It’s fun to imagine achieving big, ambitious, goals. Such images stoke the flames of passion and motivation. Realistic? That’s not nearly as fun or inspiring. As Tim Ferriss says in The Four-Hour Work Week: “Having an unusually large goal is an adrenaline infusion that provides the endurance to overcome the inevitable trials and tribulations that go along with any goal. Realistic goals, restricted to the average ambition level, are uninspiring and will only fuel you through the first or second problem, at which point you throw in the towel.” The concept of realistic has both objective and subjective components. The objective part deals with plausibility and probability. The subjective component –the one I speak to here—is emotional and relative. When it comes to determining realistic, one size doesn’t fit all. One person’s realistic is another person’s exciting ambition, and yet another’s walk in the park.
Having big goals is exciting and motivating. I have created, embraced, and gotten all fired up about such goals. And that’s a good thing. However, there is a challenge I keep encountering that has become a pattern and has actually repeatedly foiled my attempts at achieving my big goals. The challenge is that I get fired up about an unrealistic goal and then set out on an unrealistic path to get there. Unlike the goals themselves, unrealistic paths sabotage efforts. This has been borne out in my experience. For example, I have perennially set out to lose around 20 pounds, which seems like a big goal to me. I create a strict (unrealistic) plan that requires lots of planning and a will of iron. If I can somehow manage to adhere to the plan perfectly, I am bound to reach my goal. But there’s the rub. Rigorous research has yielded compelling and plentiful evidence that will power is a finite resource that fatigues much like a muscle does with use. On a perfect day, when everything goes my way perfectly, I can adhere to my oh-so-noble, stringent plan. However, as demands on my time and emotional, physical, and mental resources mount, my plan goes by the way side. So I crash not too far into my grandiose plan — indeed, a perfect example of the perfect’s being the enemy of the good. Each time this pattern happens, my own credibility with myself erodes a little more. I know that putting together a more modest realistic plan that makes use of what I know about habit formation would make success more likely – a plan that slowly and steadily builds momentum. It would take longer than following the stringent plan. But since my efforts on the stringent plan always end up falling short, longer is better than never. This is where the whole idea of kaizen (or continuous gradual improvement) comes into play. As Darren Hardy writes in The Compound Effect, small, smart choices consistently applied over time create huge results.
How do I apply kaizen to my goal of losing 20 pounds? I would gradually add one tactic to my strategy at a time, not adding another one until the each preceding one is well established and easy.
It could look something like this:
- Slow down eating (chewing 20 – 30 times per bite)
- Refrain from eating at desk, in front of TV, or while driving
- Log food intake, without measuring or tracking calories and/or carbohydrates
- Plan and abide by menus with targeted carb counts
- Plan and abide by menus with targeted carb and calorie counts
- Gradually add more activity and adjust food intake as needed.
I encourage you to conceive a big, exciting and ‘unrealistic’ goal and then devise an incremental, gradual path to achieve it.