We all have accomplishments we're striving for, milestones we hope to reach, behaviors we want to do more of (or less of)--and setting goals can help motivate us along the way. But research shows that goals have complex (and sometimes counterproductive) effects--while they can help us to get started and persist in our efforts, they can also diminish our sense of fulfillment and leave us demoralized.
One way to manage this challenge is to distinguish between a long-term goal--a large target at which we're aiming over time--and the smaller-scale, day-to-day experience of our pursuit of that goal. Let's call the latter a micro-goal. For example, staying active is an important goal of mine, as it is for many of my coaching clients (most of whom, like me, find it difficult to make time to exercise because we're happy workaholics.) But "Be active" is too large and abstract to serve as an effective goal for me. What does it mean? How do I put it into practice? Further, how does it help me when I'm not active for a certain period of time? It doesn't--and it's actually a demotivator, leaving me feeling guilty and disappointed in myself.
Do I exercise every day? I wish. But not only do I exercise more often because I pursue this micro-goal, because I track my data I'm also able to go back and look at periods in my life when I was more (or less) active and understand what factors were sustaining me (or were getting in my way.) This approach is applicable to any goal that can be broken down into activities we want to pursue (or avoid) on a regular basis. The key is paying just enough attention to the large-scale goal to help us get started and then ignoring it in favor of our micro-goals, the smaller daily events that constitute our lived experience.
This isn't necessarily an easy process. Focused attention is a form of mental control that can be quite difficult, and one reason goals are so powerful (and can have such negative consequences) is their ability to readily capture our attention even when we want to direct it elsewhere. In fact, this difficulty is one reason why I keep trying to meditate: I experience meditation not as a form of relaxation but as a workout in directing my attention. Eventually I meditated almost daily for 18 months, until I blew out a disk in my back, and the pain knocked me out of my exercise and mindfulness routines. A year later I'm finally back to regular exercise, but still trying to return to a regular meditation practice. Baby steps and micro-goals.
More on goal-tracking services: There's an entertaining story behind about Don't Break the Chain. It's a free service, but you can donate (as I have) to avoid seeing any ads. As much as I love DBTC, I have to say that the iOS app is terrible--when I'm using my phone I just visit the site via my browser. There are a number of other services along these lines. I tried Lift (mobile-only) for several months, and while I liked a number of its features, the inability to filter community visibility was problematic (although others may find it an advantage.) I've also just learned about Chains, which seems intriguing.
Thanks to Dorie Clark for the inspiration.
Photo by JD Hancock. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.