If you set your mind to it, you can achieve most short-term goals, like losing weight in a few months. Future targets are much more difficult, like where you see yourself three years down the line. Before you set off on these long-term goals, it’s good to know what pitfalls you can expect and mentally prepare for them.
Some people (like Dilbert creator Scott Adams) believe that you should only set short-term goals. But I’ve found that having a long-term goal helps me be clear about what I want to achieve and thus put in effort accordingly. However, because the time involved is so long, the problems that crop up can’t be easily planned for. It helps to know what to expect and prepare yourself mentally for them.
The “What Happened to Them Won’t Happen to Me” Phase
The will to achieve a seemingly impossible goal comes out of a place that makes us think we’re special. That’s good, and you should harness it. Unfortunately, the other side of the coin is that you think others’ struggles won’t apply to you—and it’s very easy to fall into that mental trap. At this time, it’s good to take a lesson from Fight Club:
You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake.
You will face many of the same hurdles as other people. You will falter like they did. And you’ll look like an idiot for not heeding their advice. That’s okay. It’s part of the process. Just don’t be disheartened by it. The danger of a bruised ego is you think you should now follow whatever advice they give.
With the first few failures, you will have a tendency to correlate things. Your mind tells you that if you failed in the way someone else failed, then you will have the same experiences going forward as they did. That’s not how it works, so resist the urge to draw that parallel.
Recognize the reality of the situation, which is that your failure was similar to someone else’s. Use that and get tips from them on how to overcome that failure. But don’t think that the rest of your experiences are going to be the same.
The “Why Am I Doing This?” Phase
I’ve found the best way to keep going is to define the real reasons you want to achieve your goals. The trick here, as performance managers Avidium write, is to focus on your inner drive and not the results of the goals:
Focus on why it’s really important to you to achieve this goal. Your reasons could stem from a huge challenge, from your pain, someone else’s pain, an image, etc.
Think hard, and make these reasons as emotional as possible, as we are all driven by our emotions, no matter how rational we think we are. Be careful not to focus on benefits here… Instead, simply list why it’s important for you to achieve this result.
In other words, weight loss may be your goal because “It will make me healthy.” But think hard and introspect. This is for you alone, so if the inner drive comes from “I want to feel attractive,” admit that to yourself.
The “It’s Harder Than I Thought” Phase
A long-term goal shouldn’t be something easy—it’s a marathon. And it’s easy to fall for a common mistake first-time marathon runners make: doing too much too fast at the start. You see, you are buzzing when you set that goal and begin the journey. You feel positive energy and you get caught up in it. But after that initial high wears off, you fall into routine and the enormity of the task stares you in the face—make no mistake, this is an intimidating sight.
For example, I was working on a web site launch and the first few months were a blast. We set high targets and achieved them. But our larger goal was still far away. Reality sunk in after the first few months, when it was “just another day at work.”
In order to turn vague goals into actionable items, you have to break them down into smaller goals. As the article advises, set milestones of three, six or twelve months by looking at your big goal and your own work style. You will probably be over-ambitious in these small goals, so set them, sleep over it, and revisit them—preferably with someone who knows how you work, so you have realistic targets.
The next step is crucial: Stick to those goals and those alone. Don’t work so fast that you achieve your six-month target in three months. The New York Times writes about a “10-10-10 rule” for marathons that you should emulate:
The Central Park Track Club coach Tony Ruiz and co-founder Mr. Handelman preach the “10-10-10” method of compartmentalizing the marathon. Run the first 10 miles below your predetermined race pace. Run the second at race pace. And then go all out (with whatever you have left) in the final 10 kilometers (6.2 miles).
“The whole key to this style of racing is that it will allow you to conserve energy for the latter stages,” Mr. Ruiz said.
So if your goal’s deadline is a year, divide it into four month slots. A “race pace” will be difficult to determine exactly, but you should have a general idea of your speed of work based on your past.
The “I Can’t Deal With All These People” Phase
It is difficult to keep a long-term goal completely private. You interact with people every day, and they notice what you’re doing. I’ve found that the best approach is to be open and honest about your goals.
Harness the power of your well-wishers, whether in the form of a support group, a mate with the same objectives, or people to keep you in check. Our guide on achieving goals in public tells you everything you need to know about this process.
The offshoot of being open about your goal is two sets of people: naysayers and over-enthusiastic supporters—just like with anything else in life.
Naysayers can be difficult at first. There’s a lot of negativity and it can make you doubt your goals and intentions. Celestine Chua of Personal Excellence says you should change your perspective to understand why they are pulling your goal down:
It’s because they’re actually scared themselves. Because they’ve never done what you’re trying to do, they’re scared that you’ll succeed. They’re scared that if you succeed, it’ll show that they have been wrong about life all this while, and that they should be taking action when they aren’t. They’re scared to discover that they’ve been undermining their potential and wasting their lives all this while. It’s unfortunate for them, but you need to remember that these are their fears, not yours, and there’s no reason why you should own their fears about your goals.
I find Chua’s reasoning a bit extreme, but I advocate the empathetic approach of understanding a naysayer’s fear. That perspective shift helped me tremendously when I quit my last job in the pursuit of admittedly far-fetched goals. Once you have that, it’s up to you address them as you see fit. Zen Habits has some good advice on the different approaches to deal with these detractors.
On the flip side of naysayers are those well-wishers who take a personal interest in your success. Let’s face it, it’s awesome to have these people. Their enthusiasm rubs off on you when you’re down. Invariably, you turn to them when you need support or advice. The thing is, when you falter or don’t heed their advice, they can take it hard.
Again, understand where they are coming from and why they are so invested in your goals. Whether it’s for the vicarious joy of success or a genuine desire to see you do well, you should cultivate these relationships. My favorite approach has been to take them along for the ride. As we’ve already discussed, you need to be ready for the small failures; that usually involves an internal dialogue of telling yourself failures are bound to happen and you need to get off the mat. Talk them through that internal dialogue—don’t give the short moral, put the whole internal dialogue out there. Baring your thoughts and soul is hard, but it’s worth it for the support of these people; over time, they learn to rationalize their expectations just as you have.
The “Ugh, I Just Don’t Want to Do This Any More” Phase
Love is a strong word that has lost some of its meaning due to overuse. But in achieving a long-term goal, you need to fall in love with the regular routine to get there. This is the hardest part of making it to your objective.
Here’s the thing. Long-term goals invariably come with doing some tasks repeatedly, whether it’s hitting the gym or tracking your daily expenditure. It’s boring. It becomes mechanical to a point where you say, “One miss won’t hurt.” Your mind tricks you into that cheat. And there’s no trick to make this easy in the long term, like tying that routine to a reward. The thing you need to do, James Clear writes, is figure out a process that you truly love doing for the sake of the process alone:
But if you look at the people who are consistently achieving their goals, you start to realize that it’s not the events or the results that make them different. It’s their commitment to the process. They fall in love with the daily practice, not the individual event.
Fall in love with boredom. Fall in love with repetition and practice. Fall in love with the process of what you do and let the results take care of themselves.
Clear makes it seem simple, but know that this is much more difficult than it sounds. Much like you don’t love an important person in your life for a set of reasons, you can’t love the process for reasons. It’s about an inner desire to do that process, whether the reasons and results exist or not. There’s no secret sauce here. You have to be mindful about this feeling and keep altering your process till you get it right. But once you do, it’s smooth sailing.