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Why You Don't Have to Worry About Achieving Goals Anymore

Goal achievement is what you do, you can't help it.

Key points

  • We're always achieving one goal or another. But achieving some goals means not achieving others.
  • Some goals have to be accomplished so that other goals can be reached
  • Your daily conduct can provide clues to the goals that are important.

I once had a goal to run a marathon. I’ve always been fairly active and regularly played various sports such as tennis or squash. I’ve also been an occasional runner. When I was routinely completing three-mile runs, I wondered how amazing it must be to be able to run six miles. Without even meaning to or being completely aware of it happening, a goal to run six miles was registered. In just a few months, six miles had become my new standard.

At some point, I heard about these things called “half-marathons”. It seemed preposterously outrageous to me that people could run nonstop for 13.1 miles. As time went on, I found myself considering the ludicrous idea of completing one of these 13.1-mile events. You know what’s coming. A few months later, there I was running down the blue carpet across the finish line.

Apparently, I couldn’t help myself. At one point, my family and I had the opportunity to spend six months living in the exquisitely beautiful setting of New Hampshire. Our sojourn coincided with the time the New York Marathon was being held. The notion of running for 26.2 consecutive miles was a ridiculously irresistible challenge. I made all the necessary arrangements, pounded out the recommended miles in training, and completed the event along with about 53,000 other runners and hordes of spectators.

These anecdotes illustrate a number of goals I set, pursued, and achieved. What I realised while I was wrapping up the 26.2-mile goal, however, was that nailing this goal meant I had to let other goals slide. Going for three-hour runs on the weekend including preparing for the run and recovering from it later, eroded a significant amount of time when I could have been doing other things. A lot of my decisions during the week in terms of where I went, what I ate, and when I went to bed, were also affected. On top of that, there were shorter runs during the week that took up time as well.

I realised as I was bagging my marathon goal, that there were other goals that were more important. I now know I can complete a marathon. I’d just rather spend my time doing other things.

Oxime/ID: 8508854/@123RF
Source: Oxime/ID: 8508854/@123RF

Goal achievement is always a trade-off. Achieving one goal – such as running 26.2 miles – means you can’t achieve other goals – such as a Sunday morning lie-in and breakfast with the family. And on the flip-side, savouring your achievement of the Sunday morning lie-in means you miss catching the early morning waves or getting home from your run before the sun gets too hot.

Paradoxically, while goal-achieving involves trade-offs, it is, at the same time, a coordinated symphony in which more complex goals recruit simpler goals to enable them to materialise their effects. In fact, there is a hierarchical order to things so that the accomplishment of some goals is a prerequisite to grasping other goals. Achieving any particular goal you devise requires that other goals are also bagged. To get out on that run means I have to achieve goals of waking up on time, getting my clothes ready, putting my shoes on, being sufficiently hydrated, and so on.

Do you have some goals you set for yourself yet fail to achieve? Perhaps you’ve taken out a gym membership but, after a few sweaty weeks, you’re finding it harder and harder to make the time to get there. Or maybe there’s a habit you want to change that seems particularly reluctant to vanish. You say you’d love to learn another language but, somehow, you just never get to the classes.

Failing to achieve a goal often just means another goal is being satisfied instead. We can’t help but make and achieve goals. That’s how we’re designed. Disasters and disease can certainly interfere with things but, for the most part, the business of living is a ceaseless round of creating and maintaining goal states. Some of these we achieve with very little effort. Body temperature is a goal state that seldom needs extra attention. Others require a great deal of concentrated and sustained focus. Balancing the budget so that monthly expenses don’t exceed the available income can be a constant chore.

Whenever you’re frustrated or despondent about the goal you let slip, it could be illuminating – and even fun – to reflect on what goal you did achieve. Did skipping sessions at the gym mean that you got to spend more time with your friends? When you broke your latest diet did that mean you could re-experience those tastes and feelings you’d been missing? Can you still recall how amazing it was to caress your senses again in that way?

Discovering and finding out about the goals you are achieving when it seems like you’ve flunked out again, on the goal at the front of your mind, can tell you a lot about yourself and the things that are important to you. Sometimes, it’s almost as though things are important even when we don’t want them to be. Focussing on those things, in particular, can be profoundly instructive.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is reported to have said: Your actions speak so loudly, I can not hear what you are saying.

Pay attention to your behaviour. What do you find yourself doing day after day? That will give you some clues about the goals that are really leading the way and shaping your life even if you don’t want to admit that they are.

Becoming more familiar with the goals that define and describe you will put you in a commanding position to revise any goals that need tweaking. It might even help you become more familiar with the you you find out about and let you enjoy the life you are creating.

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