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The pattern of setting goals - Put effort into the system not into the goal

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

The pattern of setting goals - Put effort into the system not into the goal

Scott Miker

We don’t set goals to keep doing something that we already do.  We set goals to challenge ourselves and move in a new direction.  Yet we probably don’t realize that there is a pattern to goal-setting and for many of us, it isn’t leading to success.

Because this new goal is taking us in a new direction, we have to make changes to the systems and habits in our lives.  If we think we will reach our goals through sheer motivation and improved decision-making we will struggle to maintain our drive for success.  

Being in a Toastmasters International club I get to hear people talk about their goals and New Years Resolutions more often than most.  What I find is that there is a pattern that most people slip into.

It starts around January 1st with an extreme outcome goal.  A new desire to do something extreme that is far outside of their comfort zone.  Whether this is to train for a marathon or suddenly get a better job, they set large goals and hope that their motivation is enough to reach the goal.

They usually start out very strong.  They tend to tell everyone their new goal and how they already ran 4 miles every day this week.  They are very open with their goals and try to use other’s opinions of them as more motivation.  

This makes sense because the person who sets a small process goal will not get the admiration of others that the large outcome goal receives.  Saying that you will send out 2 resumes a week or walk on the treadmill for 10 minutes every morning will get others to wonder “is that it?!”

Yet the reality is that focusing on the outcome goal tends to overvalue motivation and undervalue habit.  Going in a new direction after a new goal means that the systems and habits will have to change.  We overlook the hold our habits have on us and feel that drive can overcome automatic responses.

Our automatic responses have a way of sitting and waiting, behind the scenes.  We start out strong and overcome these responses with persistence and intensity.  But after we start moving in the new direction, and realize just how hard it will actually be to reach our goal, our motivation drops.  

When our motivation drops, the automatic responses that have been built up over many years comes through.  We slip back into the old routine and the old way of doing things.  

At this point some people try to regain the motivation to keep going.  There are a number of strategies around this and some will say this is the point that makes champions.  Yet time and time again we are unable to reach that motivated state and we suddenly find ourselves in December ready to set a new goal for New Years.  

I am not explaining this process to show how horrible people are.  I am explaining this because this is the exact pattern I fell into for years.  I could not seem to stick with anything.  I would do everything I could to stay motivated and I hated when I finally realized that I had failed.  

When I smoked I used to joke that “quitting is easy, I have done it a thousand times.”  Despite my attempt to make light of the situation I truly felt every time that I could quit, but then fall into the same pattern until I started again.  

I would challenge myself to get back into shape.  I thought I knew the things I needed to do I just needed to be motivated enough to do them.  I was completely wrong.

Finally I started to realize that the way to achieve a goal isn’t sheer motivation.  The way to reach a goal is to understand several aspects of our systems and habits and then set process goals aimed at creating a new habit.

I would start extremely small.  I would set easy steps that would build up over time to become new habits.  Once I had the habit of getting up in the morning and exercising for 10 minutes, I could then add more time and more advanced exercises.  But I had to create the automatic response first.

Creating a new habit takes times.  There is some inaccurate information that floats around and says it only takes 21 days to create a habit.  The original 1950’s research that claimed this has been criticized and proved wrong.  The time it takes to create a new habit depends on what the habit is and how ingrained it needs to be.  Most research that I have explored had significantly longer time frames for most activities.  

It might be intimidating to see that it will take months to build a new habit.  That is why it is crucial to start small.  If you start too big then you will have to fight with yourself every time you want to do the new action.  But if you make it incredibly simple and easy, you only have to overcome enough to get started.  

If you find yourself in the mid-January lull and are started to lose motivation, change around your focus.  Instead of putting your effort into continuing towards the goal, put it towards a new habit change.  Make a small change in your habits which you can build on over time.

Then put all your motivation into solidifying the new habit.  Yes this may take a long time and you might not have 6 pack abs by Valentine’s day but this will drastically increase your odds of actually reaching that goal.  

Once I started to understand this I was amazed at how much easier it was to set and reach goals.  It wasn’t about guilting myself back to working out or forcing myself to avoid cigarettes.  It suddenly became a slow but effective process that worked in a number of areas including exercise, nutrition, relaxation, education, paying off debt and many more.  

This year set a small, easy, simple step that can become a new positive habit.  Then slowly build until you find yourself where you want to be!