On Achieving Goals
Most of us have goals in our lives. We want to lose weight, learn a new skill, or achieve something that's out of our current reach.
It's important to have goals, but it's just as important to have a path for them. The path is usually made up of more immediate, smaller versions of the larger goal that put us on the right trajectory. We tend to work the rest out along the way as we interact with reality and learn what works and what doesn't.
In my own life I often reflect on my long-term goals and try to evaluate whether I'm happy with my progress. It's not enough for me to be content simply due to my effort. It is far more important that I make progress. There should be a link between the two, but not necessarily. Effort alone is merely energy spent. It can be spent well or poorly.
From deciding to change my body and my professional aspirations, to deciding to speak an invented language fluently and then travel with it, I've learned a few things about achieving my own long-term goals. Here's what I think matters the most:
By "motivation" I don't mean a motivational speech, or a good role model. Those things do help me from time to time, but I need a deeper reason to keep me going. I need a belief in the goal. An intrinsic motivation.
With an intrinsic motivation to achieve a given goal, moments of low energy or distraction can't alter my intent. In those moments I can rely on self-discipline to keep me in motion because I believe in what I'm doing, even when the path becomes more difficult for whatever reason.
The consequence of this is that I choose long-term goals very carefully. I spend a lot of time thinking about a goal before deciding to dedicate my time and energy to it.
If I'm unsure, it's not a goal. Instead, I consider the endeavour an experiment. I commit to an experiment long enough to learn more about it. Perhaps it'll turn into a goal afterwards, but I don't treat it like one until it is. I'm happy to let it flow in and out of my life as much as feels fun and natural.
With long-term goals, any version of "achieved" requires measurable progress than can often take a long time to come through.
While this property of long-term goals can be frustrating to some, I personally find it hugely motivating. Goals that have a cost in time (time being my most valued asset) are more difficult, because consistency is difficult. I can't sidestep or cheat consistency. I have to find the right motivation and I have to put in the time.
To do that over a long period means encountering difficult moments where I have low energy, focus, or time, and yet I must maintain enough consistency to see progress.
Just as eating badly doesn't immediately make me overweight, but will have that effect in time, achieving a long-term goal requires that same, steady consistency. Lots of small steps compound, but each are required. Consistency is the fuel for progress.
While to progress is to remain consistent in terms of frequency, progress is slowed, or in some cases plateaued, by a consistent effort. The reason is because we adapt and improve. Our adapted selves are tested less with the same effort that got us to that adaptation.
In the fitness world we use the term "progressive overload" in this context. When starting out, whatever weight I lift is a change from zero to the weight itself. My body, however, will become stronger and eventually will not be taxed the same way by the same weight.
The key to progress is to figure out when you've adapted, and to change your approach to keep breaking through those adaptations.
While this sounds more like a physical thing, adaptation occurs in the mind too. Once I've been exposed to enough foundational ideas in a given subject, I could keep going wider and wider, learning more of the secondary and tertiary concepts, or I could go deeper and push to the next level. By going deeper, I'm once again out of my depth and staring progress right in the eye.
When I first started learning a language, understanding how a verb was different to an adverb, or why some required knowledge of an object was a huge amount to deal with in my head. Once those concepts became clearer, I was able to use them to go deeper – "Okay, so what's a participle? Verbs have aspect, what's that? Why do we even need verbs, do any other languages describe action without them?"
To make progress, you need consistency and to keep upping the pace. You're getting better all the time, so up the work rate to stop yourself from slowing down.
With any long-term goal, a lot of time will pass between the initial moment of "Okay, I'm doing this!" to any sense that you've achieved what you set out to achieve.
In that time you'll need to weather difficult moments where, despite your intention, discipline and motivation, the world just has another plan for you that week.
We're not robots, and a small blip is no big deal, but it is a small deal. Be accountable. Recognise when you're not being true to your virtues, when you're not earning your results.
Having other people to be accountable to for your own goals can help, but remember that it's you with the belief and intrinsic motivations in your goals. Nobody should care more than you do. It's to you that you need to be accountable.
Be honest with yourself if you can try harder, and then try harder. Similarly, be honest if you can't, and realise that you're doing what you need to be doing, it's enough, and goals take time. Trust in your consistency and progress will compound.
I try to imagine myself stepping outside my body and commenting on what I see without any emotion attached. I imagine I'm commenting on someone I don't even know, according to my own fair judgement of their approach, their effort, and their results.
It helps me distance myself from feeling guilty or shamed, and instead use that character as a mentor to guide me to be better in whatever needs improving.
It's a fun exercise if you've never tried it. The bonus is that you can't even hate your alter ego mentor because they're you, and they really know what they're talking about for the same reason.