Anticipating anticipation, lollygagging, and 3 principles for goal-setting
It’s a snow day here in Toronto — 20+cm down already, most things shut. I’ve always loved snow days and their sudden suspension of plans and productivity. But after nearly two years of Covid, this snow day feels less like a blissful break at Mother Nature’s behest, and more like yet another disruption and scramble in an endless stream of them.
Remember the feeling of looking forward to something? Planning a trip or a concert or an event some weeks or months away, in full expectation it would actually happen? Of course plans got cancelled in the before times, but not predictably so. Mostly, you’d make your plans without spending any mental energy on whether they might be cancelled. There was no plan B, no constant cloud of uncertainty, no unspoken proviso, “of course, this all might be upended.”
Once the snow recedes, school children in Ontario will be returning to in-person learning this week, but it’s hardly a return to predictability. The government might send everyone back to virtual school. Individual schools might close, because of outbreaks, teacher shortages, what have you. If contracting covid isn’t inevitable, certainly isolation from classroom exposure is. Meanwhile all kinds of non-school plans are on hold or cancelled.
I’m certainly not complaining on my own behalf1. There are so many families out there where parents can’t work remotely, or the house isn’t equipped with enough computers or space or internet access, or the adults don’t speak English fluently enough to facilitate virtual school, or there aren’t the resources to hire help. By comparison, we’re well able to cope with whatever disruptions covid throws our way, and we’ll muddle through, as we have done. But nonetheless, I am so tired of living in this constant state of tentativeness and contingency. I want to make plans to do something nice and then look forward to it unequivocally, with blind faith the plans will more or less come to fruition. More than anything, I long for eager, unbridled anticipation — of visits, of outings, of all the experiences outside the four walls of my house.
Principles for Goal Setting
To the surprise of approximately no one, I’m very much a goal-setting type of person. And since January is traditionally a time of goals and resolutions, I thought I’d walk through my approach. There’s certainly no shortage of advice and how-tos on how to set and achieve goals, but I don’t think there’s a single secret decoder key for this stuff — there is just what works for a person and their particular temperament, circumstances, priorities. My approach has evolved over the years, and I find I learn a lot from the process every year. These are three principles I’m striving for as I launch into 2022. Hopefully there’s a useful nugget or two for others.
Up until recently, I ascribed to the ethos of setting goals ambitiously. It’s received wisdom in OKR world2 that you should set objectives so ambitiously that achieving 70% is a good result. And of course ambition is good — there would be little point in setting goals that are trivial to achieve. But I’ve adjusted my thinking a bit from my ongoing forays into self-determination theory3 and its concept of optimal challenge:
“Optimal challenge means facing demands that most often one can master, rather than ones at the leading edge of one’s capabilities….high-difficulty challenge should, however, be an intermittent element, in which case it can enhance and heighten intrinsic motivation [emphasis mine].”
Basically, if we want to stay motivated , we need to satisfy our need for competence, which means that we need to succeed the vast majority of the time. It’s certainly been my experience that if a goal gets too far off track, it’s hugely demoralizing. Case in point: my 2021 goal to complete 5000 minutes of yoga during the year, against which I completed about 3700 minutes. Doing 3700 minutes of yoga in a year might feel amazing if your goal was 3000, but it feels terrible if your goal was 5000. Eventually it feels so terrible that you stop trying altogether.
I think Brené Brown and James Clear articulated a really compelling solution in their recent two-part discussion on Brené’s podcast: choose consistency over intensity. We conflate ambition and achieving goals with this notion of constantly pushing ourselves, but that’s not sustainable. Here’s how James put it on the podcast:
A lot of people think what they need is intensity, but what they really need is consistency. Everybody’s like, “Oh, I want to be a meditator, let me go do a silent meditation retreat.” It’s like actually just meditate for one minute, and let’s do that for a couple of weeks and try to get a foundation built. Or intensity is like running the marathon, consistency is being a runner and showing up every day, even if it’s just running for a little bit.
So for 2022, I’m changing my ill-fated yoga goal in three ways. First, I’m making it a goal to just show up for yoga at the start of every work day. It can be as little as five minutes, but the important thing is to roll out my mat, turn on my yoga app, and do it. Too often last year, I got derailed because I felt like I didn’t have 90 minutes to spare for yoga, and hitting my goal required longer sessions. This year, I’m aiming for consistency, and giving myself credit for just getting started.
Second, instead of relying solely on a big, chunky 2022 yoga goal, I’m formulating my goal as a weekly target. What I’m trying to do there is combat the fourth quarter phenomenon where I lost all motivation for yoga because the goal was so out of reach. Every Monday, I’ll get a clean slate and hopefully a new optimal challenge.
But I am still keeping an annual total minutes goal — my third change is to aim for a more lower total of 2,760 cumulative minutes of yoga in 20224. I’m hoping that this is where the SDT intermittent challenge will come in. I can satisfy my weekly goal with five minutes a day or 25 minutes a week. To get to 2,760, I need to average about an hour a week5. I’m hoping that by having both a daily habit goal and a cumulative annual goal, I will be more motivated to sometimes do a longer practice. I have no idea if that will work, but we’ll see how it goes through the year.
‘Seeing how it goes through the year’ is the most important part of my goals routine. Once upon a time, I used to do a quarterly check-in, but the usual pattern was I had made progress on a handful of the most salient goals, and all the rest garnered, “Oh yeah. I wanted to do that,” followed by continuing neglect.
Over the last year, I’ve gotten religion about checking in on my goals frequently. Anything I only look at once a quarter is actually on my “Someday Maybe” list, and I’m only reviewing it to make sure I’m still okay with making zero progress6. I check into most of my goals daily or weekly, with a few lower-frequency items that I only check into once a month.
I manage all these goals with an app called Strides. It is eye-wateringly expensive as apps go7, but it makes that daily and weekly tracking frictionless. I invest about 30 seconds a day, and perhaps another 2-3 minutes on Sundays, and it keeps all my goals top-of-mind, and all my progress (or lack thereof) tracked and quantified.
I credit daily check-ins for my greatest goal triumph in 2021: walking 10,000 steps every single day. I have worn an activity tracker daily since 2015, and it’s been set with a nominal goal of 10,000 steps that whole time. The result of that passive monitoring was that I achieved my steps goal approximately never. Since switching to daily check-ins in 2021, I have become a dedicated daily walker. Per my step tracker, I walked 50% more than I had in years past, jumping from 2.7-million annual steps to more than 4-million steps.
For me, that happened because those daily app check-ins kept me accountable: I couldn’t fool myself that I was hitting my step goal ‘most of the time.’ Then, once I got on a streak, the steps goal morphed into an optimal challenge. Most days, I find walking for an hour easy and pleasant. But on days when it was -20, or pouring rain, or I was on holiday or on deadline, it was a challenge. Walking consistently when it was easy fuelled motivation when it was hard. Walking on the hard days motivated consistency when it was easy. And now, I guess, I’m a daily walker.🚶♀️
The final thing I’m striving for in my 2022 goals is putting them in context. This is partly inspired by the 'goals content’ sub theory of self-determination theory, which says (amongst other things) that achieving goals only results in improved well-being when those goals are intrinsically motivated. Empirically, psychologists see that goals like money, fame, and image aren’t as motivating, and even if you achieve them, they aren’t very satisfying. The difference between an intrinsic and extrinsic goal is a bit nebulous, but it became more tangible for me when I listened to James Clear talking about “identity-based habits” on that Brené Brown podcast:
Identity-based habits is basically encouraging you to start instead of thinking about the result that you want, or the outcome that you’re trying to achieve, start with the type of person that you wish to become.8
So in 2022, I’ve tried to formulate identity-based goals. Specifically, I want to be the type of person who:
Engages deeply and regularly with new ideas from diverse sources
Prioritizes long-term physical and mental well-being
Makes time and space to nurture relationships with my most cherished people
All my small numerical targets ladder up to those three big identity goals, not unlike an OKR structure. I have long had explicit goals around things like reading and writing; steps, yoga, and sleep; family adventures and checking in with friends. By nesting them under the larger identity goals, the small targets are framed differently, and feel more meaningful.
I also love how this framing encourages me to have a wider variety of targets. I’m a fairly goal-oriented person,9 and the trap I fall prey to is feeling the antsiness of inefficiency if I’m not pursuing some goal, any goal. A less pathological solution would be to just not care so much about the damn goals, but historically, I’ve not had much success with that. By contrast, having goals for things like ‘take my children on outings’ or ‘watch TV,’ or ‘put your phone away for 2 hours at the end of the day’ helps keep some of my Type A-ness at bay. This sounds ridiculous, but what happens is I check in with my goals, see that I’ve made no progress on watching Ted Lasso, and then I go do that. The desire to get the gold star for not looking at my phone (sometimes) overpowers my desire to get a gold start by answering an email.
My hope for you is that you’re not so afflicted with goal-orientation and careerism as to need goals for having fun. But if you do tend that way, as I do, you might find that having a goal of ‘10 summer evening trips for ice cream’ changes your life.
What I’m Working On
Most of the last month has been just glorious vacation: I baked cookies, watched Christmas movies, took boys skating and hiking; I tackled the Globe’s holiday crossword, binged season 11 of Bake-Off10, and indulged in my fair share of infused brandy cocktails. Basically, I spent 3+ weeks not even thinking about work, and I really can’t recommend it highly enough. Wishing you all regular bouts of lollygagging in 2022, interspersed with periods where you’re really smashing it on whatever goals are most important to you.
This latest stint of virtual school has genuinely been no hardship. Licensed childcare remained open, and not only could I send my 3-year old to preschool, they also let my 5-year old join their kindergarten program.
The O in OKR stands for objective, which is the priority you want to achieve. KR stands for the key results you will measure to assess progress against your objective. Normally you set OKRs for important goals that are in danger of being crowded out by urgent tasks and pressing deadlines.
Yes, I’m *still* working my way through this tome. It’s really good, but also I’m ready to be finished and read something new.
That’s right: I’m aiming to 25% less yoga than I did last year. But the amount of yoga I did in the first half of 2021 was very much a function of lockdowns and everything else being shut. I’m hoping to spend a lot more time in 2022 doing things like leaving my house.
I came up with 2760 by assuming I’d have six weeks of vacation (remember the goal is to make yoga a habit every workday!), so it’s an hour every non-vacation week.
The longest standing item on my ‘Someday Maybe’ list is to “learn German” via a series of online courses. It has been on that list for a full decade. I have learned not a single German word.
You can have three goals for free. If you need more (I do), it’s $39.99/year, or $109.99 for a lifetime membership. For me, the lifetime membership is absolutely worth it, but I am also the type of person who exports her goal tracking data to make bar graphs for her Substack, so ymmv.
I haven’t actually read James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, so I’m not sure if he explicitly derives this from self-determination theory, but that was the connection I drew in my head.
She said, by way of understatement.
Technically, this counts as achieving one of my TV-watching goals