Goals and rewards

Something I’ve been playing with over the past two months is setting goals and rewards for myself, to make progress in specific areas of my life where I’m not happy with how things are now. It’s taken a little bit of tuning, but I’m making good progress now in some fitness goals and starting to apply some goals to my work situation.

There are a few key ideas about goals that I’ve learned from reading books and other resources, and a couple of things I’m figuring out that work for myself. One of the primary ones is that what gets tracked, improves. What doesn’t get tracked doesn’t change. The act of tracking what you really do is such a powerful force for making changes, because it forces you to be aware. We spend so much of our time unconscious to what we are really doing in life, because we are doing one thing while thinking about something else. If we make ourselves track a behavior, we make ourselves start to pay attention. Sometimes we automatically start making changes, just by paying attention.

Rewards are helpful for long-term goals, because the payoff can be so far away. I don’t think really hard personal changes happen without getting in touch with some deep, personal motivation; but even when one finds that driving, internal force toward change, giving oneself intermediate rewards can help one to move forward on days when one would rather not. Sometimes doing the work of change is just plain hard, and having a “cookie” dangling in front of us, not too far away, can really help.

I’m doing this with my fitness goals. My long-term intentions are to reduce my body-size (not to lose weight, which I’ll get to in a minute) and to be stronger and healthier. My primary focus right now is to exercise, and I’ve chosen walking and standing pushups as my exercises-of-choice.

So every morning I get on my treadmill, which tracks time and distance. I keep a small notebook right on the treadmill, and when I finish walking I write down the date, time, and distance. Likewise, I keep a notebook beside the spot where I do my pushups, and every day I record the total number I manage.

I’ve set up spreadsheets in Excel for each of these goals, to make the math easier, and every week or so I update the files with the latest data from my notebooks. The spreadsheets add in my new progress, and tell me how far I’ve gotten. When I hit specific numbers, I get a reward (also recorded right in the spreadsheet).

Some people attach deadlines to such goals — “do 1000 pushups by December 31,” or whatever. I’m avoiding deadlines specifically, because they can be a trap for my perfectionistic brain. If I set a goal of 1000 pushups by 12/31 and only score 996, I’m totally capable of declaring the whole thing an abject failure, ignoring all my progress and hard work. So there’s no date attached. Maybe I get to 1000 a day later, but I still win.

This for me is a really key point: I set up my goals so that the only way I can fail is to completely stop. As long as I keep doing the work, even if I have an off day or a string of them, eventually I’ll win.

The other thing that I’ve found is really key is to only set goals based on what I can directly control. I base my goals on literal, concrete, trackable actions. This is another tactic to avoid my terrible “I FAAAAAAAIIILED” impulse.

This is why I’m avoiding the subject of weight in my fitness goals. Sure, I hope that I can lose some weight, but what I really want is for my body to be smaller. Changing my weight isn’t what I’m actually most interested in.

But more than that, I can’t precisely control either the weight or the size of my body. I have no idea what goes on inside my body, not really; I know that if I exercise more and eat less, I’ll probably go in the direction I want. But I can’t totally control the process. I can’t change my body by flipping switches or hitting buttons; I can’t precisely dial in the results I want and expect to exactly hit them.

So I pass over what I can’t control, and set my goals based on what I can control. I can’t build a precise amount of muscle in my arms, but I can choose to keep doing pushups, which builds muscle. I can’t sculpt my waistline to a precise shape, but I can choose what I eat. Outside of body and fitness goals, I’m starting to use the same idea in my work life. I can’t totally control whether someone hires me for a freelance job, but I can decide to keep building my sample portfolio and entering bids for jobs. I set goals that keep me focused on doing the work I need to do, and trust that doing the work is what will get me where I want to be, in all kinds of areas. And when the real reward is far off, I give myself rewards along the way to encourage myself and keep me moving.

Goals and rewards are one of those areas with fundamental principles that apply to everyone, but where those principles can be put into practice in a thousand ways. Two of the fundamentals are to track your progress and to do the work. But it’s up to every individual person to find the specific ways to put these fundamentals to work, for them.

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