Are You Going After Your Goals the Hard Way or the Easy Way?
Approximately a 5 minute read
The idea that you need motivation and will power to reach your goals is part of a story, or world-view, that says that if you use enough of the right kind of force, you’ll get to the goal.
It’s also a story of scarcity – it says there’s not enough time, energy, resources to go around, so you have to grab what you can and make it happen. No pain, no gain.
In this article I’ll introduce an approach to reaching your goals that points toward a different story, one in which we can flow with life rather than struggling against it, and in which we have all the time, resources, and energy we need if we mange them wisely.
Goal achievement in a world of struggle and scarcity
In the story of striving, competition, and scarcity, once the goal is defined you’re supposed to keep your eyes on it, visualize it intensely, and do whatever it takes to get to it, including sacrificing other things as you go.
The idea is that if you control yourself tightly enough, you’ll be able to ignore all the bad habits and distractions along the way.
It’s not usually fun, doing what-ever it takes to get to the goal, but that’s ok because the goal is worth it. Besides, life is supposed to be a struggle, right?
Goal achievement the easy way
The alternative approach is to find ways to work with human nature, instead of against it.
This approach focuses on the processes that will get you there rather than on the goal itself. On the journey, rather than on the destination.
It involves weaving into your life the habits and small actions that will help you create the new story you want to live in, in a way that makes it almost impossible for you to fail.
In this approach, the habits that are going to get you to the top of your mountain are not extra things added onto your to-do list. Instead, you design them to be a habitual and painless—even enjoyable—part of the fabric of your life.
Go for more, rather than less
Let’s say you’ve decided you’ve been sitting at a desk too much, and you make a resolution to move more. You decide you’re going to go jogging 3 times per week.
Unless you already have a well-established exercise habit, or you love pounding along with your lungs and your legs burning and your mind screaming for a distraction, this strategy is unlikely to last.
Especially if this thrice-weekly torture is added in on top of all of your existing commitments, in direct competition with them for your limited time and energy.
A better strategy would be to find a physical activity that you enjoy doing for its own sake. Ideally it would also meet some other need, or at least fit in harmoniously with your other commitments.
Perhaps, along with your desire to move more, you also have a desire to eat better and reduce the stress in your life. Perhaps you also have family or friends with whom you would like to spend more time.
Gardening is an example of an activity that would meet all these needs. Instead of having to sacrifice and suffer in order to become more fit, you can have more. More time with people you love, better food, less stress, and oh by the way, you’ll also be moving more, and in a way that you may be more likely to maintain.
Here’s another example. Let’s say you are a parent who has one resolution to get more physically fit and another to connect more closely with your kids.
What if you took the kids with you when you went grocery shopping, and you all went on push bikes? You can get the shopping done, get a dose of exercise, and have an outing with the kids, all at once.
I know. It depends on lots of things like how far you live from where you go shopping, what the traffic is like, and how old your kids are. But hopefully you get the general idea; you can insert your own specific examples.
When you plan how you’re going to reach your goals, look for ways of creating a habit or routine that meets all of the following criteria:
- you enjoy it, or it is at least painless,
- it fits into or supports other areas of your life, the more the merrier, and
- if you keep it up, it will eventually bring you to your goal. Maybe even several goals.
Focus on the process, the journey, and you will by default arrive at the destination, or at least closer to it than you are now.
Conversely, if you focus on the goal, you'll be constantly reminded that you are not there yet and that the actions needed to get you there are boring, repetitive, uncomfortable… and then it won’t be long before other, more urgent, things start pushing your important goal aside.
Choosing your story by how you chase your goals
There are three reasons for considering taking up goal attainment the easy way.
The first is that it works a lot better than the hard way.
The second is that it’s more fun, or at least less painful.
The third is that how you go about reaching for your goals shapes, and is shaped by, your story.
In Part 1 of this Series I said that if we agree to a story that says we live in a hostile world where more for you is less for me, then it will be logical for us to want to amass resources rather than share them, to use them up quickly before someone else does, to put profits before communities or species or wetlands or forests.
But you don’t have to choose to live in that kind of story. You can choose instead to align yourself with a story that says there is plenty to go around and there’s no need for conflict1.
Envisioning and living a story in which there is compassion and cooperation instead of judgment and conflict begins with how we handle ourselves.
If your self-talk (conscious or not) runs along the lines of, “You lazy slob, you could do it if you would just try a bit harder, have a bit more will power, be a bit more motivated,” that’s a major red flag that you are still relying on force to get things done in your own life.
If your internal dialogue says “Hurry up. Time is running out. Try harder, there’s no gain without pain,” you’re still living in a world of scarcity.
As within, so without. If we want to live in a different story, we first have to embody it ourselves – to “be the change we want to see in the world.”2
Getting to your goals requires consistent habits that build toward the goal over time, moment by moment (remember that, from Part 2?).
There are two ways to maintain your habits consistently. One is to make them enjoyable, which we’ve just covered; the other is to make them small and easy, which we’ll cover in Part 8.
Before we get to making them small and easy, we’re going to talk about planning them into your life in ways that make them much easier to stumble into, even on a bad day. That’s coming up in Part 7.
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References and Resources
My favorite goal setting technique or strategy is Holistic Decision Making, based on the work of Alan Savory and his book, Holistic Management. I follow the process laid out in these three articles. I highly recommend it.
I learned about focusing on the habits and the process, steps, or systems that will get you to the goal, rather than on the goal itself, from James Clear in his book, Atomic Habits.
- One of the reasons it’s not easy to choose a new story is because of something called “confirmation bias” – the human tendency to selectively take in only information that supports our pre-existing beliefs. But once you know that confirmation bias exists, you can watch for it in yourself and pay attention to your resistance to new ideas, new stories. Attention is always the first and most important step; its amazing what can flow on from there.
- No, I don’t think it was Ghandi who said this. But I do think he would have agreed with it.