I don’t like to be bossed by anyone, not even myself, which is problematic when you are trying to set personal goals. I also hate failing, which makes the whole goal-setting experience very stressful and paralyzing. Every once in a while, I get fired up with ambition and resolve to make some Major Life Changes (capital letters). I’m going to lose weight. Write a book. Clean out the garage. Cook healthful gourmet meals so my family can have a sit down dinner every night. I read books and blogs and articles on how to be a better achiever and make copious notes.
What I discovered is that you can procrastinate FORVER reading about how to set and achieve goals. As it turns out, there is a lot of busy work to get through before you actually start getting your shit together, at least, according to the experts. You can journal about it. You can make a vision board. You can make charts and diagrams and discuss and meditate, and all those things are really good, but they are so much work. And you haven’t even done anything yet! It is usually at some point during this process that I give up, because who has the time? And also did you see all the new shows that just came out on Netflix?
I finally came to a realization: conventional goal setting doesn’t work. Our reptilian brains are wired to resist change – to avoid discomfort. We humans avoid pain and fear. In fact, the fear of failure actually motivates us to stop working toward a difficult goal. On the other hand, our brains also reward us with delicious hits of dopamine as we get closer to achieving a goal. A study on neurophysiology published in Nature in August 2013 suggests that our ability to predict success has a significant effect on our behavior. In other words: if we think we’re going to succeed at a given task, we’ll stick with it, and along the way, our brain rewards us with happy juice.
I have become proficient at tricking myself into accomplishing things by lowering the proverbial goal posts. I don’t feel like working out, but I can do ten crappy minutes on the treadmill. There is no way I can carve out time to write 2000 words a day and finish that book I keep telling myself I will write. But you know what? I can do 500 words a day. 500 shitty words, even. My closet overfloweth to the point where messy doesn’t really cover it and we’re now venturing into the territory of “don’t open the door, we mustn’t make it angry.” That Martha Stewart style makeover isn’t going to happen, but what if I just picked out five items to put in the bag for Goodwill? Piece of cake. This is basically the mental equivalent of “just the tip.”
I’ve come up with three easy steps to fool yourself into getting stuff done:
1. Set small, specific, ridiculously easy goals. Not too many to start. You can always set more later. “I’m going to wash the dishes.” If that’s too much, start with “I’ll just do a few dishes.”
2. Lie to yourself. Sweet talk yourself like you’re on a third date. “I don’t have to file all the bills right now. I’ll just do this one.” Just cuddle with your goal. See how you feel. You can always stop, but if you feel like doing more, go with it.
3. Praise yourself lavishly. “You got the kids to school on time. GOOD for you!” or “You had a healthy lunch. What a superstar you are!” Give yourself stickers if it helps.
Success breeds confidence. Don’t listen to people who roll their eyes and mock you because you are feeling good for achieving your tiny goals. They are poopyheads. YOU are a shower-taking, dish-washing, half-assed exercising rockstar. Keep taking small steps, and one day you’ll look up in surprise and realize that you sweet-talked yourself into doing some pretty amazing things.
What are some of your small goals? There’s no such thing as a goal too small or too ridiculous. Share in the comments!
Photo credit: Berry Hard Work by JD Hancock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.