How to set good goals.
It doesn’t have to be a big goal, it has to be your goal.
But big is usually better.
In his book Great by Choice, Jim Collins relays the stories of Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer and Robert Falcon Scott, a British Naval officer, who set out at the same time in 1911 in a race to the South Pole.
Amundsen’s strategy was to always make forward progress, no matter the conditions. They planned intensively and leaned on Eskimo wisdom. Amundsen set a daily target of a 20-mile march. On good weather days he held his team back from pushing too hard, on bad weather days they made it only 5 or 6 miles, but they always marched forward. They made a habit of forward progress.
Scott chose a different strategy. He prized novelty and exhaustive effort over discipline. He brought unproven snow mobiles and ponies to carry their supplies. On good weather days, their team pushed up to 40 miles. On bad days they rested. What happened?
Predictably, terrible weather struck, a lot. Amudsen and his team made it to the South Pole and returned on the exact date they had planned. The strategy of disciplined, habitual forward progress, along with careful planning had paid off. Scott and team made it to the South Pole, 34 days after Amudsen. Tragically, Scott and all of his crew died on the return journey, missing a resupply depot by 10 miles. The difference between good, disciplined habits and exhaustive effort can be as stark as life and death.
Choose good habits.
This is an extreme story, but we can learn from it. Our culture tends to lionize quick, exhaustive actions. We cram for tests, we speed shop on black Friday, we “work hard play hard”. What we fail to recognize is that none of these lead to sustained success. Perhaps they have short term wins, brief benefits that fleet at the first chance they get, but sustained success only comes through discipline over time. It only comes from habits of forward progress that are built over time. Have you ever seen a championship team that doesn’t practice daily? Do you know a good marriage that didn’t put in the work, day after day for years? Extraordinary success comes from careful planning and disciplined daily progress. It comes from good habits.
You can live a mediocre life without setting goals. It will just happen. But deep within you, ambition stirs; there is a desire in you to do something great with your life. That is a good thing. In fact, in its most sublime that ambition is the desire to bring the divine spark imprinted in your soul back to the heart of your Father. Christ made this possible with the gift of new life. This means our highest call and greatest ambition is to receive that gift of new life and journey back to our home.
“It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.” – St. John Paul II
Ambition is not wrong; selfish ambition is. Selfish ambition turns inward, a life curled in on itself. Selfish ambition is self-improvement for the sake of me. It is achievement for myself, because I deserve it.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
Phillipians 2: 3-4
A life of selfish ambition is not the life Christ calls us to live. That is not why we are here. We are ambitiously striving, continuously improving and acting with discipline for the sake of others.
Your ambition is stirred by Jesus. Your responsibility is to make sure it is well aimed. When we set goals, we aim our ambition toward a target. We need to make sure it's a good target.
A goal is a thing to be aimed at. In soccer, you shoot at the goal. It has three posts and a line in the grass. A goal is well defined. You know when you miss high or to the right. The same goes for life. In order to hit a goal, it has to be defined and you have to take a shot. With practice, your shots will get better and better.
Good goals are: Big, Specific, Measurable and For Others.
Bad goals are: Small, Vague, Slippery, For yourself only.
If your goal is too small you run the risk of hitting it and thinking you can’t achieve more. Set big goals, because even if you miss, you’ve missed a high mark. You can be mediocre without setting goals, so don't set mediocre goals.
Think back to a soccer goal. It makes a very clear rectangle. It is specific, so you know when you score. If you know how you scored, you can think back and get better at each of the component pieces of hitting the goal.
“I missed high, my aim needs work. I can practice shooting drills.”
“My shot wasn’t long enough, I need to work on power. Need to increase lifting and shots on goal.”
“I scored, but almost missed the pass. I need work on running endurance.”
“Upper 90 goal, my shooting drills are paying off.”
The strategy for achieving your goals is consistent. It's been proven time and time again that disciplined progress, using habits, for 90 days will lead to success. But the tactics you use are going to change from goal to goal. A physical goal is going to have different tactics than a learning goal. You have to be able to measure the progress toward your goal to understand if you are making progress toward it.
You will achieve the goal, but it needs achieved in a way that betters the life of others. This is important for two reasons. First, we are not striving out of selfish ambition. Setting a goal that only benefits you has the possibility of becoming selfish. Second, as you progress through the 90 days, you will have days where you struggle. If your goal is set for your benefit, you will, just like I have for years, tell yourself that you’re not worth the work. This is wrong, but it’s loud. One of the best counter arguments I’ve found for this in years of goal setting is that I cannot tell myself that my kids are not worth it. That my wife, my friends or my family are not worth it. The argument falls apart in a way it doesn’t when I tell myself I’m not worth it. Gradually you can reverse this negative internal talk, but it will rear its head quickly and setting a goal that benefits others is an excellent roundhouse kick to knock it out.
(If you are setting goals outside of the CappaWork Journal, you should include Timebound and Relevant. Since we’re setting this in the context of a journal sets the optimal time for you and flows from your calling, those aren’t necessary for us.)
Bringing it all together.
I really struggle to apply things without an example. So here is an actual goal, from my actual life, that went into a CappaWork Journal.
Calling - I’m a dad of four young kids. They call me dad. I’m called to be a good father. One day, when I was lifting one of them out of the tub, I pulled a muscle in my back. Part of my image of a good dad is one who can roughhouse with a growing boy. Pulling a muscle just picking them up wasn't in that image. I decided to tie a goal to this.
Goal – Average 10,000lbs total weight moved per workout at least 3 times a week.
- Big- Prior to this I was averaging 4,000lbs, 2 times a week. That's 8,000lbs per week up to 30,000 per week.
- Specific – This wasn’t “get a stronger back” it was very specific.
- Measurable – 10,000lbs (total mass moved) as measured by a fitness app
- For Others – If I hit this goal, I'd be able to pick up 50lbs, with my arms straight out and also probably catch it if it came running across the yard at me. Zero coincidence that my son weighed 50lbs.
Habit – The best habits can be completed in 2 minutes and are tied to something that happens without fail. They also have a fast reward cycle (more on this later). So I worked to instate two habits.
- First, setting out workout clothes the night before
- Second, putting the delicious protein shake powder on the counter before I went downstairs to workout.
These two habits reduced the friction in getting me to do the workout (habit 1) and primed a reward (habit 2) for the workout, so I would continue to do it.
And if I hit the goal, I would be a good manager for myself and give an achievement reward. A new golf club, something I wouldn't otherwise buy for myself.
I hit the goal.
I haven't pulled a muscle getting any of the kids out of the tub since and if one of them wants to fly at me, I'm ready for the catch. It's a small, but significant way that I choose to live out my response when they call me dad.
You can set good goals too. You can act on your calling.
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