How To Not Be The 92% That Gives Up On Goals In 2016

It’s January 1st, 2016, and you’ve got a new year ahead of you.

12 months, 52 weeks, 366 days, 86400 of non-renewable seconds in the day’s bank account — all day every day. What are you going to do with all that time?

Perhaps you’ve thought about it: your New Year’s Resolutions. It’s as big as a cliche as it is a yearly recurring tradition. According to research I randomly pulled from Google, 45 percent of Americans usually make new year’s resolutions (2015). Only 8 percent is successful in achieving those goals.

A study by psychologist Richard Wiseman (University of Bristol, 2007), of 3000 individuals, showed that 88 percent of resolution makers do not achieve their goals.


A Year Is A Bad Metric

Before we can get those resolutions and goals unstuck, we need to look at the facts around it. Stan Leloup, a hustling online entrepreneur, explains why he’s moved away from New Year’s Resolutions:

“I just finished planning the next year, and all my goals have the same deadline : October 11th 2015.
Why not December 31st ?
The reason is that I realized a long time ago that the change in calendar year is not a meaningful enough event to build your life systems around.”

Leloup is a frequent traveler and attends DCBKK, the annual conference of digital nomad community Dynamite Circle, every year. Instead of attributing his achievements to a random old-to-new December 31st, he decided to set the DCBKK event date as the year’s deadline. The event, which takes place over a weekend, is a sensible landmark to start and end the year with.

He says: “This works because I can visualize myself at this event next year.” Stan makes his deadlines meaningful by connecting them with a theme and event that matches and complements the goal.

Life Is A Journey

A quote often attributed to 19th century poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson is this:

“Life is a journey, not a destination.”

Our Western society is extremely result-driven. Parents, peers, bosses and spouses only seem to care about results. From an early age we’re compared with normality, expected growth and development rates, scores of peers, and nation-wide averages.

Major depression is the no. one psychological disorder in the Western world. According to research, “people born after 1945 were ten times more likely to suffer from depression than people born 50 years earlier.” A determining factor, according to the study, is that we focus more on the self and less on our communities.

In recent years, a lot of research is done in the field of happiness. The happiest world country in 2015, Switzerland, scores a good 7.59 out of 10, according to the World Happiness Report (2015). It appears to show a strong correlation between happiness and Gross National Product (GNP). Countries with a high GNP like Switzerland, Norway, Denmark are happier, which means happiness is loosely connected to quality of life. But, given the rise in depression, a more interesting question is: Are we getting happier?

A poll conducted by Ipsos in 2012, research cited by TIME and the Economist, shows that we’re happier than we were in 2007. Despite the economic recession, unrest in the Middle East, and the start of the Euro crisis, we’re getting happier. About 77% of 19.000 respondents described themselves as “happy”, +3 percentage points compared to 2007, 22% said they were “very happy”, a +2 points increase.

Strangely, the same research shows that Europeans drag the global average assessment of happiness down as only one in six says they’re “very happy”. In countries often regarded as “developing” by the West, like Indonesia and India, respectively 51% and 43% of people reported being “very happy”.

It’s incredibly hard to quantify happiness. Being happy means a lot of different things for each of us. As our lives, for ourselves and in our societies, pass through different stages, different things make us happy. Perhaps it’s even true, just like with our sense of “freedom”, that we can only define happiness if we don’t have it.

In that regard, happiness is a journey and not a destination. Even if you’ve only been happy with very distinct parts of your life, and had very tangible experiences, the happiness must have been something you could surround yourself with. It wasn’t a checkbox you ticked.

Given that your plan to set goals for yourself is based on the ultimate goal of improving your life, you could say that the goal is not the reward, but the journey is. Just like with happiness, it’s the experience of traveling towards your goal that makes it rewarding.

Happy Gum For Your Crappy Life

How Goals Don’t Work

Setting and keeping goals isn’t easy. Between starting to work on a goal, and ultimately getting it, is a world of struggle. Let’s take a look at some goal crushers you’re perhaps familiar with.

  • Making a list that’s too big. You’ve set the bar extremely high for yourself. Not only to you work on your weight, bad habits and unhealthy relationship, you’re also going to found the next Facebook.
  • You’re too pessimistic about your goals. “Realism” for you means you underestimate what you’re capable of, and overestimate how much effort it takes. As a result, you’re not only undermining your potential, but you’re also more likely to fail thanks to not being challenged enough.
  • You’re too optimistic about your goals. Just like you can be too pessimistic, you can be too optimistic too. You underestimate the effort it takes to get where you want to be, and you overestimate your own control of the outcome. Being too optimistic is almost worse than being a pessimist: at the first sign of trouble you run and hide, because this wasn’t at all what you expected.
  • You’re too realistic. It’s said that your next breakthrough is probably not in the field or situation you’re currently in. By being too realistic, you limit your potential. Instead of aiming for a ten times life improvement, you’re betting on a 10% life improvement. Said different: you’re not progressing very quickly.
  • You worry. As if achieving your goals wasn’t hard enough already! Instead of keeping a positive mental attitude you cloud your judgement and sense of self-worth with unnecessary worries about the future, and with regrets of the past. You beat yourself up over not sticking to a new habit every single day, and you tell yourself “You can’t do it” because of arbitrary reasons.
  • You reward yourself prematurely. Immediately after your goal pops up in your head, you tell a friend about it. Driven by the chemical high of a future achievement you lose yourself in dreaming up how great you’re going to be when you get there, forgetting that you haven’t boarded that train yet. In a society where quick rewards are ubiquitous, we find ourselves very unable to delay gratification.
  • You never celebrate. The flipside of premature reward means you never celebrate. Instead of having a small imaginary party for a (partial) achievement you either long for the next big thing, or you knife yourself in the gut for not getting to your goal flawlessly.

You’ll Be Poor For A Thousand Days

According to Dan and Ian from lifestyle design podcast Tropical MBA, you’ll be poor for a thousand days when first starting out with a location-independent business. In the blog post, Dan divides the 1000 days up in 3 years.

  • In the first year, you’re getting up to speed. Everyone thinks you’re crazy, including yourself.
  • In the second year, you’re hustling. It’s like getting from the beach to open water, constantly being pulled under by big waves.
  • In the third year, your work’s getting less bouncy and you’re thinking: “This just might work!”

I think this metric doesn’t only work for online businesses, but for any kind of business and endeavour. In the grind of getting from A to B you’ll get salt water in your eyes for at least a thousand days.

What should you do with that information? As for setting and getting goals, think about it:

  • Acknowledge that your goals aren’t progressing as fast as you thought they would. You’d rather pull your fingernails out one by one than listening to someone who started to learn how to play the piano just the week before. When learning a new skill, we tend to think our ability is much higher than it really is. This illusory superiority is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Don’t let it take you down, instead work with it: accept that you’re learning.
  • 99.999% of people quit. Between underestimating effort and overestimating your abilities, most people just forget about their goals and go on with their lives. Don’t give up. Considering the abundance of our world, the accessibility of education and opportunity, you’d think that everyone would be a genius billionaire by now. The only difference between those who don’t achieve their goals, and those who do, is that the ones who did get there didn’t give up.
  • Plan for a multiple of resolution lifecycles. The really big goals take more than three years to complete, so it’s stupid to cram them all in one year. Just like Stan Leloup (above) asked himself: Why do I set my goals today? You can ask yourself why you think your goals must fit in just one year. It’s equally valuable to plan to be at a desirable place in three years as it is to get there in one.
The Office We All Want?

Don’t Tell Anyone About Your Goals

In a popular TED talk and blog post, Derek Sivers explains how people who tell others about their goals are less likely to achieve them. He says, that once you’ve told people about your intentions, you give yourself a premature sense of completeness.

According to research, we have “identity symbols” in our brains that make up our self-image. Talking about a goal and achieving it both satisfy that self image, which makes us less likely to take steps towards actually getting to the goal.

Unfortunately, the same appears to happen when having success with one goal in relation to the next. We’re reducing our efforts to go to the gym if we’re also eating healthy. You could perhaps argue that we shouldn’t think of ourselfs as goal-getters, but define our identities in the theme of the actual goal: healthy, mindful and enterprising.

Sivers advises:

It may seem unnatural to keep your intentions and plans private, but try it. If you do tell a friend, make sure not to say it as a satisfaction (“I’ve joined a gym and bought running shoes. I’m going to do it!”), but as dissatisfaction (“I want to lose 20 pounds, so kick my ass if I don’t, OK?”)

Break Up Your Goals In Smaller Pieces

In an incredibly awesome TED talk, Scott Geller explains the psychology of self-motivation. Geller explains that we continue to achieve our goals when we feel competent. It keeps you motivated.

In the video, Geller tells the story of how he learned to play the drums as a 10-year-old. When his learning went OK, he was happy and his ability to play the drums improved. When his teacher asks him to learn a drumroll, he fails to master it for weeks on end.

Then, this gem makes it across the stage into the audience:

When you ever get overwhelmed, break it down.

In the story, 10-year-old Geller turns a drumroll into two sets of two beats. A drumroll is fast and requires good timing and precision, but by starting with two times two beats at a time he manages to turn the beats into a solid roll.

When your goals are big and your heart is small, you break it down. Rome wasn’t built in a day, Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple in a day, no one got ripped from one trip to the gym, and so on.

A side effect of breaking down your goals is that they’re easier to accomplish, and easier to plan. You can’t really plan the goal of “Build a business” or “learn to code”, but you can plan the first step: “come up with an idea”, or “learn about variables.” And keep your eye on the prize: you can’t see where you’re going if all you do is stare at your feet.

Be Smart

Perhaps you’ve heard of the acronym SMART. It’s a management-paradigm-turned-cliche and it stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. SMART defines criteria for setting goals and objectives, to make them more achievable.

I think SMART’s a little dry and theoretical, but it’s a good foundation for setting goals. Let’s see what we can do with it.

  • Specific. You can call this clear. Be very clear about what your goals are, and why you want to achieve them. Break them up, plan the tasks that get you to the goal, and stick with them. Visualize the goal: if you want to be “there” in 2 years, what is your life going to be, feel and look like?
  • Measurable. Are you feeling competent while working your way to the goal? Make sure you take enough pauses to enjoy the view, and to celebrate the small steps towards a bigger goal. Focus on that sense of competence, because when you feel you’re able you’re motivated to get further.
  • Achievable. In the strict sense, the A in SMART asks if your goal is attainable. Can you do this? I’m not a big fan of only doing what you’re capable of. Often, we long for things we can’t immediately do. “The sky is the limit” is a devastating attitude for someone who wants to become an astronaut. Rather ask: is this goal really what I want? See if you can find out what you want if you’re not sure. If you want it, and if you feel competent, then you can do anything.
  • Relevant or Realistic. The R in SMART is usually pretty boring: can you get to your goal given your resources? Based on the fact that you’ve got an abundance of resources and opportunity around you, you’d do better by asking: “What resources do I need?” Make a list of things you need to learn, materials you need to get, and people you want help from.
  • Time-bound. This is important: specify when you want to achieve your goals, when you’re working on them, and when you can evaluate your performance. Evaluation doesn’t need to be more than checking where you are, celebrating successes and adapting your course based on new insight. Set your deadline and work with it: at this time in the future, I want to be where I want to get.

Just Do It

The year 2015 launched a very popular meme on the internet: Shia LaBeouf’s “Just Do It”. It conveys a very clear message:

Just do it. Don’t let your dreams be dreams. Yesterday you said tomorrow. […] Some people dream success, when you’re gonna wake up and work hard at it. Just do it!

You can talk extensively about setting yourself up for success, and making sure you achieve your goals. When push comes to shove, you actually have to do it.

Stop reading this article, make a crystal-clear list of the stuff you want to do in the next days, weeks, month and years, be smart, and start working. Don’t tell everyone you meet about your newly found goals, but instead ask for help when you need it.

Search your heart and mind for that feeling of competence, and break up your goals into smaller tasks. Keep in perspective that it’s going to be tough for some time, but don’t lose hope. Savor the journey, and don’t be too hard on yourself.

Being able to set goals is a luxury and a commodity. The world needs people like you, those who have the courage to set the stage of the future, and the heart and the mind to see it through.

Just do it.

Photo credits: Path near Itchen Abbas, Hampshire by Neil Howard

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