There is a pattern I’ve noticed in the last few years. As much as I have gotten better at setting goals and carrying them out, there are times when those goals come to a head, and then slowly fade away, whether I achieve them or not. A good example of this is running. After running a big race, which for me is a 5 Km or 10 Km run in a goal time, I find that the next few days are sluggish and slow and I have little focus and energy. In the past this would sometimes derail my progress and I would slip into just not running at all for awhile, losing all of the gains I had made with focussed effort and having to start from scratch later on.
We all go through these kinds of shifts in perspective, especially when our thoughts are dominated by a particular point in time that we are working toward, be it a work goal, a personal milestone, or an important competition. How can we avoid being derailed and keep moving in the right direction?
One of the best ways to alleviate this negative shift is to always be working toward a bigger goal. I have talked before about setting SMART goals, and one important part of them is that they are time-bound (The ‘T’ in SMART). But the term ‘time-bound’ is open ended, and can mean hours, days, months, or even years. Having multiple goals within goals at different time scales will help keep you focussed.
To go back to the running example, let’s say I have a goal time of 1 hour even for a 10 Km run 6 weeks from now. This is a decent, attainable goal pace for a person who is new to running. I sign up for a race and plan out my training, and my goal is to reach that milestone in 6 weeks. I do all my training but it isn’t enough and my race time is over 1 hour. If it was a make or break scenario it would make sense if I was devastated, after all the perspective is that my 6 weeks of training was for nothing, even if there was improvement in pacing.
But what if, instead, I had set a larger goal of wanting to complete a 10 Km race in under an hour this year? Suddenly my 6 weeks of training wouldn’t be wasted, and the 10 Km race I did would give me a measure of my achievements so far. See the difference? I can sign up for as many 10 Km races as I want during the year, but all my eggs don’t fall in one basket and each race becomes a separate goal of improving – getting closer to that goal time. And even if one race is slower, I can still feel good because I’m practicing for the big goal time. I could even have a bigger goal of wanting to run a 10 Km race in under 10 minutes at least once in my life. All these goals can exist at once and I will never feel like I am failing.
In general terms, the major benefit of setting goals this way is that you never reach what I call the ‘make or break cliff’ – This is where you work harder and harder and give more energy and focus to a task and everything else drops away and then you reach the finale at the end where you make it or you don’t. Then when you’re done and exhausted and you just drop it completely to focus on all the other tasks you set aside before. With multiple levels of goals you allow yourself to see the long-term, and you never reach a ‘make or break’ moment, it all becomes part of the larger overarching goal.
Another way to work against the ‘make or break cliff’ is to go back and work on something parallel a day or two after the big event, to give it a gradual decrease in the amount of focus and attention you give it. Ever heard the idea of having an alcoholic drink in the morning after a heavy night of drinking with the goal of avoiding a hangover? Turns out its completely false and a bad example, but if you apply it to productivity it can actually help you.
In the running example, a big race can become a ‘make or break cliff,’ but if you go for a light run a day or two after the big race, it continues your training and treats the ‘big race’ as just another training run on the way to your bigger goal.
So much focus is put on setting goals, but nobody focusses on what to do as you achieve them. Stay on top of your goals and dream big, so you always have a higher peak to climb to, and don’t fall off the make or break cliff.