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I’ve learned over the years that sometimes the more enthusiasm someone expresses for something, the more likely they are to lose that enthusiasm when they get what it is they wanted. It reminds me of a dog chasing a car, catching it, and discovering that they really can’t drive the thing so what was all that fuss about.

I have seen it in taijiquan over the years, both with my teacher and with me. People say they have wanted for a long time to learn taijiquan and are eager to get going. But maybe they show up and if they do, maybe they last one or two lessons. I think there is good reason that a Chinese teacher may tell would-be students they have to show up to check in everyday for months before they will even consider taking on a person as a student. In counseling, people decide they want to change and discover change can be very difficult and takes energy, and they lose desire. Thermodynamics applies to behavior, too. Behaviors in motion tend to continue and those not happening tend to stay that way – unless a force acts upon them. When that force has to be you over time, procrastination and the status quo can be very attractive. I think of someone I knew long ago who constantly talked about a dream vacation. She went on and on about it but time went by, and that vacation never happened. The idea of something often is more desirable than the thing itself. The examples are almost endless.

There is something to that cliché that it’s the journey, not the destination. The journey can become monotonous. It’s like a Louis CK punch line – the guy spends so much time out in the yard by himself because he is just running out the clock. And telling your goal to others so you can liven up the journey makes you less likely to actually accomplish that goal. Derek Sivers explains why.

It makes me wonder a bit about treatment planning in therapy. Make the goals specific, measurable, and positive (“I will do something” versus “I will not do something” which activates that part of your brain associated with what you don’t want to do making you more likely to do it guaranteeing failure). There is an online program to help you accomplish a goal that has been around for a number of years at https://www.stickk.com/. They make it interesting by having you put your money on the outcome. Achieve your goal and an organization you support will get your donation. Don’t achieve it and an organization you don’t like gets your money. You have a referee ensuring the integrity of the outcome, and you can form a support network.

The transtheoretical model of change helps. Realize that change may not continue upwards in a straight line. People start and stop. They have set backs; they recover. Sometimes they take a break.  It may take many starts to finally continue something. And realize that the destination is not the end point. A good example is that sense of loss after completing a marathon or a degree or some other big goal. What next? Keep on the journey. Don’t retire in place. Keep moving. Daydreams are nice, but are not a place to live like Walter Mitty – unless perhaps you are just running out the clock. Life is ongoing change. Adapt and learn and be open to what comes next. But maybe don’t get overly enthusiastic about it. Remember the middle way and wu wei. Wu wei, similar to flow in western psychology, is that paradoxical Chinese concept of effortless effort or not trying. Don’t try so hard. You just make things more difficult for yourself. Relax and flow into it.

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Setting goals is important, and how you frame them is critical to succeding. A goal can be as broad as “I want to live a life of integrity” to as specific as “I want to run a four minute mile.” With the former you need to define just what integrity is – how will you know when you are living that life and when are you veering off course. How do you get back on course? For the latter, you need training, a workout schedule and a sense of just how realistic that goal is. Whether your motivation is internal or external also has an effect on succeeding. You are less likely to burn out if you are focused on getting better for you.

One thing both those goals have in common is that they are positive goals. Positive goals are “I am going to do something.” They are action oriented in that something will happen and you will know it. It gives you a place to move towards. All too often we define our goals in a negative fashion – “I am not going to do something.” There are many problems with that. First off, you are activating your brain to think about what you don’t want to do. Do not picture a blue jay in your mind at this moment. What picture just appeared in your mind? I spoke with someone recently whose goal was, “I don’t want to be lonely.” “Well, what do you want to be?” I asked. How will you know you are not lonely? Focusing on loneliness tends to leave one lonely. So we began to look at how she wants to connect with people, what kinds of relationships does she want, and first off, what kind of relationship does she want with herself. It is much easier to be in the company of someone who is comfortable and secure with themselves. Negative goals too often become self fulfilling prophecies. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone say, “I didn’t want to be like my parent.” And then they realized that in focusing on what they didn’t want to become, they took on those qualities and became what they vowed they would not be.

A negative goal is inactive. Tough to prove a negative. So when you are setting goals, make them positive, something you will know is present. Put in as much detail as you can. It is like writing a good story of what you want to do or become. You can even use a 10 scale to track your progress. A ten is you have achieved the goal.  A zero is you haven’t even begun. Where are you now? Track your progress up the scale. That gives you some flexibility, too. Stuck at five? Reevaluate and redefine and see what you need to do to move up even to a 5.1. Edit your story.  One of my favorite exercises is “start-stop-continue” from Jerry Lynch and Chungliang Al Huang. What do I need to start doing, stop doing and continue doing to function at a higher level? And remember the concept of wu wei or effortless effort. Sometimes when you push too hard, you push yourself into the ground and get stuck. Have a plan but relax into it and have fun. It is hard to stick with a goal when the process is something you hate or find punishing. That is why so many resolutions for diets and exercise programs fail. Flow and adapt, and make your goals positive.

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