Goal Setting

We all know the feeling of setting a goal. We’re hopeful, excited, determined. We say, “This time will be different!” Our motivation is so strong. It’s exhilarating. We see it clearly: what we’re going to look like, what it’s going to feel like, to lose that 20 pounds, or to breathe freely without cigarettes, or to move on from that toxic relationship.

And then… we all know the feeling of being a few days, or a few hours, into our goal. It’s Monday morning, and our motivation has completely abandoned us. We might struggle for a time, but eventually we cave, and we smoke the cigarette, and we eat the junk food, and we get high again.

What went wrong? How did this happen again? And why do we even bother trying? We continue to give into our cravings until that motivational desire sweeps over us again, and we make our resolutions, and we break them. The cycle goes on and on, and it’s an exhausting, hopeless cycle. We would give anything to break the cycle, but we’re at a loss as to ‘how.’

Let’s rewind, start at the beginning, and try to figure out what went wrong. We started by imagining our end goal, our first mistake. We saw ourselves healthy, in-shape, successful, essentially perfect. This image motivated us, at first, but quickly, reality set in, and we realized the image was unattainable. At last, we caved into our cravings.

Next we went and told everyone about our wonderful new commitment, and it felt so good. We felt we had already accomplished so much by making this first and most important of steps. Here was our second mistake.

Monday morning came. We were determined. ‘Time to work hard and make all our dreams come true!’ But, at the first, or second, or third sign of difficulty, we immediately caved into our cravings. We didn’t plan on running into obstacles that our willpower could not overcome (our determination had seemed so strong!), and here was our last and greatest mistake. 

So how do we correct our mistakes, break the cycle, and finally find success?

First. When you see that perfect image of yourself, break it down and dissect it. If you want to look like a Victoria’s Secret model, what specifically does that look like? What are the specific measurements you want to achieve, and what measurements are you at now? Know your specific starting point and specific destination. Imagine, you are driving. If you don’t know where you are, and you only have a vague idea of where it is you want to go, you’re not going to get there very fast, if you ever get there at all. And ‘trying you’re best’ isn’t going to help.

Tips on goal setting: You will probably never achieve your goal. What I mean is that if you plan to lose ‘at least’ 5 pounds, you’ll likely only lose 3. When you say the words, ‘at least,’ you’re setting a ‘low point,’ (at least 5 pounds, but hopefully more). You’re trying to be realistic, and that’s good, but when you say those words, ‘at least 5 pounds,’ your brain only hears ‘5 pounds.’ Your brain sees ‘5 pounds’ as the ‘high point,’ and will try its best to achieve the ‘high point’ and usually fall a little short. So set you’re goal a little high. Don’t make it impossible, but make it challenging. And know you will most likely never hit it.

Also, link your goal to something you’re already doing. It’s easier to add on to an already existing habit, then create a totally new one. A lot of gyms have coffee and smoothie bars inside, so start getting your morning coffee at the gym and adding on a quick workout before or after. Walking, or jogging, to a friend’s house (who you visit regularly) is a lot easier than walking around just for the hell of it.

Next: Telling someone your goal makes it less likely to happen. Your brain is kind of stupid sometimes, and when you share that perfect image of success you conjured up in your mind to other people, your brain thinks you aren’t just sharing an imaginary image, but the real thing. It thinks that the satisfaction you get from sharing the image with others, is the satisfaction of actually achieving the image in real life. Don’t tell people about your goals, or if you do, state it in a way that brings you no satisfaction. Instead of: ‘I’m going to lose so much weight, and be so happy,’ try, ‘I would like to lose some weight. I know it will be difficult, and take a lot of persistence and patience.’ Now, don’t get me wrong. Telling people can be very helpful. Being accountable, and knowing that people are going to be watching you to see if you stick with it or not, can be a great motivator. Just be careful what you say to your brain.

Lastly and most importantly: Thinking of your specific end goal is important, but thinking of the journey to get there is even more important. Imagine you’re an army general. Your advisor asks you, ‘How are we going to win this war?’ and you answer, ‘I feel like our army is very strong, and I’m sure if we just do our best, we will win!’ Doesn’t sound very convincing, right? In reality, a victorious general would sit down with his advisors, think of every possible tactic the enemy might use against them and plan countermeasures to defend against each one. 

You’re the general and this is exactly what you need to do. Try making a list. Think through your typical day and write down every situation and obstacle that might arise and how you will defend against it. It might look something like the examples below.

What if…What I can do to prevent it…What I can do to deal with it…
There are donuts in the breakroom at workDon’t go in the breakroom, or if I do go (because I want coffee) don’t open the boxIf I eat a donut, I will not be upset or binge on more donuts, but instead, continue my day as if nothing happened
I’m too tired to go to the gym after workBring preworkout to work, or leave something (e.g. apartment key) in my gym locker in the morning so I have to go backIf I don’t go to the gym, I’ll walk around my neighborhood, or count it as my rest day, feel good about giving my muscles a break, and go tomorrow
My friends are smoking cigarettes around me Bring a replacement (e.g. coffee, (nicotine) gum); or plan on a distraction (e.g. game on my phone) until they’re doneIf I do smoke, I won’t let one lapse turn into a relapse. I won’t buy a pack of my own. I’ll review and update my goal lists to renew my motivation

Life is unpredictable and highly stressful. When I first got clean (the last time), I was attending NA meetings and doing everything I could to stay sober. Although I tried to plan on ‘the worst case scenarios’ and ‘the things I couldn’t control’ by ghosting old friends, direct depositing my checks into my mother’s bank account so I never had any cash, and a thousand other precautions and countermeasures, I still couldn’t plan on everything.

One day, I was writing at a desk in the library, and a guy, a stranger, came up to me and started talking. He didn’t seem like an addict; in fact, he was pretty handsome and nice, but near the end of the conversation, he pulled out a balloon and asked me if I wanted to go to the bathroom. It was so unexpected, and the urge was so strong and sudden, I was taken off guard. I knew I could use it as an excuse or a justification like I had in the past, and that my mother would have been understanding and agreed that it had been an unfair situation. I remember I hesitated, and he smiled really big like he hadn’t been sure if I was an addict or not, but now he was. A bunch of emotions went through my mind, and for a moment, I knew I was going to use again. I knew and imagined exactly what that would be like: my mother, so sad (not even disappointed, just sad), and me, being dope-sick again.

I felt so hopeless, I just wanted to die. And finally the flow of emotions stopped and landed on just one: hate. I just felt so much hate: hate for him, and the drugs, and my life, and myself for being weak and useless. And I did the weirdest thing: I closed my eyes and covered my ears and put my head down and waited. He touched me and probably said something, but I ignored it and just waited. I waited for so long, my back started to hurt, and when I finally opened my eyes, he was gone.

When I look back, I feel like that wasn’t just a guy. It was the devil. I think if I would have said yes, I would have relapsed, and it would have been my last relapse because I would have died (on purpose or accident, I don’t know). I feel like the devil came to me in person, and I beat him. I know it’s crazy, but I think to beat your demons, you have to be a little crazy. Don’t let anything inhibit you. If you need to cover your eyes and ears, or if you need to scream and yell and make a scene, or if what you need to do is crazy and embarrassing but it’s what you need to do, then fucking do it. 

To wrap it up. 

Remember, focus on one goal at a time; you only have so many hours in a day. ‘On Monday, I’m going to quit smoking, stop eating sugar, and go to the gym!’ Woah! Stop! A lifestyle change like that can’t happen overnight. Focus on changing one aspect at a time until you’ve broken the old habits and built up new ones, then move on to the next aspect. 

Remember, there’s no such thing as overnight success, in fact, there’s no such thing as success at all. When you meet one goal, you’ll raise the bar. There’s never an end point when you stop working. It’s not a trophy that you can win once and keep forever. So, enjoy the work. Praise yourself everyday, and continue to redefine and raise your goals. 

Remember, the fault is only your own. Stop making justifications, and start making battle strategies. 

TED talk links:



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