Setting goals is often ineffective. Are you still doing your New Year’s resolution? Kudos if you are.

Most of us regularly fail to meet our goals.

You say, “I want to be healthier.” You want to quit smoking, or drinking so much or eating unhealthily. Kinda vague.

To get clearer, you say, “My goal is to lose weight.” You want a body you’re comfortable to walk around in. If you focus on the output of “weight loss,” you fail to focus on the daily input actions of how, what and when you eat.

Typical goals we set involve eating well, being physically fit, having good friendships, making more money, and achieving things (skills, levels, degrees).

Having a goal as an ideal is not a bad thing, though it won’t help you make the right decisions and create habits to get you there.

Goals sit on the horizon and you end up staring at the gap between you and the goal and feeling completely incapable of closing it.

Why is that?

Goals aren’t action plans. At best they are a vision of what you want. Outputs, not inputs.

If your goal is to run a sub three hour marathon, you need daily and weekly actions to get you there.

And whether you admit it or not (probably won’t), your rational mind is more driven by your emotional mind — your body.

Who are you and who do you want to be?

“Who you are now is what you are committed to,” says Benjamin P. Hardy.

Gulp. So, if I enjoy a beer or two a day and I say I want to lose weight, I’m more committed to drinking beer than weighing less? Damn. The desire and consumption of the beer creates a good feeling and I want that feeling. Apparently more than having six-pack abs.

So what are you committed to?

Do a quick inventory of your daily habits. I’ll wait.

That’s what you’re committed to. That’s why you’re where you are. No blame, no shame, just recognize you weren’t zapped into your current identity.

Time for a new commitment

Do you know if you like something before you try it?

When you choose something, if you like it, you’ll probably make the same choice again. Next thing you know, you’ve got yourself a habit. That’s how you got to where you are. Of course, you’ve also created habits as defence responses to avoid, resist or defend yourself from negative experiences.

It’s safe to say we want to create more actions leading us towards what we want rather than away from things we don’t want. More away from actions will leave us stuck.

Let’s say I want to play guitar well. That’s my ideal goal. I see others who play and enjoy it, and I want to experience that as well. I’ll have to live through countless hours of failure and practice to get to the place where playing is effortless and more enjoyable.

Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the Shadow

— T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

Hmm. Let me work on my excuses instead.

Excuse Me

Every single excuse you have is valid, but it won’t get you the results you want. — Vusi Thembekwayo.

With my thoughts I can express what I want to do but I don’t FEEL like doing it. So I’m stuck.

In The Body Keeps Score, Bessel van der Kolk reveals neuroscience research, which identifies two forms of self-awareness we have. One uses language and narrates our autobiographical self in the present moment. The other is based primarily in physical sensation.

The one system we use to tell others our story, our goals, our past. The other system holds how we experienced things deep inside. Our public story and inner experience need to come together for us to function well. We need to become emotionally self aware.

Bring Your Body and Thoughts Together

What you face when you move towards your goal is typically not the thought of the goal, rather a feeling, a sensation, a dread, an excitement, a tension. When you don’t act, it’s because your mind listens to your body and flees or freezes. This is not a fight you are willing to wage, and your body engages its defence mode.

This is a normal response for the body. It’s what it was designed to do. There is nothing wrong with you when this happens.

But “I failed,” you say. And the thought translates in your head, “I’m a failure.”

While you hold that thought, become aware of the feelings in your body, your forward arched shoulders, the tightness in your jaw, the held and shallow breaths, your belly, stiffened.

Deep breath. This is work.

Let’s get moving

Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again. Only this time, get curious with those thoughts holding you back. The feelings and sensations in your body have roots. Explore them. Carefully and kindly.

Find a friend you admire and can be vulnerable with and talk about what you will commit to while listening to the emotional responses in your body.

Focus on gains not goals

If who you are is what you commit to, and you want to be something else, then you’ll need new commitments and habits.

Track your actions towards, not your distance from what you want to achieve.

If you’re stuck knowing what you want to commit to, start with what you want to stop committing to.

You can express these as “I’m not going to” and “I’m going to” statements.”

You can use your “I’m not going to” decision as a stimulus for a “I’m going to” decision.

I’m not going to watch that Netflix series my friends are talking about. I see season 1 is 12 episodes, each around 45 minutes.

I’m going to walk for 45 minutes every day for the next 12 days.

These are decisions you are making for you, not things you think others want you to do or think you should do.

Try this at home

I’m not going to __________________ (use of time, food/drink consumption, recurrent thoughts, excuses…). Check in with how this makes your body feel.

I’m going to _____________________ (use of time, food/drink consumption, recurrent thoughts, excuses…). Check in with how this makes your body feel.

Is what you want right now what you want most?

What is the future you will commit to, one action at a time?

It’s not like I have my shit together. I have a goal of being a writer and I know I can’t get there without writing, so thanks for reading this. If I write, I commit to being a writer.

professional learner, university instructor

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