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How to Start Working Towards Your Goals, Slowly


Last spring was pretty WILD. Between the lockdown kicking off, protests, an election year, and a constant sense of foreboding about my job security, I wasn't feeling too great. One thing I know that would help me during this chaos was working out, more specifically running.


The problem was that this time last year, I hadn't been for a run in about 6 months and in 2019 I only ran like 10 times total. I finished out 2020 with about 160 runs which were a lot more than I thought I was going to accomplish.


Two things helped me run consistently last year, motivation and focus on incremental change. While both strategies helped me to improve my running game, I didn't leave them on the asphalt, I took them with me to work, and applied them elsewhere.


Here's how I did it and here's how I use these strategies to start new habits.


Find What Works for You

I'm not very competitive, especially in events that are predominantly driven by luck or complicated strategies. However, I am very competitive in events that are purely influenced by my performance. It just so happens that running falls into that category.


The results that I was looking for were directly connected to my effort and performance. Every mile I ran was an addition to my monthly total. Every time I went outside that was +1 for my number of runs for the month. So, my lead metrics directly affected my lag metrics.


It's important to note that I didn't measure lag metrics like losing weight or 'being' healthier. I was confident that running was adding a positive impact to my lifestyle and that was the intent that I wanted to focus on.


Finally, my secret sauce that guaranteed consistency was introducing a group element for accountability. I roped in my college roommates into a competition and decided that my only rule was that I wouldn't come in last place. Amongst this group of guys, that was all the motivation I needed.


Application To Any Goal

Motivation can feel elusive. Even more so it can be incredibly unreliable. However, whenever we can narrow in on our motivations we can leverage them to get work done. For example, I'm very sensitive to deadlines, even when they may be self-imposed or arbitrary.


Deadlines are effective for me because they are connected to my perspective on capability. But, other factors you can consider as motivators include: relationship obligations, consistency, responsibility, or showing up as a leader.


Next, I need to know that my effort is connected to the outcome that I'm pursuing. Therefore, I place a high premium on metrics. Metrics is my way of assessing the progress I'm making that is helping me to accomplish my results.


Everyone doesn't work well with consistently tracking metrics. However, everyone can benefit from regularly assessing their progress. Here are two alternatives you might consider if metrics are not for you - gathering feedback or accountability partnership.


Regardless of what you have to tackle, figuring out your motivation is key. So, when you don't feel like doing the work, you'll have a compelling reason to keep moving forward. Also, have a clear connection between your actions and outcomes by assessing your progress.


Start REALLY Small

My approach to forming a new habit and getting a new goal started is the same. Find the smallest, meaningful action that can be taken and repeat it as frequently as possible. From a running standpoint, it was easy to apply that goal with either time or distance.


I liked the idea of 1 mile being my smallest, meaningful action. I was incredibly out of shape when I got back into running, but not so out of shape that I could run - more like a speedwalk - for a mile.


One mile would also add to my bucket in terms of distance for the day, but it didn't feel like a major commitment. It didn't take me more than about 10 minutes. So, when the thought of going for a run came to mind, it felt easy to accomplish.


I could go for a run every day, but I knew the further I started running the more resting and recovery would become important. So, I started with my goal being to run at least 4 times a week, which was great because that only gave me the option of skipping a couple of times a week.


After I had been running for a while, I started making progress and consistently running for a few weeks. However, when my daily distance increased, it started getting harder to head out daily. So, a friend helped me redefine my smallest, meaningful action to just putting on my shoes.


Completing a 3-mile run had become relatively easy. But, finding the discipline to do so became a challenge on some days. I could always find the energy to put my shoes on. What I learned was that once the shoes went on, I always went for a run.


Application to Any Goal

We often feel pressure to be as productive as possible, as early as possible when tackling a new goal. However, we should spend more time pursuing the right actions, and consistently executing over time.


If we aren't careful, we start to think of solutions as right and wrong or win and lose. But, more practically, several solutions can be implemented that have the potential for success. Therefore, our goal should be to find the combination of actions that will grant success over time.


And, the best way to find the right combination of actions is to execute them and see what works. That's where finding the smallest, meaningful action comes into play. Because it becomes less about finding the right solution and more about finding a solution to repeat over time and see the result it generates.


It's then critical to figure out the frequency with which to repeat your action that's driving your solution. This is an iterative approach. If overtime this action isn't successful, you can observe it quickly, learn and then make changes to your next 'smallest, meaningful action.'


Regardless of the goal you are trying to accomplish or the habit you are trying to build, there will always be more than one solution possible. However, whenever you take an iterative approach and identify the smallest, meaningful action that you can take consistently, you'll begin to gain insights about what will likely lead to success in your goals.


There is no one size fits for any goal worth pursuing. But, figuring out your motivations and how to leverage them can lead to a source of energy to use at your disposal. And, identifying small, meaningful actions will allow you to iterate your way into success.