Goal Setting: Crash Test Dummy Edition

With the turn of the New Year come new resolutions.  But too often these goals fall by the wayside before the snow has had a chance to melt.  With all the writing I’ve been doing recently on goals, I thought it might be fun to put my money where my mouth is, set a New Year’s goal of my own in a public way, and see if I can stick to it.

In this post, I’ll offer myself up as a goal setting crash test dummy.  I’ll set a big goal, build a support framework around it, and then see if I can hit what I’m aiming for.  In sharing what works and what doesn’t, maybe this will help all of us get better at hitting what we are aiming at.


Goal Setting Crash Test

Resolutions Bar and Grill

We all know that most New Year’s resolutions fall by the wayside within the first few weeks.  I like the quip from comedian who says he plans to open a gym named “Resolutions.”  The idea is it will have weights and treadmills in January, then turn into a bar for the rest of the year.  He’s sure to make money with that idea!

But as I take a hard look at all my goals for the coming year, I want to make sure my resolve isn’t MIA come February.  One of those goals is to get back into some semblance of shape after a fairly lackluster fall.  So join me as I make a resolution to “get back in shape” and see if the techniques I share below actually work in the real world.

As we go through this, you can also refer to a Goal-Setting Worksheet I’ve drawn up for the purpose, and then use it to accomplish a goal of your own.

Define Success

  1. Set the vision. I want to regain aerobic fitness, lose some weight, and approach the summer ready to do some longer running races.  So let’s start with a vision statement.  Trying to keep it concise, visual, and aspirational, I came up with this:

“To run the hills like a mountain goat.”

If I can glide effortlessly over the hilly trails, I know I’ll be in great shape.

  1. Start with Why. As we learned from Simon Sinek’s great book, when you have a clear understanding of why you want to do something, lots of other things fall into place that will help you accomplish what you set out to do.

What’s my why?  Being physically and mentally strong will help me maintain a healthy, productive life.  I think of both of these attributes as kinds of muscles; if you work them, they get stronger.  Too much time inert on the couch and everything turns to jelly.   Running long distance over hills in winter should do the trick, right?

Recently I came across something in my inbox that looked like the right sort of challenge, so we’ll make that the Big Goal:

Complete the “Mile Run Trail Challenge Half Marathon” on April 1st, 2017, in under two and a half hours.

  1. Make it SMART. Next step – make sure the goal is a SMART goal.  Here’s how it breaks out.

Specific.  It’s 13.1 miles in the mountains of northern Pennsylvania, almost 4,000 feet of elevation gain; the “what” is pretty clear.  Also: it looks pretty tough!

Measurable.  I’ve given myself a 2:30 time limit; they have chip timing, so there’s no way to fudge it.

Actionable.  I have running shoes, a warm jacket, and three months to get ready.

Relevant.  Running this distance will help me meet my health goals.  If I make the 2:30 cutoff, based on last year’s results I should make it into the top third of finishers overall – that should qualify as “in shape.”

Time-Bound.  The starting gun goes off at 10:00 AM on the 1st of April, 2017; no fudging that, either!

Plan to Succeed

  1. Make small sub-goals. Obviously, you don’t just wake up one day and decide to run a half marathon in the hills.  It’s important to define the progressive steps that will get me to the point where I can complete this thing.

Setting small, attainable sub-goals will help you see some regular early success and develop a sense of momentum.  Each small goal should build on the one that preceded it.

With the time available, I’ll use January to get accustomed to running regularly again.  In February I’ll lengthen the runs.  And in March I’ll extend to race distance and do more training in the hills.

When you break your goals down to the point where you know exactly what you need to do each day, it is easier to be successful.  You can see my daily goals on the example Goal-Setting Worksheet.

This morning when I woke up, I knew that to be successful, all I had to do was run two miles.  Piece of cake!

  1. Commit. Once you have your plan laid out, it’s time to make the leap.  It helps if there is a clear moment when you take the plunge.  It’s like burning the boats after you landed on shore – there has to be a point of “no going back” to help spur you to move forward.

Yesterday I signed up on-line, paid the registration fee, and told my family and running friends.  And if you are reading this, that must mean this post is published on interwebs.  Now it’s real!

  1. Prioritize. If it’s truly important, you have to make it a priority.  If you don’t, less important things will start to get in the way and make it harder to reach your goal.

This past fall I generally aimed to run in the afternoon, but life had a way of interfering, the sun seems to set earlier, and then suddenly it’s dinner time.  So to give running the priority it needs, it will become a first thing in the morning kind of thing.

I’ve also made it a daily entry on my Google Calendar. When I make an appointment with myself, and can see it on my calendar, I find I’m more likely to keep it.

  1. Track progress. If you have done the “Measurable” part right, there should be some way that you can track progress towards the goal.  Tracking allows for immediate feedback on how you are doing.  With this knowledge you can make course corrections, and celebrate each small success (see below).

goals crash testFor this run, just a few minutes with Microsoft Excel resulted in a very simple tracking sheet that sets dates, goals, and accomplishments.  Here’s what it looks like for January; blue bars are the daily goal; red bars show actual results.  Off to a good start!

  1. Visualize. Like athletes visualizing success before they compete, when you can put yourself in the picture and see yourself achieving your goal, your chances of success will grow.

There are two ways I’m planning to do this.  First, my little tracking chart will help me see my progress towards the final goal.  I’ll update it after every run.

Goal Setting Crash TestSecond, I found this picture that I’ll post as my computer’s wallpaper as a reminder of what I’m shooting for.  To me it conveys a sense of challenge, discipline, and achievement and reminds me that it’s going to take some work to get what I’m after.

Let me know if you come across a great picture of a mountain goat running up hill; that could work, too.

  1. Get some accountability. It’s easier to stick with something if you know someone is watching.  There’s something about wanting to be well-thought of by others that can push us to work harder than if we were just on our own.

 Updating the chart will give accountability to myself – if I miss a day, I’ll have to live with that gap in the chart forever!  My family is also in on this – my wife is sure to ask how my run went; I’ll want to tell her that it went well!

I also plan to share the results on social media, with daily achievements on Twitter, and weekly accomplishments on Facebook.  If I start slacking, feel free to call me out! (or offer encouragement!)

  1. Use positive reinforcement. Getting a quick shot of positive reinforcement every time you do the right thing is huge.  Psychologists call this Operant Conditioning.  When there is a reward that comes immediately after we do something, it makes us want to do that thing more.  When there is no reward, that behavior tends to fade away.

As a visual person, I get some satisfaction out of things like completing checklists and updating charts, so logging the miles and seeing the chart grow will be one form of reward.

Silly as it may seem, I’ll also congratulate myself.  I think there is something to the idea that positive self-talk can help me recognize and enjoy the small success and keep me positively focused on what lies ahead.

This morning, after my run in the 34-degree rain, I gave myself a little shot of, “Way to go, Ken, you are off to a good start.”

Also, I’m going to authorize myself to add a little flavor shot to my coffee on days that I meet my running goal.  It’s a simple way to celebrate having the discipline to put in the work every day.

  1. Build in some flexibility. Life is going to happen – weather, travel, health, and other events can combine to put a snag in the plan.  If the plan is too rigid, like a dry twig, it can snap under the pressures of life.  If you make it more like a green branch that can bend but not break, your chances of success will be greater.

One way I’ll be flexible is to plan to run six days a week, but define success as doing at least five; I can miss one run each week and still be on track.  Every fourth week, I’ll back off the effort a little to allow for recovery, assess my progress, and adjust my sub-goals for the coming weeks if necessary.

Goal Setting Crash Test – The Takeaway

Having a goal is good.  Making it a clearly defined one is better.  But if you want to actually achieve what you aim for, it takes some deliberate work to set up an environment in which you can experience many small victories along the way.

Build goals so you can experience many small victories along the way. Click To Tweet

When you have things like accountability, flexibility, and balance, and can measure progress and visualize your success, you will be well on your way to achieving great things, whatever your goal is.

If you want to see the results of this goal setting crash test, I’ll be posting updates here, as well as weekly progress reports on my Facebook page, and daily achievements on the RapidStartLeadership Twitter page.

Or go one step farther:  make a goal of your own, use the worksheet, and conduct your own experiment.  Let me know how you are doing!

Note:  If you are considering starting a fitness routine, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor first.  Here’s some guidance from the Mayo Clinic on things to watch for.

Question:  What goals are you setting for 2017? How can you break them down into small, achievable chunks?

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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