As some of you might know, I’ve spent the last month and a bit attending sessions for a “Learn to Run” clinic programme by Running Room in uptown Waterloo. I didn’t have any particular goal in mind when I joined; I just felt like I needed something to do that would get me out of my apartment. I remembered how much I enjoyed running with my oldest sister when we were both in Toronto and thought I could enjoy it just as much now. I was right, by the way.  =)

At tonight’s clinic, there was a lecture about setting goals and creating lasting change. It’s difficult to achieve lasting change because the reason that we are as we are now is because that’s the comfortable rhythm that we’re marching to. Venturing away from the comfort zone to make a serious commitment to change is difficult, but it is something that I’m sure we’ve all had to do at one time or another in our lives and it is probably something we will always have to do. The lecture led me to think about how goals work, how they don’t, and what things are important to keep in mind and I decided to write those thoughts down.

There are multiple goals. The handouts we were given focused on one particular goal, asking us to write it down, to consider what we would gain by achieving that goal and what we would stand to lose by not achieving it. Usually, when talking about setting goals, we talk about a single goal, but I have never found it to be the case that I have only one goal in my entire life. My life has many areas and in each I have something that I want to accomplish. Of course, this leads to an interesting problem: it’s all fine and good to want everything at once but I can’t do everything at once. What’s the best way to juggle the various goals that I have for my life?

Prioritize the goals that make other goals easier to achieve. My running goals are at the top of my priority list. I run two evenings and one morning each week, I’ve committed to changes in my diet and a morning workout, and I’ve committed considerable time and thought to figuring out the best ways to eke more performance out of my muscles. Promoting good health will give me more energy and with more energy I can accomplish more things. Prioritizing my health above all else makes my other goals easier to achieve.

As often as you can, kill two (or more) birds with one stone. This is actually from a piece of advice I read on Sacha Chua’s blog about how to do a lot. One of her tips for doing a lot is to do things that complement each other, so that when you are working on one thing, that work actually goes towards many areas at the same time. This creates a synergy; the things you do feed into each other and create a cycle of positive results. This is something I’ve actually always had difficulty with because my interests tend to be all over the place (and sometimes quite specific or niche). I have not yet found ways to create more synergy between my efforts in different areas of my life.

Set realistic goals that you can achieve in a relatively short period of time. One of the best ways to become incredibly frustrated with yourself is to set and commit to an absolutely impossible to achieve goal. It can be tempting to go for the large victory but you’re more than likely to be defeated. Over time, those defeats can turn into a negative cycle of demotivation. Instead, setting goals that you can achieve within a relatively short period of time allow you to create a positive feedback cycle. Your celebration of small victories motivates you towards more of them and the scope of what you set your sights on grows little by little. Before you know it, you’ve achieved something great but you were so focused on the process that you might not even remember how much work it took. Of course, the other side of this is that you should be careful not to set the bar too low. That feeling of achievement will be quite muffled if the task was so easy that you didn’t even have to break a sweat.

If it isn’t important, cut it away. Again, we can’t do everything. Achieve the things that are most important to you and cut the rest away. Time is a precious resource; there is too little of it to squander it on things that aren’t important. People change and so can our motivations and goals. That’s OK. Changing your mind to focus on something that is now more important to you isn’t a sin. This is related to one of my favourite quotes by Jonathan Swift:

“A man should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong, which is but saying, in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.”

Consider both what you stand to gain and what is at stake. It’s very easy to set a goal to achieve a particular benefit, but there are actually two distinct, basic motivations for our actions: gaining pleasure and avoiding pain. That latter part is sometimes forgotten. Yes, if you lose that weight you’ll feel more energetic and more attractive and that’ll be awesome, but what do you stand to lose if you don’t succeed? Avoiding that unpleasant result can be just as motivating (sometimes more so!) as imagining the happy result.

Those are my current thoughts on setting goals. I don’t think that I’ve considered my goals carefully enough since moving to the new city and perhaps that is the reason why I’ve had some troubles feeling fully content with the current state of things. Perhaps it’s about time to review my mental notes and see what I really need to be working on in the new year.