Have you had the experience of setting a goal (like: get more clients, stay ahead of my paperwork or taxes, reach out to members of my network, or write a weekly blog) and then done NOTHING about it?
I’m not talking about setting a goal that you actually have no intention of pursuing (Hello, “10 pushups!”).
No, I’m talking about a goal you care about, would love to accomplish, and in fact, fully intend to accomplish.
And yet, despite all that interest and commitment, nothing happens. I call this Goalnesia, because its so mysterious and feels completely out of your control- like selective amnesia.
I’m very confident that you have had this experience, because I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t. In fact, if you are like many of the people I’ve worked with, you may have had this experience so often that you’ve developed a story about how you are “just plain lazy.”
That’s not true, by the way. People who declare themselves “lazy” are almost always either overcommitted, tired and in need of a break (which is wildly different), unmotivated or confused (which is entirely fixable), or are doing an incomplete job of managing their new goal (which is simply a matter of process).
Let’s pretend that you say: “I’m going to write a post on Facebook every day this week.”
Now take a look at that goal – it’s pretty good! In fact, it’s downright SMART! It’s specific (one post per day, on the social media site Facebook), measurable (you would know whether you did it or not), achievable (no big deal, you can write 10 words a day), we’ll assume it’s relevant (though of course that depends on your business building strategy), and time-bound (once a day, every day, this week).
Well done! And yet…
Now, we’ve already discussed that “lazy” isn’t the conclusion to draw here.
So, what is?
When I hear a story like this – which I do all the time – what I see is that this goal didn’t have much of a chance, because it didn’t have an engine.
Working toward a goal involves, at its core, breaking and creating habits. When something is a habit, it occurs to you. When something is not yet a habit, it’s doesn’t. That means that working on your goal isn’t going to occur on its own. Instead, you need to put an “engine” in place to keep your goal top of mind and drive you forward regularly.
There are a few engines that work really well, a few that tend to backfire, and one that I recommend the most because it gives you the most control and is the most satisfying.
Shaming and Should (aka the Panic Engine). This is the engine that is driven by the things you feel you “should do” or “have to do” or “would do if you were a good person.” These are powerful engines because they are grounded in fear. When these engines are in place you are doing things so that you don’t become not good enough, not useful enough, not smart enough, not kind enough… any of those “not enoughs” can cause you to pursue a goal with panic in your heart.
The problem with the panic engine is that it will exhaust you and you will end up resentful about all these “obligations.” In short, “shaming and should” take your power away, and pursuing your goals becomes yet another way to make yourself feel bad. I’m not into that, especially because it’s not necessary.
Habit Stacking. This is an engine that drives the creation of one habit by “stacking it” on top of another, existing habit. For example, a classic habit stack is “when I brush my teeth, I will do 3 push-ups.” Habit stacking is a great strategy for introducing small, relatively innocuous habits for which you have very little resistance. When you attempt to use habit stacking for anything controversial, it tends to backfire.
Let’s say that you decide to write your social media post (new habit) after you do your morning pages (existing habit). Now, let’s say that you feel pretty resistant to writing those social media posts. It seems like connecting it to a habit you love (morning pages) would give the social media a reflected glow.
It doesn’t seem to work that way, though.
Instead, your existing habit takes on the resistance of the habit you are trying to force. Then, before you know it, you aren’t doing your morning pages OR the Facebook post. Which, I can say from direct experience, is super sad.
Social Accountability. This is an engine that you are probably very familiar with. With social accountability you tie your new habit to another person, typically someone who is also hoping to create the same habit. An example is “I’ll text you in the morning when I’m sitting down to write and again when I’m done and you do the same.” The idea here is that you will do it because you don’t want to let your social accountability partner down. This particular engine feels like it should work really, really well. And, when used for the right purposes (something that you both really want to do) and with the right social accountability partner (someone who is unlikely to get annoyed when you falter and who will resist the urge to put a lot of pressure on you to carry her habit creation), it can. But, much like habit stacking, when used for something you feel resistant towards, social accountability is more likely to create a strain on the relationship than it is to create the habit.
Calendar Driven Appointments. This is the engine that you are probably using to best effect currently. Events like client work and doctor’s appointments happen because they are scheduled directly onto your calendar or via your medical records system. If you are collaborating, your meeting times and zoom links are probably managed through calendar invites. A calendar is an AMAZINGLY effective engine for your goals, when your goal is pursued through events that genuinely happen at a set time. Things effectively managed by a calendar don’t have to be managed by other engines.
The problem with calendaring is when something is a task and not an event. I often see people trying to capture that calendaring magic for tasks and their calendar ends up entirely booked out with tasks like “write Facebook post” scheduled for 10 a.m. on a Tuesday. Every now and then this works for someone, and if that someone is you, that’s great. Keep it up, because time management is about what works, not what’s right.
Often, however, the fact that a particular task doesn’t actually have to happen at that time means that the task doesn’t get done and before long you lose your trust in your calendar. This is an outcome you want to avoid at all costs – trusting your calendar is critical for you to believe that you are the kind of person who can do great things without losing your mind.
Pro-tip!: When you have people who book themselves into your calendar (as I do) and you are booking tasks into your calendar to make sure you have time to do them, a better strategy is to schedule “task blocks” on your calendar and then let your Aligned Time (see below) engine decide how best to use that time.
Deadline Driven Paperwork. This is an engine I bet you use despite your best efforts. Have you ever done your taxes in a panic on April 11th? Have you ever stayed up until midnight on the last day to submit insurance paperwork so that it doesn’t expire? Have you ever had to drive your car to the DMV to re-issue your tags because you missed the deadline for online renewal? Yes? Me, too.
I blame school! Deadlines on assignments gave us all the impression that someone else will decide for us what we need to do and by when. And then the rest of the world followed suit. We don’t get one invite to an online program which we then consider and decide for ourselves. Instead, we get 14 invites and reminders with increasing intensity until the cart closes. And we do this for a reason: people don’t sign up until the last minute! Typically, reliance on deadlines drives people to try to impose deadlines on other things – this is often the reason that people try to create and meet deadlines for themselves.
This engine is about having a system of personal accountability, grounded in a daily practice of remembering what you want and taking teeny steps on a regular basis. Aligning time starts with the question: “What do you want?” and then advances weekly and daily through the practice of asking yourself “What three tasks can I accomplish today/this week that will get me a little closer to that goal?”. The three things you come up with become your tasks for that week and day. This engine is grounded in authenticity, which gives it a depth of experience that can feel somewhat overwhelming at first. By overcoming the overwhelm and grounding your time in your own values, intentions and goals, you become capable of accomplishing what you want.
As you start the process of aligning your time to your values, there will be a period of time where the only answer you can bring yourself to give is “I don’t know what I want!” That’s not a problem, because uncovering what you want is the first step. In fact, aligning your time to a vaguely compelling, imperfect goal actually generates clarity about what you truly, deeply want.
It sounds circular, I know. We think that we will trust ourselves when we feel firm in what we want. But the truth is, moving forward when we are somewhat tenuous about what we want is what creates the trust that is required to become firm in what we want. (<- That is a heck of sentence, so if you feel confused or annoyed, don’t worry. All will become clear as you get busy aligning your time. I pinky promise.)
Great question! I have created a journal that will help you develop the skill set and habits needed to become your own personal accountability partner! It’s called the Aligned Time Journal and it’s brand new!
Amanda Crowell, PhD is a cognitive psychologist obsessed with how people make change. She is best known for translating cutting edge research into practical strategies that can be used right away.