The Goal Myth

How setting goals can hamper your progress and what to do about it.

Imagine, if you will, a fictional character in a fictional landscape.  Now imagine that individual behaving oddly.

Focus in on the odd behavior for a moment.  The behavior, while odd, is supremely skillful. It is actually the kind of behavior that you imagine your “better self” engaging in. Maybe this behavior is: exercising regularly, volunteering in the community, eating healthy food, being politically active, or simply being more present for others.

The fictional character is an idealized vision of you.  The fictional landscape is the future.

This describes most goals:  a set of desirable, yet unfamiliar behaviors that one hopes to adopt at some point in the future.  It seems like a great way to improve yourself; identify the areas in your life you want to improve upon, then put in place a plan to adopt those behaviors.

The bummer is that once you form a goal, you have already made it harder to achieve.  The reason is simple: there is no fictional character, only you.  And the future has yet to unfold, so there is only now.

The way to remedy this is to BECOME THE PERSON who behaves skillfully NOW.  Once you become the person who ___________(your top goal), then achieving that behavior is non-negotiable.  That behavior is no longer a nice thing that someday you might get around to. It is a MUST.  

Think about some of the things that define you as a person, your: family, career, volunteering, recreation or maybe even politics?  Are the behaviors that make those things a reality in your life negotiable?  I doubt it.  Taking care of your kids is not a goal; it is a must. Excelling at our job is not a luxury; it is a must. Helping people in your community is not something that may happen in the future; it is a must, and it is urgent.  You see the pattern. You do these things because they define WHO YOU ARE.  Apply the same mindset to the things you HOPE can define you and the positive, lasting behavior change has already taken place.          

Here’s an example:  You want to lose 20 lbs.  So you imagine that you want to start exercising.  You think, “yeah, I’ll run on a treadmill* 3 times a week.”  That’s a good goal, right?  But because running on the treadmill is something the future you does at some undefined time in the future, it is easy to fall back into your normal routine.  In other words: the future is a fantasy until you make it real.  To make it real you have to become the one whose normal routine includes running on the treadmill.  

Take action!

Assume immediately (now) the aspect of your identity that includes running on the treadmill.  It does not matter what physical condition you are in presently because we all have opportunity to improve, even in the areas of our lives that define us.  Once you are partly defined as “runner,” running is no longer optional. It is a must.  The details of how all this happens are just matters of taste, education, and practice. You will get good at running through hard work and trial and error.   

Ok, you say, that all makes sense but it seems like this is just a play on words.  Instead of identifying desirable behaviors then working to adopt those behaviors, instead I’m supposed to pretend that I am someone who I am not and then magically I am that person?  That does not sound constructive. It sounds like self delusion.

Perhaps, but the power of this strategy lies in how you relate to the activities that result in success.  If the activities of success are going to be undertaken by a future, fictional self, then they will always be optional and thus likely unfulfilled.  And even if they are realized, it will be through the application of shear willpower and thus fleeting at best.  

Give it a try.

*I only run when I’m being chased so I would switch the activity of running for something more to my individual preferences like weight training, cycling or skiing.

P.S. This approach of reconceptualizing goals as aspects of your identity works best for the big stuff: being healthy, earning a higher income, helping others or learning a new skill.  For the smaller, tasky stuff, goals are great.  For example, answering your emails in 24 hours, maintaining your car or organizing your camping gear.  For that kind of smaller stuff, consider using the S.M.A.R.T. goal approach (if unfamiliar check it out).  

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