fit the “storyline” I’ve established above, but stick with me on this one :-) First, for some people (like me!) being able to create and design tools that people actually use is part of how we succeed by helping others succeed. The things mentioned in this article provide a good starting point for that career path. That’s the most obvious connection. But when you take the steps out of the designer context, you’ll realize that it’s applicable not only to developing outlines for websites, but also for outlining the life you want to live. Drawing on your experiences, being clear on your objective, and not letting yourself get lazy are good advice for life design, too.

When Best Practices Aren’t Best

After my big ole rant about “doing things right” the other day, I was swiftly stopped in my tracks by a comment made by Chris Brogan on his blog

Guess what? We’re all doing it wrong. Because we’re all doing it our own way, and it’s not always going to match the way you think it works best. And just like pretty much all of life, we’ll get there somehow. Thanks for sharing your opinion. Glad you got that off your chest.

What?

Hm…

Yeah, okay. I see where he’s coming from, and I see completely where I can be completely guilty of pushing my ideas of “right” onto others. It’s part of my perfectionism — something I know I struggle with, and which can have some seriously detrimental effects.

Is There Such a Thing As Best?

Part of me, though, still can’t shake the belief that there has to be some way of understanding what works best. Even if it’s not my idea, or yours — aren’t there best practices for a reason?

Let’s take an example I encounter every day at work. As I’ve mentioned before, I work in a post-secondary institution, developing courseware for students. As part of my job, I interact quite frequently with Learning Designers (also called Instructional Designers) who are dedicated to making sure that the activities we prepare for students will actually help them learn something.

So, for example, if an instructor wanted to teach vocabulary by building a word search, a learning designer might suggest a crossword instead. The reason is fairly intuitive: a word search only focuses on the students’ ability to match letters from the word list to the jumble. A crossword, on the other hand, would focus on the meaning of the word (and its correct spelling).

Learning designers also work on best practices for things like learning styles — not everyone learns best by reading, some learn better by hearing, or by doing, or whatever. There is a tonne of research to support this, and it seems to imply that there are such things as “best” practices.

In my rant, I talked about things like accessibility and usability as being “best practices” for web design and development. This also makes sense intuitively, as it seems apparent that in order to reach the widest audience, we ought not automatically exclude those who (for example) use a screen-reader to browse the web.

Where Do Right Ideas Come From?

So we seem to be back at the point of contradiction that stopped me in my tracks. But then it occurred to me… let’s look again at what Brogan had to say.

And just like pretty much all of life, we’ll get there somehow.

Yep, we will certainly get “there” no matter the approach we take. In a purely literal sense, we’ll all end up dead 😉 But I think what he was getting at is that it doesn’t matter if your blog posts are too long or too short — ultimately, people will read them (or not) based on whether or not they want to read them.

The question is, is this true in all cases?

I think in a lot of cases, people come up with ideas of how to do things the “right way” based on personal experience, speculation and best-guesses. Or, they do things the “right way” because that’s the way they’ve always done it, because it seemed to work, or because that’s what they’ve heard.

In many of those cases, yes, all paths will lead to the same ultimate end. You’ll have a program that works, a blog that people read, a network of friends, or whatever. But I think at the same time, you have to discern between the end result, and the end goal.

Is the End Point Really the Same?

Consider the example of the students who are learning vocabulary via the word search or the crossword. What is the end result? In either case, the students will have an activity which reinforces that particular terms are important. Some students will still pass, others will still fail — and ultimately, the activity will get the students to the end. Same with the web example. The design will still reach people in the end, and the development will still work for getting the information across.

However, a good activity can make it easier on the students. Maybe they can just do the crossword, rather than having to also create flashcards from the list of terms in the word search. A good web design/development will make it easier for the wider audience to hear the message. They won’t need to call someone to find the phone number on your webpage; they would be able to do it themselves.

In many cases, the end point is the same, yes. But what isn’t necessarily the same is the efficiency. All paths may lead to the same outcome, but one may be substantially faster, less painful, more rewarding, etc.

Of course, this isn’t always true. Sometimes (especially when you’re doing things based on anecdotal ideas of “best”), there really isn’t all that much difference between the paths you can take. Sometimes, taking the “not-best” path has some interesting results in-and-of itself — the journey can be just as illuminating as anything.

The key, of course, is to determine what the goal is. Is the goal just to get to the end point, no matter how you get there? Is it to do it quickly and efficiently so you can go home sooner? Is it to make it easier on customers so you make more sales?

When we focus more on the why, the how becomes more clear. In some cases, it may be best to follow “best practices”. In other cases, it may just be a waste of time and effort. Knowing (and foreseeing) the difference is the challenge.

Weekly Reads: Back to Work Edition

Alright — the New Year is upon us, which means it’s time to get back at it. Some of you probably have already been back at work for a day (or more), but my first day back will be Monday. I’m interested to see what kind of things will have piled up — a two week vacation normally would see quite a pile accumulate, but the school was closed for most of that time period so all bets are off.

On the plus side, having an extra few days off has helped me almost fend off this cold, as well as gave me a chance to catch up on a bunch of reading — as evidenced by the somewhat more lengthy list of links this week.

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

2009 Focus – Intimate Relationships and Polyamorous Relationship Q&A (from Personal Development for Smart People). If you’re afraid of a little controversy, don’t like thinking outside of social norms, or want everyone to live “normally”, you probably gave up on Steve Pavlina long ago. But if you haven’t already, there’s a lot of things in these two posts to get you thinking. Since the beginning of the New Year, Steve’s been spending some time on his blog explaining his next direction in personal growth: in the area of relationships. I know I’ll be watching and reading.

Bathtubs, Lightening Bolts, and the Myth of Writer’s Block (from Copyblogger). I think I’ve read about a thousand posts, articles and books about how to get past writer’s block (and other creative blocks) by “just doing it”. This is the first one that has gone so far as to call Writer’s Block a myth, though. And I think it’s an accurate description — if we say that we can “get past” writer’s block, we’re still acknowledging that it exists (and thereby giving it power over us). If you instead just get down to work instead of worrying about the block, you’d be much better off.

Why Mood Boards Matter (from Web Designer Depot). I have a confession to make. When I feel like turning my brain off and just watch some TV, one of the first places I’ll go is the design shows on HGTV. I’ve jealously seen how interior and exterior designers can pull together mood boards that just. look. fabulous. But the idea of using mood boards for other types of design (like websites)? This article was a “duh” moment for me — it’s a great idea, not only from the designer’s perspective but also from the clients’.

The Best of Get Rich Slowly (2008 Edition) (from Get Rich Slowly). Of all the year-end round-ups that I read, this one was my favorite. J.D. is one of my favorite bloggers — not only because he’s a great personal finance blogger, but because he always finds a way to tie it in to the bigger pictures. His annual round-up reflects that, and I highly recommend clicking through and reading his featured articles

Related Reading

Maybe it’s not so surprising, but there were a whole lot of posts on setting goals rather than resolutions for this New Year’s. I guess great minds do think alike! Here’s a link to some of the ones that I came across; I won’t give them each a whole lot of description since many of the ideas are repeated throughout. But each one brings a unique and slightly different perspective on the subject.

  1. What Will You Learn This Year? (from The Simple Dollar) — this is my favorite one of the lot. What a great approach!
  2. Why You Should Do New Year’s Resolutions All Year Round (but don’t call them that) (from Retire At 40)
  3. New Year’s Resolutions? Not Me! (from Early Retirement Extreme)
  4. How to Be Damned Serious About Your New Year’s Goals (from Rock Your Day)
  5. And of course, Never Set Another Resolution, Again and It’s Not About Self-Discipline: 10 Tips for Reaching Your Goals from yours truly

Also, related to my article on our frugal Christmas party, The Simple Dollar described how they frugally celebrated the New Year — more great ideas, and even a controversy about the ethics of BYOB which broke out in the comments!

Sententia’s Best Of 2008?

The last week it seems as though every website that I follow has had at least one post dedicated to their year in review (be it personal or site related). I debated writing a best-of for Sententia, but it feels a little goofy when you consider that I’ve only been actively writing since the beginning of December!

That being said, 2008 did leave me a lot to be grateful for, both on the site and off. So here’s some of my “best of 2008” moments, in case you care :-)

  • A new job in higher education where I have a chance to grow and learn, both professionally and personally. I work in a hugely supportive environment, with great co-workers, and I’ve already had a chance to take on leadership roles which have been both challenging and rewarding.
  • Learning a tonne. At home, if I had to identify the one area that I’ve learned most about this year, it would be about money and finances. I was always pretty good with money; I graduated two university degrees without debt, have always paid off my credit card every month, always spent less than I earned, and put money away. But this year, I pushed myself to learn about things like frugality, basic investing theory and most excitingly, financial independance. Careful planning allowed J and I to purchase our first home in August, while still making major contributions to our short- and long-term savings.  The two most valuable books I read on PF this year are the two classics: Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence: Revised and Updated for the 21st Century (I read the previous edition), and The Four Pillars of Investing: Lessons for Building a Winning Portfolio.
  • But even more importantly, I’ve had a chance to learn more about myself. This year, I learned to be comfortable being a scanner and embracing all of my wide interests. For example, I got to work on a marketing project, communications officer, lead designer, specialist, consultant and more; talk about perfect opportunity. Embracing my “scanner-ness” is also what led me back to Sententia…
  • And of course, most recently, the relaunch of Sententia has been pretty exciting. In the month since the official relaunch in early December, nearly 200 people have encountered the site and read some of my musings. Those numbers may not be huge in the world of blogging, but I’m not after huge numbers — all I care about is having a chance to share with you all. So with that in mind, here’s a quick highlight of my top 3 favorite posts of 2008:

How about you — what was your “best of 2008”?

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.