Long Term Goals are like arseholes; it’s good to have one but best not to go on about it
This is the time of year when I often lose heart halfway through writing a sentence about what time of year it is. As has happened once again. You see, I find the entire period of Christmas, New Year, and that magical month of January in which apparently we have permission to change who we are, a strange and unsettling time.
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
It may well be my inner contrarian (no, don’t argue, I know what I am) at work. As Mark Twain noted: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” But for the most part, I think it’s that this time of year feels, often, that it contains within it a collective form of self-delusion of which we have all agreed somehow to be a part
During the eight weeks or so from the point at which it becomes a social faux pas to refuse to eat a mince pie to the moment when it becomes a bit strange to wish someone a happy new year, a certain madness takes hold. People splurge cash on things they don’t need, trying not to think about the impact this is having on their bank balance, and gorge themselves on food and drink, attempting similarly to ignore how this very act will render the new jeans they were bought for Christmas unwearable deep into February.
Then comes the final part of the great denial trifecta: New Year’s Resolutions. This is when we plan things for the new year that we’ve been diligently not doing for the prior 365 days. Seems legit, right?
In fact, the very premise is flawed. The overblown nature of this time of year alongside the strange assertion that the transition from one year to another is any more significant than when Wednesday turns to Thursday, alongside the desire to make dramatic changes in public, makes a New Year’s Resolution the perfect template for studying why we fail to change.[clickToTweet tweet=”New Year’s Resolutions – the perfect template for studying why we fail to change” quote=”New Year’s Resolutions – the perfect template for studying why we fail to change”]
NYRs are built on the idea that if you make a wish and your heart is pure then magical things can happen. Which makes for fine Disney movies. But in real life, if you want to ensure a goal is never met then these are some of the ways you can make that happen:
- Make them virtuous
- Make them public
- Make them big and dramatic
But first a note on timing.
How often do you say something like this to yourself?
“I do want to get into shape but there’s no point doing it now because it’s my birthday in two weeks and that’ll ruin my diet.”
There’s never a perfect time to do something
If you want to get something done, if you really mean to make it happen, then this sort of excuse won’t even enter your mind. There’s never a perfect time to do something. But the deeper problem with NYRs is that we’ve waited until January to begin.
Think about it this way – if you have an itchy foot do you sit and think about how you’ll really enjoy itching that foot in a few weeks time or do you stop as soon as possible and whip off your shoe to get at it?
It stands to reason that plans that you’ve put off until a later date, like January, then you probably weren’t particularly motivated by it in the first place. Like the member of staff that is always available to attend your meetings because nobody else wants him in their’s, a goal you’ve stored away until this special time of year is probably one you’re more than willing to put off again.
But what if you genuinely do mean to do something about changing your life? What then?
The Virtuous Change
NYRs are usually something virtuous. We plan to do things that other people would approve of. Things that are socially praiseworthy.
We plan to do things that other people would approve of
According to NBC News who used Google search data to come up with their list, the most common goals for the new year are:
- Get healthy
- Get organised
- Live life to the fullest
- Learn new hobbies
- Spend less/save more
- Travel more
- Read more
Could anyone disagree with any of these? In fact, these are suspiciously broad, are they not? I mean, this is the list of things we would probably want to be able to say we have already achieved in our online dating profiles.
And that, you see, is where we trip up.
While many of these are probably deeply held desires, they are also full of ‘should’. We believe these are the things we should want. So how often are our NYRs more a list of things we believe other people would praise us for and how often are they things we actually want?
Item number seven is perhaps the most conspicuous. To read more one need do nothing other than sit down and pick up a book. If you really wanted to read more, wouldn’t you already be doing it?
This leads on to the next issue:
The Public Declaration of Change
Because most of our NYRs are, in fact, a form of propaganda designed to make people think we’re more virtuous than we are, it follows that the public declaration element of a given goal is part of that effort. Everyone makes these big statements and then we all feel like better people. It’s like magic.
Publicly stating your goals might actually make it less likely that you will succeed
In a 2009 study at NYU it was learned that the act of publicly stating your goals might actually make it less likely that you will succeed. And this, it seems, comes down to that very magical property noted above; it makes us feel like we’ve already achieved something and thus reduces our subsequent effort.
This runs counter to the received wisdom that telling people what you plan to do will make you feel a social pressure to act on it but the reason is pretty clear. If you tell someone who matters, and someone impartial, that you intend to do something they will hold you to it. But during the NYR madness, however, we all know, deep down, that this goal isn’t a real one. It’s a NYR. It’s a social convention. If we all went around holding one another to the goals we set while drunk at
If we all went around holding one another to the goals we set while drunk at 3am on January the 1st that would take all the fun out of it.
But maybe you actually want to achieve your goals? Maybe you’re playing this game but you didn’t know the rules. We’ll come to that.
The Big, Dramatic Change
The dirty secret that nobody likes to admit is that big, dramatic changes, when seen from within, always turn out to be a lot of small, mundane changes standing on one another’s shoulders like children in a cartoon trying to gain access to an R rated movie.
NYRs have to be big and dramatic because they’re a piece of social theatre
NYRs have to be big and dramatic because they’re a piece of social theatre, like democracy. We all know it’s essentially a lie but the lie is what keeps it all functioning. But unlike democracy, you can actually do something about this. You can play the game and still get what you want. You just need to know you’re playing it and then use the rules to your advantage.
1. Don’t wait until the right time
As noted above, if you genuinely want to do something then begin. Don’t wait until some special time. Remember the itch in the shoe. If your goals don’t make you want to move right now, even at the expense of giving up what you’re presently doing, then they’re not goals you care about.
2. Make your goal authentic
Stop worrying about what other people expect of or want from you. If you find yourself thinking about how you “should” do this or that then you’re in the wrong place entirely. What do you really want? Find the ‘why’ of your life and follow it, even if nobody gets it.
3. Make your plans boringly achievable
Lofty goals are wonderful things but if you’re lucky you’ve got two hands, one brain and about 17 hours of consciousness a day. Steps need to fit within your abilities as they are. So your plan should be utterly boring. And it should be open to change. This makes for terrible party talk but then that’s not a problem if you follow point four.
4. Keep it to yourself
Your life is not a spectator sport. Get this clear in your mind. If you feel the need to sex up your plans and goals to achieve some sort of shallow praise from passing acquaintances then that’s what you’re making your life into. You’re worth more than that.[clickToTweet tweet=”Advice on resolutions: ‘Your plan should be utterly boring. And it should be open to change'” quote=”Your plan should be utterly boring. And it should be open to change.”]
If you want to share your goals then have a reason for it. Enlist the help of a trusted mentor or coach, a friend or loved one who will tell you when you’re slacking off and keep you honest about your intentions. This is not for their entertainment but for your benefit.
Talk less, do more.
Now all this is said and done you might feel the urge to actually make a change. If you’re not Natalie Portman then you are, by definition, not perfect. So I would applaud your desire to improve yourself. But don’t do it because you feel like you should and, please, don’t make a big noise about it.
Think for a moment about something you want. Decide how you will get there and then take the first step. Then, tomorrow, do exactly the same thing.
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