A few weeks ago I listened to this podcast with Brene Brown (Author of so many great books including Dare to Lead and the Gifts of Imperfection) and James Clear, discussing his recent book Atomic Habits. I loved what they had to say and have sat with it, trying to pick apart what resonated and what made me uncomfortable (because the latter is where we can always find the most value).
I loved how they jumped right past what I think most of us view as sort of the quintessential framework for setting a goal: make it SMART= Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-based. James Clear’s point is that most of the time we focus too much on what the goal is, as opposed to how we are going to achieve it. He said:
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fail to the level of your systems.”
The more I think about it- the more true it is. He puts it well- the system is the collection of your daily habits, so if there is ever a gap between your system and your goal, your daily habits will always win. And your current habits are perfectly designed to deliver your current results…
- Say your goal is to meditate twice a day. Why do you fail? Because you don’t set your schedule up in a way to accommodate twice daily meditation.
- Say your goal is to lose 20 lbs. Why do you fail? Because you fill your pantry and fridge with unhealthy foods.
- Say your goal is to be less judgmental. Why do you fail? Because you have no process in place to help you work on stepping into compassion and acceptance.
So what do we do? How do we even begin setting goals?
It all boils down to shifting our attention from what our SMART goal is, to figuring out what kind of person would accomplish that goal and changing our intentions to center around this- having identity based goals, versus accomplishment based ones.
- Twice daily meditation is the SMART goal- well what kind of person does that? There are many reasons to meditate; one example is a person who prioritizes their emotional, mental, and spiritual well being by centering, contemplating, or meditating daily. You can be that person, even if “all” you do is a five minute guided meditation off Insight Timer.
- Losing 20 lbs is the SMART goal- but perhaps the kind of person you want to be is someone who exercises daily. This doesn’t need to be an hour long sweat session at the gym every day. It could mean going for a ten minute walk, or doing seven sun salutations when you wake up.
- Being less judgmental doesn’t fit well into the SMART rubric, but it’s still a common goal people set for themselves- perhaps it’s really that you want to be the type of person who jumps to compassion first- someone who is better able to see someone else’s side of the story. This doesn’t have to be overwhelming, and it doesn’t mean you have to spend 30 minutes a day contemplating the shadowy parts of your soul. It could simply mean that every time you find yourself judging someone, you stop and list three alternatives other than your judgy ones as to why someone might be acting the way they are.
What’s the value in this? What’s the value in shifting from only focusing on a SMART goal to thinking more big picture about the kind of person you want to be? The biggest one I can think of (without having read Clear’s book, which is on my nightstand and next in line- I promise I’ll let you know any major tidbits once I’ve read it)- is that it allows us to focus on consistency over perfection. Think about it- instead of “failing” on a given day:
- Because you didn’t do two twenty-minute mediations – you can shift to being someone who practices some form of spiritual betterment every day because you listen to a guided yoga nidra as you fall asleep.
- Because you didn’t make it to the gym – you can shift to doing ten pushups before bed and being able to truthfully say that you are still someone who doesn’t miss a day of exercising.
- Because you flat out judged that woman who yelled at her kids in the grocery store – you can shift to being someone who is working on acceptance because you were able to think of three other reasons why that guy cut you off on your way home from work.
I love this. I love this idea so much. Because you want to know why so many people stop working towards goals? Because they feel like they are failing during the journey to achieving them. And this gives you a mechanism to stop doing that- instead you just ask yourself, “What would a person with the identity that I’m looking for do in this situation?”
- I skipped my twenty minute meditation this morning and now I don’t have time; my daily streak is blown. SHIFT to “What would a person who meditates consistently do?”
- I didn’t even go for a ten minute walk today, and now it’s dark out. I’m never going to lose that weight. SHIFT to “What would a person who exercises every day do?”
- I judged ten people yesterday but didn’t stop in the moment to think of alternatives to them being selfish or ignorant etc. I guess this is just who I am. SHIFT to “What would a person who is trying to cultivate compassion do?”
This concept allows for us to pivot. To realize that maybe the SMART goal wasn’t actually as smart as we thought it was when we set it. To recognize that sometimes days get away from us and we seriously don’t have time to go to the gym, or that we are really stressed and it’s almost impossible to try to use higher level thinking when we are worried about how we’re going to pay for our groceries.
Life happens- but our daily habits are the consistent arc that takes us through it all. So if your habit is to respond to difficulty by falling into “Oh well, I can’t do this goal perfectly so the day is blown and I can’t do anything about it”, then you will consistently feel like a failure and a victim of life. But if your habit is to say “Wait, how is this for me. What CAN I do?”, you will consistently see every challenge as an opportunity to shift, change, and rewire into the type of person you want to be.
This new way of thinking about habits allows us to acknowledge our own inner experience and gives us a mechanism of proving to ourselves that we are consistently working towards our goals.
One other major takeaway I had from the podcast was the simple idea that a habit must be established before it can be improved. This is why we meditate for 10 minutes a day when we begin, vs. demanding we meditate twice a day for 20- we need to set the framework for the new habit of becoming a meditator. Once that is established, it’s far easier to begin to improve and step into the full expression of what that means to us. We basically need to master the art of showing up- so even if it’s only reading one page a day (to become a reader), or walking into the gym every single day just to get on the treadmill for 5 minutes (to become a daily exerciser), or taking 2 minutes every day to contemplate a facet of the heart (to become someone who prioritizes their spiritual well being)… this is how we prove to ourselves that we are who we want to be and get out of the perfectionist mindset. Making these little daily choices prove to our inner selves that we are, in fact, progressing- and that sense of progression is one of the most satisfying things to our minds. So even doing ONE pushup is important. Is it going to get you the body you want? Of course not, but it DOES reinforce to your subconscious that you are the kind of person who doesn’t skip workouts and improve the operation of the system that’s holding you back.
So here we are, about to step into a New Year, full of possibility, and I ask you-
Who do you want to be? How do you want to show up for yourself, and for the world?
I know I want to be more compassionate, less in fear; more accepting, less judgmental; more present, less distracted. I want to be a person who doesn’t skip a workout! I’ve written down the full scope of the person I want to exemplify, taped it to the inside of my medicine cabinet, and intend to read it every morning as I brush my teeth. At the top of it is James Clear’s quote:
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.”
How are you going to vote this year?