How I Set Goals

I’m going to talk about goal setting in a more general way – less about the goals I’ve set, and more about how I choose to set them. I’ve mentioned previously that I have a skewed perception of how much there is of something, whether that’s a physical/concrete resource, or something more abstract like time. There’s also the fact that as much as I like to believe I can control everything (a topic for therapy, if nothing else), I most certainly can’t, and there are so many things that can come up from the beginning of the day to the end. This isn’t supposed to be defeatist in tone, but more so a recognition of the fact that I don’t exist in a vacuum and there are many things that take up my time and energy. I’m a sentimental and emotional person, so when I set my heart on a goal, the goal is likely to be lofty, life-changing, or something that becomes all consuming in some way or another until I lose motivation, dopamine, or time to keep it up.

What this resulted in – frequently, but not always – was a pendulum swing in the opposite direction of “if I can’t keep this up, I’m just not going to do it at all,” which isn’t the most helpful approach either. It’s taken me a long time to figure this out, but the easiest changes to make are ones that aren’t going to build up to exhaustion, or deplete other resources like willpower or focus (not trying to sound like a hustle and grind type, I do legitimately mean that I backslide or get distracted more easily). I remember reading in a study skills guide for college students that if you studied a bunch but got a meh grade, you shouldn’t try to do a complete overhaul of how you approach studying, but should instead change one thing at a time to isolate which one thing is (or isn’t) working. I used this while studying, though it took me longer than it should to realise I could apply this to settings beyond academia – and even then, I’ve only really started using it in the last year or so.

I’m also the type of person who likes to do “prewards” (pre-rewards) as in I have the thing that was supposed to be my reward for completing a task BEFORE even starting, since having the thing first will motivate me to get the work done. While this might sound completely backwards (I mean, it is), it has worked sometimes, but it’s super context-specific and not always repeatable. Which means that it also wasn’t a sustainable approach to “treating myself” since I knew full well that if I was the one to give myself the reward, I’d just go get it/order it online immediately and then it’s done and taken care of, and the happy chemicals maybe carry me through the task until I get bored of it. Basically, unless there was someone else involved in the equation, I would get done what got done and usually put myself and my needs last (not sure if you’ve seen this trend on tiktok, but dishes are the Rocco to my Elmo, and generally the last chore to get done – and even then I’ve eaten a piece of chicken off the lid of a cookie tin with a plastic butter knife).

I finally figured out that what works best for me is to make my goals (and the steps of these goals) much smaller – which took a lot of tinkering to figure out. I point this out not to rag on myself, but for the sake of transparency that I didn’t suddenly understand how my motivation works overnight once I decided to take a closer look. In case this hasn’t already been explicitly stated, I’m a fun mix of perfectionist, procrastinator, stubborn, and super competitive all rolled into one – which meant that if I wasn’t almost guaranteed a success, I wouldn’t bother doing it, or I would wait until the panic set in and rush to complete it (which didn’t change until late in my degree, since I could still churn out a psych term paper in around 10 hours with minimal editing, and still get 80-85%, so I had no reason to change if the grades were still good enough). I’ve discovered that the flip of that works for me even better – setting a goal that is so simple it would be difficult to fail. In the debt-free community, this would be akin to shifting from an avalanche to snowball perspective, but I don’t necessarily want to build up like the snowball effect. I like having such a wide berth of wiggle room that I can choose to be go-go-go for a few weeks, and then take a break and ignore the goal entirely since I’m not only a bit ahead, I’m ridiculously ahead.

For the sake of making this less abstract, I’ll use the virtual race/walk that I signed up for that is 1332.5 km/828 mi. This is the distance of Highway 1 around Iceland, and that’s the challenge I signed up for about nine months ago. If I wanted to complete this in a year, I would have to complete 3.65 km/2.27 mi per day. The maximum number of days the challenges are allowed to be set as the completion time is 564 days, or just over a year and a half. The challenge accepts any activity to be converted into a distance according to their conversion chart, so even if I don’t have time for an actual walk that day, the housework that I do and the dance party I have in between tasks still gets counted as a recordable distance. You bet I set the deadline as the furthest out day, which only required 2.4 km/1.5 mi a day (which I get from walking around at work if I happen to remember to carry my phone with me, according to my pedometer). I’m not an overly fitness-oriented person, so having an app tell me every day that I’m amazing for being 360 km/220 mi ahead of my set pace is great for my ego and for motivating me to keep going. At this rate, I’m going to finish before the 1-year mark (74% of the distance done, versus 47% if I only did the daily minimum), but had I told myself I only had a year to complete it, I would have likely given up a while ago and asked for my money back. I’m also doing well by my body for doing the physical activity on a daily-ish routine, but even then, my motivation is like, 67% seeing how wide the percentage gap can be between my completion rate versus the pace, 30% seeing how strong I can get from using free weights, and 3% I like putting stickers on my calendar. Either way, it works for me, and that’s what matters.

What I hope you’re able to take away from this is that your approach to goal setting can be influenced by techniques and information that has been tested and successful for others, but it doesn’t need to be exactly what others are doing if your brain/motivation/situation isn’t the same. Heck, I don’t even expect that my method will work for everyone – but my point is, don’t be too unkind to yourself as you’re figuring things out, allow for flexibility as you navigate what works, and celebrate your progress and wins as loudly as you feel they should be (that’s 100% an invitation to tell me about your progress in my DMs on instagram).

Anyhoo, toodaloo on me being super chatty this week – more structured content will be back next week. Thanks for reading!

Printable – Must/Maybe/Meh Format & Philosophy

I thought it would be helpful to make printables of my go-to when I have a full to do list, which helped me to stay productive and on track throughout January. I find that February is a bit of a slump month for motivation, so having something to keep me organised is helpful. I’m a fan of alliteration, so I went with “must,” “maybe,” and “meh,” to title my tiered-priority system for ongoing tasks, long-term projects, and anything that I want down on paper. How I choose to approach it has more to do with the immediacy of a task and whether there are other people involved – with the expectation that a “must” will be completed that day or others need it to complete their next task, a “maybe” can be finished early but can wait until tomorrow, and “meh” is not immediate but still needs to be on my radar.

I used this format while I was in university as well, especially while doing my undergraduate honours, to figure out where to spend my energy most efficiently as I had just a bit too much on my plate on any given day. Given that I would include self-care stuff and chores on the list as well, I found that this fit better than something like an Eisenhower matrix – especially for tasks like “wash my hair,” which couldn’t be delegated to someone else.

How you choose to make this work for you can take on a variety of formats: you could choose that a must is only something that is time sensitive, a maybe is more flexible, and a meh has no fixed date; or, you might feel like you limit the number of tasks that fall into the must category, maybes are things that you can do if you have energy left, and the meh is a “I’ll get to it when I get to it.” I currently find that what works best for me is to write down everything I need to get done/whatever tasks I have in mind, then sort according to urgency. From there, I list my most important tasks under “must,” and weigh the level of importance and urgency of the remaining tasks, which are filtered into my “maybe” and “meh” categories. At the end of my day, I move “maybes” into “must” (only if they belong there for tomorrow!), and see what “mehs” need to be upgraded to “maybes.”

Why this works for me is that I’ve been doing this for about five years, and this format has adapted from role to role, and what I consider to be a “must” – as well as how many tasks are counted as a “must” – has changed over time. One of the biggest hurdles I overcame from this format is putting too many things in the “must” category. In fairness, if this is the first time you’ve organised your tasks this way, you will likely have a “must”-heavy list if you’ve been needing to catch up on tasks. As I worked through this for myself, I’ve found that what works best for me is to add one thing fewer to my “must” list, just in case something that is urgent for the day is added to my plate. If nothing else shows up, great! I can start chipping away at my “maybe” list. But if something does, I’m not frazzled and thrown for a loop with one more task to manage.

The formats that I made the printables in are based on different planner and desk calendar layouts that I’ve used before, though I would love to get your feedback for future layouts (with more on the printables page itself). Thanks for reading and happy organising!