Goal setting and the year in review

So it’s officially 2020, and a new year brings with it all kinds of things. Retrospective, hope, dreams, and a variety of other feelings. I’m not a big party-er and have never been a massive fan of New Years Eve, but I do have to say in recent years, I have really come to appreciate two elements of new years as an important time of year for me. The first being retrospection, its a chance to look back at the year and be honest with ourselves about how things have gone. A chance to look at what worked, and what didn’t and have an honest conversation with yourself.

The second part I’ve come to enjoy is planning for the new year, sitting down and looking at my life and finding new ways to grow as a person, and improve things for the better. There’s something very empowering about sitting down and seeing a wealth of possibilities and excitement about the future prospects and opportunities that are ahead.

Now for most people, this is where the most dreaded word comes up, and its RESOLUTIONS. We’ve all heard it, and probably had it happen to us. The grand self-lie that is a resolution. Believe me over the years I’ve left a path of broken resolutions behind me, and as those who read this blog regularly know. I tend to read a lot on the subject of success, goals, and similar topics. I don’t claim to have an answer here, and over the past few years have come to the conclusion that everyone’s mileage on any option for trying to grow will vary.

Now I want to be clear about one thing here, I’m going to use the ever present weight loss example, I consider myself overweight, it is something I have struggled with I do not have the answer, and am not cla,am “throwing shade” on people who use these systems and find success. My experience only.

But what I can do, is call out some of the things I’ve tried, and how they worked out, and tell you what I’ve been finding lately:

Setting SMART Goals:

We’ve all heard this one right, making sure that your goals are “SMART”, they practically drill this into us in grade school, the only “good goals” are SMART goals. And what does SMART mean:

  • Simple
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Reasonable
  • Time Bound

Now, the idea behind this is a good one, the idea behind this approach is make sure your setting goals that can be reached, and that you can verify that you have hit milestones on the path. Believe me, I do love the mantra “What gets measured, matters”, and this is based around it. It’s also though built around the satisfaction of achieving your goals. If you set something that’s measurable and attainable, then you feel pretty great when you hit that goal.

Let’s talk about an example, so an example of a “bad” goal in this model would be, “I’m going to lose weight” to steal the oldest resolution in the book. Now why is this a bad goal, because its not defined, its not something that I can measure (in a meaningful way). So a better goal would be “I’m going to lose 10 lbs, by June.” I can measure it, it has a deadline, its not outlandish by any means. Should be great right.

For a lot of people, this is a great system, and it helps them, but for me, it caused a lot more damage than it helped. The reason being is that a human being can tolerate anything for a time boxed amount of time. Look at people who have survived unimaginable conditions and then are able to return to their lives. But the problem for me, is that by doing this with the new year you aren’t doing anything to make a permanent change in your life.

Let’s go back to our weight loss example, as I’ve got to be honest, this isn’t hypothetical, its what really happened to me (more than once). You set this goal and in January you go after it…I had a coworker once who used to say “Let’s seize the day with vigor and determination never before sen by mankind.” And we’ve all been there right, we all hit the gym, get up early, and go after it.

And then a couple of outcomes happen:And then a couple of outcomes happen:

You start doing great, and by end of january you are down 5 lbs. Feeling amazing and saying “I got this”, at which point you end of convincing yourself “I can slow down, I don’t need to work as hard” and it all falls apart. And before you know it time flies and it’s June, you look at the number and say “I’m a failure”.

You start doing great, and middle of February, you hit your goal of 10 lbs down, you’re proud of yourself, and smart goals works. You move onto other things, and before you know it you fall into bad habits, and June hits and the scale looks pretty familiar, you look at the number and say “I’m a failure”

You stay on track, do what you set out to do, get to june and are down 10 lbs. You feel great, smart goals worked. You have a fun summer and end up back where you started, or god forbid worse off, look at yourself and say “I’m a failure”.

And now your probably saying “For loving the positive elements of new years, this is pretty damn depressing. And I’m not trying to be a debby downer. But this is my experience and as I said above, part of this process is honestly and retrospective. This has been my honest experience.

This is my problem here, SMART goals are built to be very short term focused to get a “job” done, but when it comes to personal growth, the job is never “done”, so the approach is fundamentally flawed. And at the end of the process those words / feelings of “I’m a failure” have a damaging and demoralizing effect that is completely counter productive.

At the end of the day, growth is a journey. And if you continue down this road and you miss your goal you are left with nothing, and feeling like you failed with nothing to show for the effort. I believe there is an old adage about eggs in a single basket for this.

10x Goals:

This is one that got a lot of attention, I’ve read the book the 10x Rule, and I have to say it is insightful,and I found it to be very interesting. For those not familiar the idea is this, take the idea of SMART goals and turn it around a bit. Keep the same ideas of goals being measurable and time boxed but instead of making them attainable, you make them 10x what the attainable goal is.

So take our weight loss example,, instead of saying “I’m going to lose 10 lbs by june” I would say “I’m going to lose 50 lbs by june”. Now before anyone jumps on me, I can do math. The idea is what could you do if you put in 10x the effort. So the idea then is if I put in the work and try to lose 50 lbs by June, one off two outcomes occur:

  • I lose 50 lbs and cheer my success.
  • I lose 30 lbs and I’m still better off than the 10lb goal.

In my experience though the problem is still the same. I haven’t changed behaviors or grown at all, I’ve hit a very finite and fixed in time goal, but the success won’t last. And at the end you still feel like a failure. And now you feel like a bigger one, because not only did you miss the 10x goal,but likely the 1x goal too.

Finite Systems / Infinite Problem:

The crux of the problem I have with the above problems is that they are systems built around finite objectives, being applied to an infinite problem. I don’t want to lose weight, I want to be healthier, I don’t want to learn one thing, but build a foundation for learning. And at the end of the day, we are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Personal growth isn’t something that can be timeboxed like that.

Simon Sinek covers this in his book, the “Infinite Game”, which I admit I am still reading now, but here’s a video that gives some of the highlighting principles.

The other problem I have is that in my experience this creates a lot of stress and pressure on yourself, and those words “I’m a failure” whether you say them aloud or not are devastating. If you become too fixated on goals, they can start to feel like a drug high. And I’m speaking from experience here, they become this thing where your life becomes about setting goals, pushing too hard, getting them and that feeling of euphoria, and then its on to the next one.

I was 100% in that boat, for better or worse, and don’t get me wrong I’m proud of any accomplishments I’ve made, but it really does take a toll on you mentally. While it can be satisfying to reach those goals, it isn’t always fulfilling. And if you find yourself questioning where to go next, that can be crippling in a lot of ways.

And now I’ve done it again, we are at the “Kevin, still depressing. Goals are meaningless, growth is meaningless, life is pain…”

Not quite, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and researching and had lots of discussions with people a lot wiser than me, and I’ve found something that in my opinion seems to be working better.

The final problem I have with these systems, is they make one basic assumption, and that is that pursuit of these goals exists in a vacuum. And what I mean by that is take our weightloss example, we say “I’m going to lose 10 lbs by march”, but then I get hurt, need surgery and spend 6 weeks in a cast, and then physical therapy. I know that the goal became unattainable, but I still feel like I failed.

Now again, not just weight loss, but let’s say I said “I’m going to put my phone away after dinner to spend more time with my family”. And then I get a smart watch which lets me check email without my phone, or I work with customers all over the world that have to call at off hours, then I feel like a failure due to circumstances outside of my control.

Goals vs Values:

Now I can’t take credit for this, there is a psychological principle called value based living, and the idea being this. Here’s a video that does a way better job than I ever could at summarizing it.

So looking at the above, if we get away from these ideas of goals, and look more at what we as a person value. That is what drives us, and that is what matters. And as long as the actions we take align with those values, the journey is part of the reward. If you watched the video above with Simon Sinek, this probably sounds familiar, and that should be no surprise. There is a direct through line between his concepts of actions being driven by values and value based living.

So the next question is how does this work any differently? How do I grow and push myself without goals? Is this just symantics at the end of the day. I don’t think so, but let me talk about what this journey has been like for me, and you can judge.

Step 1 : Change your definition:

One thing that my wife and I are really trying to embrace is a family mission statement, and we are in the process of writing that now. When we are done I will probably do a blog post on that too. But along with that, we as a family have focused our energy and decisions about what we do around this motto for lack of a better term.

There are only two outcomes to any action, success or you learn something.

That’s it, not ground breaking, and truth be told we stole it from the movie Meet the Robinson’s, which has a similar sentiment, “From failure you learn, success not so much”. But if you stop and think about that statement, its rather profound, if you take away failure as an outcome. Some would say you take away accountability, but I would say you take away blockers. If you can’t fail, then what is stopping you from trying?

Thomas Edison had a similar statement, when asked about the 1000 failed attempts to make a light bulb, he said “I didn’t fail, I just found 1000 ways not to do it.”

At its core this is very freeing, and we need to say we can grow and push the limits because there is no outcome that we shouldn’t feel positive about, because the journey will yield learnings, and those learnings will help us to improve for the future.

Step 2 : Define your values:

This one took a lot of soul searching for me. You need to take a step back and identify what above all else matters to you. What ideals and values do you aspire to above all else. And that’s not an easy question, and should not be taken lightly. I find that making these values something that need to be quantified in a single word helped a lot.

My values are the following:

  • Family
  • Learning
  • Impact
  • Innovation
  • Creativity

And what I mean by these, is that my guiding principles in my life, at this time are these items. When I am long gone, I want my kids to know that above all else family mattered. I want them to see that I had a love of learning. That I focused on having an impact around me whether it be my career or community. I want them to see me as someone who was innovative and creative.

These values together really some up at this stage of my life, the legacy I want to leave behind.

Step 3 : Values Define Action:

One common thread you will see in anything and everything is the idea that we as people have limited resources. Whether those be willpower, physical, financial, energy, attention, or the all mighty time. We can only put our resources into some much, and we can’t do it all. Greg McKoewn has a great book on this called “Essentialism”, which I really believe is a great book about applying your resources.

To that end, if we have values that are important to us, and we have limited resources. it isn’t a big logical leap to say that we should focus on putting our energy behind the actions that align with our values.

Not really rocket science, although it took me a while to get here if I’m being honest.

Now what I’ve found from doing this in practice in recent months is that I have seen my stress level go down, and my commitment to any actions I’ve taken go up. And results have been greater too. And at the end of the day I believe its easier to be committed to an action if it aligns to something you care deeply about.

Let me go back to our example, as mentioned above I want to get healthier, and I’d tried smart goals, 10x goals, etc. I tried a keto diet, joining a gym, nothing seemed to stick. And even when they did I could never cross the 15 lbs mark. And it was devastating to me. I have had to actively sit on the side lines at both work and family functions because of my body weight.

This all came to a head for me, when I took my son to Hershey, and all he wanted to do was ride a roller coaster, and he’s much too small to ride the big coasters, but we saw a roller coaster called the “coco cruiser” (a little kid roller coaster), and he wanted to ride it. We got in line, and when we got to the front, he was too short to ride by himself, and I couldn’t fit into the coaster. He and I stood on the platform, while his friends rode, and then he rode with one of their mom’s. Having to explain to your son that he can’t have what he wants because of your body weight is one of the lowest points in my life. I wanted to curl up and die.

I still could never get past that 15 lbs mark, and life would get in the way. I took a step back, and said…forget the numbers. I want to get healthy because it will let me be more to my family. I found a cross fit gym that I really like, with great people and a great coach. I try to go as much as I can, unfortunately recently being sick sidelined. But just out of curiosity I got on the scale today, I’m down 25 lbs from that horrible day. I feel better and have better energy, and even though I fell off the wagon and am going back when travel slows down. I feel like a success and look back on all the victories and fulfillment I feel with a positive attitude.

The attention here being on the action, not the outcome. Its having a lasting impact as it leads to behavioral change.

But let’s not make this all about weight, even if that is an easy example. Take my professional life, I decided to focus more on impact and now measuring all my actions by impact they have. This has led to greater results in my office with me feeling better about the work I’ve done, and if you look at the metrics much greater returns. My stress level has gone down, and I’ve stopped measuring myself against the impact and activities of my colleagues.

Final Thoughts:

I know this has been a much longer blog post than normal, but thanks for sticking with me through this. The end result of which is this, I’m not going to be setting any resolutions this year. My new plan is to reaffirm and re-evaluate my values, and then make sure that I devote my energy and resources to actions that align. This will allow me the flexability to enjoy life, while still finding new ways to grow.

This is something my wife and i both feel strongly about and are working with our kids to internalize and I hope it at least sparks some thought for you about where you are and where you want to go.