You Can’t Impose Discipline on Your Future Self.

But you can achieve your goals today. Here’s how.

Are you one of those people who always comes up with new ideas about how to improve their life, but then struggles to put those ideas into action?

It’s easy to feel like you’re never quite getting started on the most important things. Worse still, with each abandoned attempt, you start to feel like a failure.

By learning how to be clear about your goals, you can adopt a more realistic plan for getting to where you want to be.

There’s always a good reason to abandon that New Year’s resolution, right? Every so often, you have no choice but to give up because life is conspiring against you, again. I’ve told myself that in the past too.

I bet part of you knows you didn’t give yourself a chance. Do you have an overt tendency to sabotage yourself? Are you a chronic procrastinator?

Putting off making changes is normal. We like familiarity, even when we are not best served by our actions.

You write lists, you decide which habits you’re going to establish. You figure out how to keep track of them. Likewise, you plan blocks of time on your calendar and your morning routine to the nearest minute.

At this point, you’re too focused. You’re always stuck in the planning stage. You love doing the research and figuring out your method, but actually seeing the plan through?

Get clear about what goals are, before setting yours.

I remember reading this piece, by Jason Freid a few years back. This quote is illuminating.

I do things, I try things, I build things, I want to make progress, I want to make things better for me, my company, my family, my neighborhood (sic), etc. But I’ve never set a goal. It’s just not how I approach things.

He talks about never setting goals, immediately after he lists at least five in the preceding sentence.

I can see why some people have an aversion to the whole notion of setting goals. Goals are sometimes vague and unhelpful. They are associated with targets and the perverse incentives that can be created within those sorts of systems.

When I talk about goals, I’m talking about how I want my life to be. How I want it to look and feel. I’m not even sure it is attainable, but I am certain that working towards it will enhance and improve my experience of life.

This is key. You need to get clear about what your goals are and what they are about. Saying “I want to be healthy” is all well and good, but it’s vague to the point of being almost meaningless. Try to visualise your goal. “I want to be healthy enough to be able to spend time doing physical activities with my kids when they are older”.

Now, this immediately brings your motivation to the fore, and gives you a bonus mental image, to recall at will.

This goal is still a little nebulous, but at least it helps you to develop some steps and gives you a time frame to work within. You may then develop more specific goals around losing some weight, reducing your consumption of certain foods, or developing your upper body strength.

How will you know when you have clear goals?

You won’t need to write them down anywhere. You know what you want. It’s there all the time, it’s what you are working towards. You have an image you can recall at will, remember? Your goal becomes your ‘North Star’. You can check in with yourself. You can ask yourself whether your actions are taking you closer to your goal or further away from it.

Here is what I have learned about how I can increase the chances of reaching my ‘goals’.

Be flexible.

Be flexible about how you go about reaching your goals, but make sure that achieving them is central. If you adopt a more flexible mindset, you won’t be able to give up, or make excuses.

If going to the gym isn’t happening for you, doing some YouTube classes might work better. When you’re flexible, your goal remains intact, even if your current approach isn’t working.

Think about your destination more. Accept that there are many ways to get there. There will be times when you make a lot of progress, but there will also be times when you take a few wrong turns. It doesn’t matter, pivot and try something else with your goal in mind.

Be curious.

What would it feel like to achieve this goal? What are the first small changes that you could make which would take you in the right direction?

Can’t do 50 push-ups? Can you do one? Great, that’s heading in the right direction. If you have to begin with one a day, it’s as good a place to start as any. Building the habit will lead to progress, and progress will be faster than you think.

Imagine how good you’ll feel when you can do ten times more than you could at the beginning. I’m asking you to actually imagine it. Take a few seconds.

If you could do 20 push-ups, would that mean that are the strong person you set out to be at the beginning of all this? Or, is there more to it? What’s next? You have a North Star now, you’ll know where to go.

Be patient

Achieving a fitness goal like this one is going to take a long time.

All you need is a sense of making progress, even if it’s slow. When you can do one push up, increase the number until it starts feeling difficult again. It won’t take long for you to go well beyond what you thought you were capable of.

Flex that muscle enough and your body will adapt to the challenge without you needing to do anything more. Keep it up, edge forward as you get stronger, that’s it. Take your time.

If you lose your way, don’t stress. Get back on it when you’re ready and pick up where you left off. Focus on what you learned when you lost the path and see if it could help you with your future efforts.

As long as you can see it in context, failing is valuable unless it becomes a trigger or an excuse for you abandoning your goals completely. When that happens, it’s not the fault of the failing. You just didn’t learn what you needed to.

Remember that picking things up is almost as easy as throwing things away.

What can I do?

You need to stop making lists. Start doing things. Start small, but start now. Why? You can’t impose discipline on your future self. Planning is only the beginning. You need to commit now, take the first step. Then the next one.

You can start working towards your goals immediately. If you want to get fit, the first step on that journey is going to take you less than two minutes, a few times each day. You have the time.

It’s the same approach for any goal. If you have a North Star, it will be easy to find something you can do that adjusts your bearings and gets you heading towards it.

Aim for slow, steady progress, and remind yourself that some things take a long time. Be patient. Be flexible. Always keep the ‘why’ at the front of your mind. Do you want to be fit and healthy? Why? What will that look like? What will you be able to do that you couldn’t otherwise? How will it feel? What difference will it make?

Be flexible enough to not get blown too far off course when life tries to get in the way.

Be honest with yourself. When you find yourself spending all your time planning how to reach your goals, ask yourself whether you could be doing something instead. If you could, then ask yourself why you’re not.

Be in it for the long haul. Remember that even small changes compound over time. Getting started is always, by far, the most important thing. You will gather momentum with every minor victory.