As someone who is obsessed with personal development and forming the right habits, I naturally have several friends who are on the same path. So inevitably, when we meet up, the conversation drifts towards personal development topics; and inevitably, we start talking about our goals.
So friend A will say: “I want to lose 20 pounds in 6 months from now.” Friend B will say: “I want to be able to make a living from working as a professional musician in a year from now.” Friend C will say: “I want to be married 2 years from now.” Friend D will say: “I want to learn 3 new languages in the next five years.”
All legit goals (well, if marriage is your thing…). And I like the fact that all my friends are very specific about their goals, in terms of what they exactly want to accomplish and in what time span. Just like me, they read their books and blogs and just like me, they know about the importance of goal setting. You need to have an idea of where you are going in order to get there – it’s a simple as that.
But, but, but: I also can’t help but notice that several of my friends keep repeating their specific goals and timeframes, but every time they state them again, the time frame hasn’t changed. Meaning: There is no progress being made. Time goes by, the goals are still there, but the person in question hasn’t gotten any closer to reaching them.
Why is that?
I think it really comes down to a problem in perception. Many people (including myself) seem to have a very hard time connecting their far off future goals to their present everyday reality – between the two, there is a massive gap. So you dream of losing 20 pounds within the next 6 months, but when I ask you what you had for lunch today, you tell me you went to Chipotle again. So you want to become a professional musician, but when I ask you about your progress on your website, there is nothing to be reported. You want to get married, but when I ask you what you did this weekend you tell me you stayed in and played video games.
It sounds obvious when you put it like that and yet do I hardly ever meet people who connect these dots in real life. It is a truth that seems extremely alien to us: The only opportunity you have to change something about the future is NOW. I repeat: You only ever have now. It’s either happening now, or it’s not happening. And what makes you think that tomorrow’s now is going to be any different from today’s now? You are just kidding yourself.
Realizing this is the first step to bridging that gap. The second step is to honestly look at your average day and judge what it amounts to in terms of your goals. If you are practicing the guitar for half an hour a day already, great. But will this get you to pro musician status in one year? Not even close. So you either have to adjust your goal, or you have to increase the average output of your average day.
This what I call the onward perspective. You are the wanderer standing at point A, wondering if you will get to point B, with your current number of daily miles walked. If the answer is “No,” you’ll have take up the backward perspective, imagining yourself in point B already.
In practical terms, this means you have to backwards calculate. Look at the size of your goal; look at the timeframe you set for yourself for reaching it. Now divide the total amount of time and effort needed for reaching that goal through the number of days available to you. The result is the amount of daily action you need to implement in order to actually reach your goal in time.
Two important notes: first, backwards calculating effort and time required is not an exact science, but one of approximation. There is nothing wrong with that though. Even if you are of by half a year with your calculation, you are still 100x more realistically going about reaching your goals then if you were just winging it (and naturally deluding yourself).
Second, it is crucial to break it down to the daily level. Many people make the mistake of setting monthly or weekly milestones, in order to reach their master goal. I’d say that’s a step in the right direction, but that still leaves plenty of room for self-delusion. The daily breakdown is where it’s at. Does your daily output support your long-term goal with your chosen timeframe? Yes or no? People refusing the daily breakdown are simply trying to avoid the boringness of a habit driven lifestyle. They somehow think weekly goals are a way to get around that. There is no way around the right daily habits though… Is it boring? Yes. Does it get the job done? Always.
There is also something artificial about monthly and weekly goals. Months and weeks – these are ultimately just randomly chosen social constructs. Drug me and move me to the Amazonian jungle and how will I be able to tell what day of the week it is? By the church bell ringing on Sunday? In contrast, days are a unit that are almost biologically ingrained in us. The rhythms of day and night guide our work, sleep and eating behavior. It is the smallest natural time unit we are given to operate under. It’s only natural to also let it guide your productivity efforts.
Alright, to sum it up and also for you people just skimming this magnificent piece of writing:
- Realize there is most likely a massive gap between your future goals and your current daily actions.
- Ask yourself the magic question: What does my average day currently amount to in terms of my goals?
- Backwards calculate the amount of daily action needed, based on the size of your goal and your chosen timeframe.
- Implement the necessary daily action (i.e. habits) and watch yourself reach your goals on time.
Did someone say something?! What was that? Oh right, this is my friends telling me they don’t have enough time! Everybody’s standard answer. And to be fair, it is one final issue we need to address. So far, we have only talked about what you should be doing and that you should most likely be doing more of it, every day. But that also means something else has to give. The day only has 24 hours and you are currently filling up these 24 hours somehow (even if you are doing nothing, you are still doing something…). If you want to increase your goal related daily activity XY, what is going out the window?
Well, how about the 1-2 hours each day you spend checking out news websites, Facebook and your favorite magazines? How about the 2-3 hours of watching YouTube videos and playing video games? How about the social marathons at the weekend, visiting all your friends for hours, shooting the shit? How about the Saturday nights at the bar and the Sunday lost because of the hangover?
If you are one of my friends reading this, please don’t get mad at me – I’m talking to myself here more than anyone else. I understand it’s rough. Most of us have to work stupid jobs we hate, and feel the strong urge to compensate for that by indulging ourselves in our free time. I really do understand.
But I also understand that nothing is ever going to change, that your goals are not going to become a reality, unless you learn to forego these easy pleasures, at least for the next couple of years. That will create the extra time and space needed to change the system, that is, your life around. Otherwise – have fun with the rat race.
But it does get better. Eventually, foregoing these pleasures for extra daily work on your goals will not only bring you closer to these goals, but will help you to acquire a taste for the good things in life. And that might be worth even more than the actual goal.