Goal Setting Series, Part 3: Powerless Goals – Goals Too Big – Building Islands and Avoiding Land Mines
By Mary Elizabeth Brown – part time lover of those little Bundt Cakes and Girl Scout Cookies. Sometimes Bundt Cakes with a side order of Girl Scout Cookies.
No, don’t read that the wrong way. You can never set too big of a goal. Set a big, beefy goal that is just outside of your “Come on, can I really do this?” mentality. Tony Robbins, one of my favorite gurus tells a story in one of his first books that reminds me that no goal is too big. While writing his book Unlimited Power, he recalls directing his readers to set lofty goals. As he was hammering out a chapter on this very topic, he included a side note that if the reader was 5’3” he or she should probably not set the goal of dunking a basketball. One week later, Mugsy Bogues of the then Charlotte Hornets did that very thing. Tony had to re-work that entire chapter while munching slowly on those words. So no. There’s not a single goal out there that is too big.
Recall that a goal with no deadline is a goal that can never be accomplished (or it doesn’t need to be accomplished since there is no end in sight), and a goal with too tight of a deadline is one that will leave you dry heaving on the side of the road before you ever lose sight of the start line. Along the same vein of a goal that’s too tight is a goal that isn’t broken down into manageable parts. Let’s say, for example, you’ve set a lofty goal to lose 60 pounds. By my estimation of one pound per week for safe and healthy weight loss, that will take sixty weeks to accomplish! More than a year! It’s exhausting just thinking about it!
But! If you said to yourself, “I want to lose sixty pounds by next year. I’m going to start with 2 pounds in the next two weeks.” Now all of a sudden, this becomes manageable. Heck, you might be able to achieve that in a week or a week and a half! Then you’ll be ahead of schedule, so long as you don’t celebrate with a setback at happy hour (I know, I get it. Cheese. Bacon. Nacho Chips). Breaking your big, beefy goal in to manageable chunks is the key to making it possible to hold on to the very end. So, set that big beefy goal. In the process, also set up what I like to call “islands” along the way to help give you a mental “rest” as you chisel away at your challenge.
Here’s a good example of some islands. When I was starting off in my weight loss, I set a goal to get some “after” pictures done when I finished. The pictures were scheduled 12 weeks out from my starting point. I didn’t set a number on the scale or a body fat percentage I was trying to hit. I just wanted to present my best self after twelve weeks of eating clean and working out daily.* While I realize this sounds counter to my previous post about a too loose goal, my goal was tight enough because at the end of the 12 weeks, the pictures would clearly demonstrate the level of work I put in to accomplishing my goal. There would be hard evidence of my success or failure.
I left my first training session with my trainer and she sent me a text with an encouraging message – “You’re only 84 days away!” At first I rejoiced in agreement – “Yes! Only 84 days! I can do anything for 84 days!” But could I? 84 days is a long time. 84 days spanned Halloween (hello, Almond Joys and Butterfingers) and Thanksgiving (Do I even need to say a word?). It traversed parent teacher conferences – a day that has held a long standing tradition of me visiting the dessert table to stock up on much needed chocolate treats as a reward for exhausting (yet productive) conversations. It meandered over a trip to Michigan – a land which can best be described as one of cheese, casseroles with Cream of Mushroom Soup, my Mother In Law’s famous 11 pound Lasagna, cake, beer, coney dogs, donuts, and Biggby coffee drinks – locally brewed steaming mochas heaping with whipped cream so high that the lid won’t fit on the cup. I had to say no at two breakfasts provided by the school’s PTCO during teacher week and inservice days. No free breakfast? Why, why WHY did I commit to 84 days?
The Island Concept is Born
But then it occurred to me. If I treated all of these dates as little islands, I could make it to the end. Instead of one 84 day chunk of time, I made it one week to get to the teacher work week breakfast. All I had to do was work out for seven days, and then go to the teacher breakfast after I ate, and decline the food. I can do this for seven days. Then, all I had to do was make it to my next island – whatever it was, and then remind myself to stay on my diet plan for just that day. Pretty soon I found myself taking my weight loss progress in these tiny chunks. By focusing on the one day I had to really step up my game and say no, it made it a no-brainer to stick to my diet the rest of the days. After all, it was critical for me to practice saying “no” on a random Tuesday so that I would have the skill set I needed to say “no” to an 11-pound lasagna. (Ouch, I’m not going to lie – that one was rough. Eight of those eleven pounds are cheese, I swear. That lasagna is magic.) By breaking my diet down by “making it” to those islands, it wasn’t 84 days. It was sets of 10 or 12 days. I soon began finding islands in smaller places – hair appointments, political elections, number of gas fill-ups before I was done, staff meetings, number of leg days left, how long the broccoli I just bought would last in the fridge, number of workouts remaining before a rest day. The self-talk turned from “How will I make it to December 18?” to “I can make it to December 18, but first I have a hair appointment tomorrow. When I finish my hair appointment, I will only have 53 days left.” Including those consequence-free islands lessened the severity of the islands I had to swim to just to climb ashore and say no to the smorgasbord of food laid before me. This worked for me. I made it to December 18th not because I held that single date in my calendar. I focused on all (every!) little thing in the way of December 18th in order to reach the day. The day would come no matter what. The question then became, “Would I be ready?” Somewhere in the middle of that island-hopping, I set my next goal to compete in a bikini competition. This helped me to reach the December 18th goal because I knew I had something else to look forward to – a new challenge – when it was all over with. Setting your next big, beefy goal before you finish your first one turns your first goal in to another island. When you make it just another island, you make it so much easier to get there.
There’s a way to do an island and a way not to do an island. Islands aren’t rewards. They are just places to breathe – not stops along the way – not reprieve – just mile markers. Don’t set yourself up for failure by building an island full of apple pies and bacon just for the simple act of reaching it. These islands aren’t really islands. These are land mines. Rewarding yourself with food is not rewarding yourself. It’s setting yourself back. But even if you refuse to set up a land mine for yourself, fear not. Others will most certainly try to do it for you.
I’m going to caution right now that you should always be on the lookout for land mines – swim right past them as you work to your goal. They will certainly come in to view as you travel down your path, and you just have to look away. Usually, these land mines come disguised in the form of people who don’t care about your fitness goals, or are indifferent to them. I know that’s some harsh phrasing, and it’s not that others actively “don’t care.” But I will say that whether you eat an Oatmeal Crème Pie at lunch or not is of no consequence to the person who offered it to you, unless it forces them to think about their own choices. Some people just want to get you on a land mine because they are not doing good things for their own bodies, and they need someone to burn with them. It’s not on purpose. But it happens. For more information on the psychology behind this, I encourage you to check out my blog post titled “Stealing Cheat Meals.”
What can I do right now to set up my “Islands”? How do I avoid land mines?
The key to making it to your own personal finish line once you’ve set an appropriately potent goal is to set up islands and avoid land mines. Well, it’s not the only key. But it’s a big one. Keep focused on your goals. Your health is a priority – don’t be afraid to assert it as such.
Setting up islands is relatively easy. Here’s how:
- Find the very first time in your plan where your goals might get a little tough. It could be an upcoming birthday party with lots of cake, an extra busy day with carpools for the kids and dinner prep duty, a day with a late meeting…any day you would normally cave to the circumstances and not follow your goals.
- Set this big obstacle as an “Island.” At every turn leading up to that island that could potentially stray you from your goals, remind yourself you need to “practice” for this big day by saying “no.” Count the days down. Find little islands in between – filling up a tank of gas, doing weekly groceries, a spin class, the number of leg days before the island whatever will help you mark progress toward the big day. Say to yourself, “I need to fill another tank of gas before the Office party.” Then, praise yourself! “Wow! In only one more tank of gas, it will be time for the office party! I only have one more tank of gas to go!”
- Do this with everything. And I mean everything. If you must, put a countdown on pots of coffee, number of office reports you need to submit, yoga classes, heck – trips to the bathroom and hours before your next meal will work when it gets tough!
- Once your island is set, forget about your big, beefy, goal. Just get to the next point without failure. Then, when you get to your next point, give yourself props for reaching it without failing! And then look immediately toward the next point.
- To avoid land mines, here’s the best two pieces of advice I can give.
1 – Just. Look. Away.
2 – Always be within arm’s reach of a protein bar.
I can’t tell you how many times I had to say no to happy hours, donuts, Little Debbies… the only thing that ever worked for me was to Just. Look. Away. The first ten times you do it, you will need to dig extraordinarily deep to find the willpower. It is a full-on Game of Thrones battle to say no. But do it ten times and I swear to you time number eleven will feel automatic. Use those times of willpower as islands! Heck, if you said no to a giant slice of red velvet cake at a party over the weekend, why on Earth would you blow it on a day-old donut at the office? It’s a no-brainer! Tell yourself, I said “no” 3 of these first ten times. I only have to say “no” 7 more times before it’s easy! If you’re feeling like you’re on really shaky ground, grab that protein bar I mentioned. Pretty soon, just eating something among others becomes just as collegial as eating the “bad” thing among others, and no one will notice the difference.
- If you need backup, just imagine me (or your trainer, or a loved one) slapping whatever you aren’t supposed to be eating out of your hand. That may help. I’m pretty strong and I’m pretty sure I could swat that Hoagie headed for your mouth far enough away where it will hit the ground and the five second rule will automatically ruin your chances of picking it up off said ground and eating it. And if you’re contemplating running after it and eating it anyway, visit my second blog post on goals too tight – your calories are too low.
Remember, if you can form a bad habit like skipping workouts, it means you are completely capable of forming the good habits you are working towards. But you must practice. Take that practice in your little island victories. And soon, you’ll be looking forward to your next shoreline!
*I hired a trainer (who is one of my former athletes, ironically), to give me a person who I would be held accountable to. This, I think made all the difference for me. In the past, I was not working with anyone, so it didn’t matter if I wound up head first in a cheesecake. But with April over my shoulder, if I pulled a cheesecake stunt, she would see it. What a horrible feeling to not follow instructions from someone who followed my coaching for the vast majority of her athletic career. What would that say about me as a person? I had to do what she told me to do. She did what I told her to do without question for all of those years. Finding someone who you don’t want to let down is key to reaching your fitness goals.