With talk of New Year’s resolutions just over the horizon, Nolene McLoughlin reflects on how keeping your attention firmly in the present moment is the key to achieving success with your long-term goals.
Social media ads would have you believe that there is a quick way to achieve anything in life – publish a book in 6 months, pay off your mortgage in 5 years, and make 10 thousand euros a month by working 5 hours a week. In this new world of instant gratification and wanting to have it all now, are we losing the ability to play the long game required to achieve bigger personal goals?
Setting specific goals is great for helping motivate and guide you towards an objective, but how do you keep yourself on track when there are so many addictive distractions to lure away your attention?
Why do we fail on goals?
The word ‘goal’ implies an endpoint or some far-off time in the future. There is a suggestion that you will emerge, reborn and transformed, as a new and improved version of yourself at this magical point in time when the goal is ‘achieved’. The reality is that most goals are not about reaching an end point but making small incremental changes and an ongoing process of improvement.
Focussing too much on a finish line can make it difficult to connect the way you want to live with how you are living right now. If your goal is to be a New York Times best-selling author, it might seem like this goal is so far removed from everyday life, that you may procrastinate or give up when progress is not happening fast enough.
In his renowned book The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle believes that we should be focussing on the present moment. He believes that – rather than being at odds with long-term goal setting – the virtues of living deeply in the “now” are critical to helping us find purpose, achieve goals, and make the world a better place. So whilst being a NYT best-seller is not unrealistic or worth shooting for, your focus should be on the small habit changes you need to make in your life today.
Creating positive change in your life should make you feel a bit uncomfortable because that is when all the good stuff happens, but it shouldn’t be a tortuous experience that you struggle with every day. If you want to get fit, spending two hours in the gym every day is not only unrealistic for most people but is likely to make you feel resentful at some point. Achieving your dreams, whether big or small, should bring you comfort, joy and pride.
Here are 4 things you can do to help you focus on making the small daily changes which will lead to long-term transformation.
One day at a time
In her interview with Marie Forleo, New York Times Best-selling author Cheryl Strayed talks about the relationship between the present moment and a long-term goal of doing something extraordinary, as it relates to her writing. ‘I can’t sit here and make greatness. What I can sit here and do is write one page and then another page and then another page.’
Focus on writing your one page today. Or walking one mile. Or eating one healthy meal. Don’t worry so much about the greatness at the end. Change isn’t one, lightning-bolt moment. It is an accumulation of small, daily habits.
Don’t wait to turn into the person you want to be some stage down the line – be that person today by doing the daily small things now that you want your ‘future self’ to do.
In the words of the old country tune, One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus.
Make it easy on yourself
Try not to be negative or punitive. If you are trying to lose weight or eat more healthily, don’t think in terms of denying yourself or what you need to stop eating, but rather what you can add to your diet -more fruit, more veg, more water, more fibre.
If you want to be fitter and stronger but hate the gym – don’t slog it out for hours on the treadmill. Find something you enjoy, like walking with friends (mental health boost too!) or going to a group class where you can make new friends.
If you want to start writing or journaling, make it a positive experience by sitting in your favourite chair, lighting a scented candle and making your favourite drink. Set yourself a timer for a short, realistic period like 5-10 minutes and stop when the timer is up. I set myself a target last year of writing for an hour every morning. The commitment was too big. But we are conditioned to feel that our efforts are not good enough unless we ‘go the extra mile’ and ‘give 110%’.
As long as you start the new habit and commit to it, that is what matters initially. When you start to see the results and feel the joy that it brings you, then the bigger commitment will take care of itself.
Be wary of feeling shame and guilt if things don’t turn out exactly how you planned. Not only are ‘mistakes’ ok – they are part of the natural ebb and flow of life, and critical to success. Practising self-compassion at these times is important in helping you stay the course.
If one of your friends was having a hard time sticking to a new habit, would you put them down or speak negatively to them? Most of us are supportive and encouraging to our friends when they need it, more likely to issue that horrendously overused quip ‘You got this!’ instead of ‘Woah you are a massive loser!’ Why do we think that giving ourselves a hard time is any more acceptable?
Kristin Neff PhD is one of the world’s leading experts on self-compassion and advocates for being gentle on yourself, and that a little love directed inwards is more likely to get you back where you want to be – ‘Remember that if you really want to motivate yourself, love is more powerful than fear.’
There is much evidence to suggest that tracking and sharing your progress with a trusted mentor or friend makes you more likely to achieve your goals. I have a notebook obsession, so I use one to keep track of my progress on personal goals. I make it a regular occurrence like once a month, and set a calendar reminder. Sometimes life gets in the way of things you really want to achieve, and it is worth taking a few minutes to stop and assess what you need to reprioritise, what is going well, or what you are enjoying/not enjoying. And as I’ve mentioned before, if you’re not where you want to be, be kind to yourself and reset.
In her witty and practical best-seller ‘Badass Habits’, author Jen Sincero sums up a key lesson we all need to remember about creating change in our lives. `The whole self-development thing isn’t a competition to some socially dictated finish line you cross that means you finally ‘made it’. Nor are you meant to feel like a loser if you’re not thinking positive thoughts or staying laser-focussed on your clearly defined goal.’
Creating meaningful, exciting goals to challenge yourself is important and fulfilling. What is more important is making sure that the changes you need to make fit into your life, that they bring you joy, and that you are kind to yourself when you take the inevitable tumble off the wagon. And if you need a mantra to stick on your computer, fridge, or forehead, these words from renowned mountaineer and author Conrad Anker are all you need to remember – ‘The summit is what drives us, but the climb itself is what matters.’