How to Set Boundaries: 14 Proven Practices

Many people struggle with setting and enforcing boundaries. It requires knowing their preferences and breaking points. It means being willing to assert their desires and needs. This is hard for many people, either due to their upbringing or personality—or both.

There are many advantages that come with getting good at this. For example, it can help us protect our emotional wellbeing, grow as a person, develop greater self-respect and confidence, protect our time and energy, avoid burnout, earn respect from others, and prevent unnecessary relationship conflicts.

When we set boundaries, we’re helping others interact more effectively with us. Sometimes we’re setting lines for ourselves that we resolve not to cross. We’re getting clear on what we’ll accept or tolerate.

Boundaries help us function effectively. They allow us to enjoy our life and work while also giving us a sense of control over our lives.

When we don’t set and enforce boundaries properly and consistently, we’re more prone to anxiety, frustration, and resentment. We get overcommitted, perhaps falling into overwork, workaholism, exhaustion, or burnout.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Get Better at Setting Boundaries: 14 Proven Practices

Thankfully, there are many things we can do to get better at this. Here are 14 proven practices for setting and enforcing boundaries:

1. Recognize that setting and maintaining boundaries can benefit our lives greatly, including our work and our leadership. Given all the benefits, it’s well worth the effort. Also, it gets easier over time.

2. Realize that setting and enforcing boundaries is not just good for us but for everyone involved. Why? Because it creates clarity and generates mutual respect.

3. Avoid falling into the trap of overestimating the resistance that will come from setting boundaries. Our brains are good at generating fear and anticipating worst-case scenarios. Often, the reality is not nearly as bad as we fear when we get into worrying mode.

4. Stay focused on the higher purpose of setting boundaries instead of the down-side of the temporary awkwardness. When we set boundaries, it’s usually for a good and important reason such as protecting our wellbeing or reserving our time for our top priorities. In this light, it’s well worth a little temporary pain or awkwardness.

5. Evaluate our current boundaries to identify areas that need improvement. In particular, look for situations that often result in discomfort or resentment.

6. Take an inventory of boundary crossings that have happened. Thinking about these instances, focus especially on the people, the situations, and how they make us feel.

7. Determine new boundaries that we want to set and recommit to or update old boundaries. Our core values and current goals and priorities should inform these decisions. If we’re new to setting boundaries or have struggled with it in the past, we’re wise to start small and build out from there.

8. Communicate boundaries clearly. Sometimes, the problem is that we’re expecting people to read our minds and just know our boundaries. It’s a recipe for frustration and failure. Sometimes, we may want to explain our rationale so the person has context (e.g., “I’m fully booked now so I can’t help with that”). In other cases, we can leave it with a declaratory statement (“I can’t take that on”) or even just a simple “No.”

“No is a complete sentence.”
-Anne Lamott, writer

9. Be consistent in communicating and enforcing boundaries. This is key. It’s where the rubber meets the road. Without consistency, others are likely to get confused or forget, and that may take us back to square one. Better to do the hard work upfront and in the early stages until things start to take on a life of their own.

10. Develop our assertiveness, including getting better at saying “no” and saying it more often. We can focus on saying no to requests and opportunities that don’t align with our values or advance our priorities. We can avoid spending time with negative people who drag us down with their criticism, complaints, neediness, or narcissism. And we can decline opportunities or requests, so we don’t end up doing all the work ourselves (versus delegating things to others).

“The difference between successful people and really successful people
is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
-Warren Buffett, chair and CEO, Berkshire Hathaway

11. Be kind but firm. Ideally, we come across as thoughtful and considerate while still assertive and clear. Sometimes, a little humor helps.

12. Get clear about who we are, what we value, and how we work best. When we’ve done this inner work, it allows us to set and enforce boundaries.

13. Set boundaries on our work time. For example, we can set a maximum number of hours we’ll work each week. We can limit email to certain hours, with rare exceptions only as needed. It helps to plan ahead—and be sure to identify and focus on our most important tasks.

14. Place boundaries around our emotional commitment to others. Boundaries aren’t just about our time. They’re also about the focus of our attention and emotions. It’s a trap to feel responsible for other people’s choices or their happiness or outcomes.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Conclusion

Of course, setting and enforcing boundaries isn’t a one-and-done deal. It’s an ongoing process that requires reflection and course corrections. As we proceed with it, we must keep making judgments about when to be strict and when to make exceptions based on new information.

As we choose our boundaries, we should bear in mind that other people will make different choices about their boundaries. What works for us may not work for others. So, we should respect other people’s boundaries even as we fight for our own.

Also, it’s a mistake to think about boundaries only in the negative—only as things that we and others can’t do. Why? Because when we get good at setting and enforcing boundaries, it sets us up for all the positive things we actually want to do and experience. By setting limits, we gain freedom. We free up our time and energy to live life on our terms.

“Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how you use it.
You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.”

-Anna Taylor, author

 

Tools for You

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Related Traps

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Boundaries

  • “Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” -Josh Billings, American humorist
  • “Givers need to set limits because takers rarely do.” -Rachel Wolchin, author

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

+++++++++++++++++

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Is This It? On the Disappointment of Success

For so long we’ve wished for it. Worked hard for it. Suffered for it. Our dream.

We clawed and climbed for it. Sacrificed for it.

One day, after all the trials and tribulations, we’re finally there. The treasure chest of our dreams is before us. We almost can’t believe it.

We pause, relishing the moment, and then open it.

What we find is astonishing.

It’s empty.

Empty.

EMPTY???

How can that possibly be?

But it is. The treasure chest is empty.

What we’ve encountered is the “arrival fallacy”—the assumption that once we accomplish a major goal, we’ll get lasting happiness or satisfaction. It’s a lie.

 

Examples All Around Us

We see it all around us.

 

We see it in former athletes.

Think of Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, with an astonishing 28 medals, 23 of them gold. He was World Swimmer of the Year eight times and broke 29 individual world records. He’s considered the greatest swimmer of all time—and perhaps one of the greatest athletes of all time.

After all that, he found himself in a depression after retiring from swimming and revealed that he had contemplated suicide. Is this it?

Think of Tom Brady. He won seven Super Bowl championships and was the most valuable player of the Super Bowl five times. When somebody asked him during his storied career which Super Bowl ring is his favorite, Brady replied, “The next one.”

Here’s Brady talking to journalist Steve Kroft:

Brady: Why do I have three Super Bowl rings, and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, “Hey man, this is what is.” I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me, I think: God, it’s gotta be more than this. I mean this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be. I mean I’ve done it. I’m 27. And what else is there for me?
Kroft: What’s the answer?
Brady: I wish I knew. I wish I knew….

 

We see it in our accomplishments, like a promotion or raise.

We’ve been working so hard, and we believe those achievements will transform our lives for the better. Yet we’re disappointed when we see that the reality is often far different from our expectations.

“After a lifetime of trying, I finally had a book hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list.
It made me really happy… for about ten minutes.”
-author

 

We see it in retirees.

After looking forward to finally enjoying life after putting so much time into their work, many recent retirees hit the golf course or the beach and wonder, Is this it? According to researchers, the prevalence of depression among retirees is substantially higher than that of the overall older adult population. (1)

 

We see it in former executives.

Hubert Joly had remarkable success early in his business career. After making partner at McKinsey & Co. by age 30, he led EDS France, turned around Vivendi’s video games divisions, and became CEO of Carlson-Wagonlit Travel. He felt that he had reached the top of a mountain. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to the hype. First, it came with all sorts of new problems and hassles. And second, it felt empty.

“The mountaintop felt desolate. The idea of success I had been chasing turned out to be hollow,
and I felt disillusioned and empty.”

-Hubert Joly, former chairman and CEO, Best Buy

 

We see it everywhere.

We see it in parents whose children have left the home. In retired military personnel. We even see it in kings.

Take the example of Abd al-Rahman III, the emir and caliph of Córdoba in southern Spain in the 10th century. Around age 70, he was reflecting on a life of remarkable worldly success: “I have now reigned above 50 years in victory or peace; beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies.” He thought about his incredible riches and all his honors, including the power and pleasure that waited on his call, as he described it. What did all of it add up to?

“I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot.
They amount to 14.”
-Abd al-Rahman III, the emir and caliph of Córdoba

Is this it? Fourteen days of happiness from 50 years of living in the best of circumstances?

Alas, getting what we want can be unsatisfying or even disappointing. It can feel like less than we imagined, not as Earth-shattering as we hoped. Why?

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

What’s Going On?

Things are good, but we feel surprisingly empty. We wonder why we’re not happy and fulfilled. Maybe we lack motivation or enthusiasm for things. We feel purposeless. Maybe we lack energy, or we’ve lost interest in activities that we once found engaging.

There are a number of factors at work here:

 

Feeling lasting satisfaction is highly unlikely due to our evolutionary biology.

Given our biological makeup, we have an urge to keep pursuing more (lest we run out of food or shelter) and an inability to maintain any strong emotional state. We have a strong wanting drive that’s deeply baked into our nature.

A big part of what’s going on here is the frustrating but very real phenomenon of hedonic adaptation (also called the hedonic treadmill), in which we become rapidly accustomed to changes in our circumstances and then settle into that new baseline as if nothing had occurred. We’re wired biologically to return to homeostasis. Whenever we experience change, our mind and body work hard to re-equilibrate. So, we return to the baseline. It’s the way we’re wired. And still we wonder: Is this it?

 

Our brain is working against us.

When we’re working toward something, our brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, motivation, and learning, in anticipation of the reward of achieving it. We get dopamine hits as we make progress toward the goal. What happens when we achieve our goal? Those dopamine hits fall away. (Ouch.) The result? We bounce from goal to goal in an endless pursuit of those hits, almost like chasing our tail.

 

When we reach the top, we may stop learning, growing, and challenging ourselves.

That’s a recipe for stasis and complacency. We also need variety to keep things interesting.

 

On our way to the top, we may have neglected important relationships in our lives.

That Faustian bargain may come back to haunt us.

 

After we’ve accomplished a goal, we can lose our sense of identity and purpose.

We have to reorient our focus toward something new, and perhaps redirect how we perceive ourselves. Not easy. (See my article, “Is Your Identity Too Wrapped up in Your Work?”)

 

Sometimes, the reality we experience at the top is a far cry from the dream we had.

Sure, there are likely to be perks of that promotion and raise, but there are also likely to be new hassles. Longer hours. More responsibilities. More cut-throat politics.

 

Contributing Factors

Often, there are contributing factors that compound the problem of disappointment. Here are some examples of common traps we fall into that make things worse.

 

Going for other people’s goals.

If we were exerting all that effort to please our parents or impress our neighbors or boss, it’s no wonder we find ourselves less than fulfilled at the end of it

 

Falling into the “expectations trap.”

When there’s a gap between our current versus expected life satisfaction, and when we become attached to our expectations, we feel disappointment, even though our life may be going well.

 

Engaging in unfair and unhelpful comparisons.

Many of us fall into the comparison trap fairly often—comparing ourselves to others on things that tend to be fairly superficial. Even worse, we tend to compare ourselves to unrealistic standards (i.e., the most outwardly successful or beautiful). It’s a recipe for disappointment.

 

Believing the common myths about happiness and success.

For example, the trap of believing that:

  • happiness comes from improving our circumstances
  • we’ll be happy when we’re successful
  • we’ll be happy when we have certain things
  • happiness is a destination
  • success is the point of life
  • we can measure success in dollars, possessions, and other things that bring us status and attention (2)

(See my article, “The Most Common Myths about Happiness.”)

 

Never feeling successful enough.

We can always do more. There’s always more to chase. (Back to the hedonic treadmill.)

 

Drifting away from ourselves in the pursuit of success.

We see the disconnection between who we really are and what we’re doing, and we feel it.

 

Drifting away from our family and friends in the single-minded pursuit of our success.

Meanwhile, it’s precisely those relationships that lead to the most enduring happiness and life satisfaction. We’ve been sabotaging them on our way to the top.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

What to Do About It

Though we’re wired this way, that doesn’t mean we’re helpless against this phenomenon and resigned to disappointment. Here are 15 things we can do to address it.

 

1. Learn to value the process and the journey instead of fixating on the end result.

Focusing only on the end result makes little sense. Are we supposed to endure four years of high school or college just so we can enjoy a two-hour ceremony? Suffer through months of training only so we can enjoy the instant it takes to cross the finish line?

 

2. Diversify our sources of happiness.

Make sure we have several irons in the fire when it comes to things that motivate us and bring us enjoyment. That way, when we’ve achieved a goal, we’re less likely to experience that drop-off of happiness and motivation, because we have other things that enrich our lives.

 

3. Make plans for what will follow our major initiatives.

Again, that will help us have something to look forward to. Otherwise, we may be destined to fall off the satisfaction cliff.

 

4. Mine the experience for learnings.

Instead of expecting to be lastingly happy from accomplishing something, review the experience for learning and growth. Think about what we liked about the experience—and what we didn’t. This will help us extract nuggets that we can apply as we redirect our focus toward other activities and new goals.

 

5. Recenter.

Sometimes when we’re in hot pursuit of a goal, we can lose ourselves in all that hustle. We become the single-minded, obsessed goal achiever and let other important parts of our life suffer or fall away. Now’s a good time to recenter and come back to the fullness of living whole.

 

6. Rediscover purpose.

Sometimes, when we’re pursuing a goal, we lose sight of our deeper why, our purpose. Our goal-pursuit is about ego, prestige, status, or vanity instead of about something bigger than ourselves like connection, service, or spirituality.

 

7. Give back.

If we’re caught up in disappointment about the lack of lasting happiness after a big accomplishment, it’s a sign that we’re too focused on ourselves. Change the focus to helping others. For example, ask the following:

What did we learn along the way that we can share with others? How can we teach it or otherwise give back to make the accomplishment even more meaningful and impactful?

German-American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson coined the term “generativity” and described it as a stage in our psychosocial development characterized by “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.” The idea is that, as we get older, we start focusing less on ourselves and more on nurturing and guiding young people as well as fostering the success of future generations. It resonates with what Swedish gerontologist Lars Tornstam called “gerotranscendence,” which is a shift in our understanding of ourselves and our role in things as we age, from a materialistic view of the world to a more transcendent one, with enhanced feelings of connection with past generations and lower interest in superficial social interaction.

 

8. Learn to savor life now.

This means noticing what’s going on around us and fully feeling positive emotions. In the process, we extend them and help encode them in our memory banks.

 

9. Realize that we never really arrive while we’re living.

Living isn’t about reaching some metaphorical finish line. Do we really believe that life is a race? Living isn’t about reaching some chosen level of success. Do we really believe that success is the point of life?

 

10. Reinvest in learning and growing.

Take a course. Read books. Listen to podcasts. Watch TED talks. Learn a new skill or language. Adopt a creative practice such as painting or poetry.

 

11. Establish a spiritual practice, ideally daily.

Engage in prayer, worship, contemplation, meditation, or yoga.

 

12. Cultivate a gratitude practice.

Return regularly to the things we have and to the things we’re thankful for. Being grateful for all we have is much wiser than expecting achievements to keep us continually satisfied.

 

13. Craft our work and leisure activities to facilitate “flow” states.

When in flow, we’re so absorbed in something that we lose track of time. In such a state of optimal experience, dissatisfaction is impossible.

 

14. Build more of our strengths and passions into our life and work.

Figure out what we’re good at (our strengths) and what we love (our passions) and creatively bake them into the fabric of our days.

 

15. Focus on everyday progress toward an ever-renewing set of meaningful goals and worthy activities.

That’s wiser than placing all of our hopes on ONE BIG ATTAINMENT.

As always, we’re wise to seek professional help from a coach, mentor, or therapist if we feel stuck in a rut or caught in a loop of dissatisfaction.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Conclusion

Some may conclude from contemplating the arrival fallacy that there’s no point in setting and pursuing goals. While understandable, that’s a mistake. We should continue setting and pursuing goals but change our focus from a fixation on goal achievement to enjoying (and mastering) the process along the way. We can change the focus from winning or achieving to who we become in the process of pursuing goals. Indeed, pursuing goals can be energizing, fun, and fulfilling. We can enjoy the process of learning, growing, and discovering how to address challenges along the way. Lasting, sustainable happiness is about good living day in and day out, teed up by intentional choices about what matters, not about achieving certain levels of success.

In the end, maybe we should stop chasing things like happiness, success, wealth, beauty, fame, power, prestige, comfort, and pleasure. These all have their merits, of course. But they’re destined to disappoint in the final analysis.

Why not focus instead on living a good life—on intentionally crafting a life we love and that fits our nature? A life of health, connection, and service. On crafting a life of purpose, learning, growth, integrity, and wisdom. A life of joy and savoring. And a life in which we work to make things better, with and for others.

Back to the treasure chest.

Maybe we were looking for the treasure in the wrong place? The treasure was with us all along, but we were so focused on the prize at the end that we missed what was before us.

Will we keep repeating the mistake?

 

Tools for You

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations

  • “Is there anything in life so disenchanting as attainment?” -Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish novelist and poet
  • “As the days wore on, there was a part of me that felt empty… I had always believed that when you win a championship you’re transported to some new, exalted place. What I realized was that you are the same person you were before, and that if you are not content with who you are, a championship, or any accomplishment, isn’t going to change that.” -Ray Allen, NBA basketball star
  • “So I won an Olympic gold. And as I climbed down from the podium, the only thought I could think was, ‘What the hell do I do now?’ It was awful, absolutely terrifying. It was like death—the worst feeling I’d ever had.” -a client of Dr. Martha Beck, Harvard-trained sociologist, coach, and author, as told in The Way of Integrity
  • “When I was younger, I spent too much time obsessing over what would make me feel better or how I imagined a certain set of circumstances would magically transform my life and career.” -Judith Viorst, writer and author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
  • “I can’t get no satisfaction.” -The Rolling Stones
  • “Arrival fallacy is this illusion that once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness.” -Tal Ben-Shahar, teacher and writer
  • “People haven’t found meaning in their lives, so they’re running all the time looking for it. They think the next car, the next house, the next job. Then they find these things are empty, too, and they keep running.” -Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie
  • “Everyone has dreams, and they beckon with promises of sweet, lasting satisfaction if you achieve them. But dreams are liars. When they come true, it’s … fine, for a while. And then a new dream appears.” -Arthur Brooks, “How to Want Less,” The Atlantic
  • “The funny thing about having all this so-called success is that behind it is a certain horrible emptiness.” -Sam Shepard, actor and playwright
  • “To live for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.” -Robert Pirsig, philosopher and writer
  • “Never let success hide its emptiness from you, achievement its nothingness…. Your duty, your reward—your destiny—are here and now.” -Dag Hammarskjöld, Swedish diplomat
  • “Happiness is not a mental state that can be permanently won…. By misunderstanding happiness, the modern conception increases the likelihood of disappointment.” -Nat Rutherford, University of London
  • “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness: on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming at something else, they find happiness by the way.” -John Stuart Mill, English philosopher
  • “We need the sweet pain of anticipation to tell us we are really alive.” -Albert Camus, French philosopher and author
  • “…our natural state is dissatisfaction, punctuated by brief moments of satisfaction…. The secret to satisfaction is not to increase our haves—that will never work (or at least, it will never last). That is the treadmill formula, not the satisfaction formula. The secret is to manage our wants. By managing what we want instead of what we have, we give ourselves a chance to lead more satisfied lives.” -Arthur Brooks, “How to Want Less,” The Atlantic
  • “The late-life crisis… really is a thing. Recent research has found that as many as one in three people over 60 will experience it in some form. The late-life crisis is characterized by dissatisfaction; a loss of identity; an expectations gap and the feeling that life has peaked, so it’s all downhill from here.” -Richard Leider and David Shapiro, Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old? The Path of Purposeful Aging
  • “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” -C.S. Lewis, British scholar, writer, and lay theologian
  • “Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” -Luke 12:33-34 NIV

 

References

(1) Pabón-Carrasco M, Ramirez-Baena L, López Sánchez R, Rodríguez-Gallego I, Suleiman-Martos N, Gómez-Urquiza JL. Prevalence of depression in retirees: a meta-analysis. Healthcare. 2020;8(3):321

(2) Material things aren’t likely to boost our happiness in a sustained way, according to the research. What’s more, materialistic people tend to be less happy than others. They tend to have fewer positive emotions and lower life satisfaction levels, on average, not to mention more anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. (Source: Dacher Keltner and Jason Marsh, “How Gratitude Beats Materialism,” Greater Good Magazine, January 8, 2015.)

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

+++++++++++++++++

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Stop Avoiding Things: 17 Practices

Struggle with avoidance? We all avoid things sometimes. It’s natural.

Do you tend to bypass that difficult task? Put things off until later—or never? Steer clear of that difficult somebody? Change that uncomfortable subject? Put off that hard conversation? Sidestep that brewing conflict? Maybe you put off going to the doctor to get that concerning symptom checked out.

It’s like your life is a game of dodgeball. When things get thrown your way, you dodge, duck, dip, and dive.

If you’re like others, perhaps you avoid things not only via your behavior but also in terms of your thoughts and feelings.

Avoidance is natural, a coping mechanism. But it can become maladaptive when it’s overused or used in the wrong circumstances.

Many people avoid too many things and too often. Sometimes it isn’t a conscious choice per se. It’s stimulus-response. Challenge-avoid.

The problem is that things often end up getting worse because of it. And it can become programmed behavior, a habit of sorts, affecting many things in your life, from your performance and leadership to your relationships and self-respect.

Avoidance may make things easier now, but over time things tend to fester, becoming much worse over time. For example, it can lead to even more anxiety and concern because you’ve allowed things to deteriorate further. Avoidance can also be frustrating to others, like spouse or colleague, and make things worse for them too, leading to new conflicts.

In the end, avoiding something leaves the core problem unaddressed. Avoidance can become a way of life, a bad habit pattern, a vicious circle.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Stop Avoiding Things: 17 Practices

Given all these damaging consequences, the question arises: What can you do about it?

Here are 17 ways you can break the bad habit of avoiding things:

1. Start by noticing your avoidance behaviors. If you start looking for them, you can bring them into your consciousness and begin addressing them intentionally. Such mindfulness is an important first step.

2. Seek the root cause of your avoidance behavior. What’s the deeper why behind it? Continue asking why until you’ve hit paydirt and there are no more deeper reasons. There are many possible reasons. Perhaps it just feels easier to avoid things than to deal with them? Maybe you’re afraid of looking bad or failing so you decide to avoid it instead? Perhaps you believe you can avoid the anxiety associated with people or things if you avoid them?

3. Process your emotions. Giving yourself an emotional outlet will help you refrain from maladaptive avoidance. Resist the temptation to bottle your feelings up. Find ways to release them instead. Talk through your feelings or try journaling. Get some exercise to change your physiological state.

4. Divide the problem you’re avoiding into smaller, more manageable chunks. That way, you’ll see that it’s not as intimidating.

5. Start with an easy task or small encounter to get momentum. This can also help you develop confidence.

6. Look for ways to boost your motivation for a better result, one that would leave avoidance in the dust. For example, consider all the ways that avoidance is holding you back from personal or professional excellence (e.g., by harming your relationships or impeding your progress toward goals). Or give yourself small rewards for addressing things.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

7. Reframe a situation to note the positives and refrain from focusing only on the negatives. For example, turn a problem you’re dreading into a puzzle you’re curious about solving.

8. Quiet your negative self-talk. Give yourself some grace and don’t let avoidance become yet another reason to beat yourself up. Practice self-compassion and replace your negative self-talk with a more charitable interpretation (e.g., we’re all a work in progress).

9. Practice your communication skills. This will help prepare you to deal more effectively with tough situations as they arise. With good communication skills, you’ll be able to advocate for yourself more assertively, and you’ll be able to engage in what author Susan Scott calls “fierce conversations.”

10. Set a deadline for taking action. Commit to addressing it by a certain date and time so it doesn’t keep slipping into a squishy future that somehow never arrives.

11. Build action habits. Through consistent actions, you change your identity to a “doer.” You change your self-concept to someone who addresses things upfront instead of avoiding them. (See my article on “The Incredible Benefits of Being Action-Oriented.”)

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage.
If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

-Dale Carnegie, writer and lecturer

12. Recognize that addressing something you’ve been avoiding can make you feel powerful. It can give you a sense of agency and accomplishment. Maybe it leads to momentum or greater confidence. Bear in mind that challenges can help you grow. They give you a chance to learn about yourself and others, all while developing your capabilities. With a growth mindset, you can view things that you previously avoided as opportunities for personal development and capacity-building.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

13. Work on your problem-solving skills. If you get in the habit of creatively exploring ways to solve challenges instead of avoiding them, you’ll build a valuable capacity for it and also your confidence when it comes to facing up to challenging situations in the future. You can do this alone or with a trusted friend or colleague. It may help to write down some ideas to prime your brain and serve as a reminder.

14. Develop your tolerance and flexibility. Build your tolerance of difficult emotions while acknowledging that there are some situations that may be too taxing for you, at least for now. If you have rigid ideas about the ways things need to unfold, it can make you anxious. Work on embracing the unexpected and appreciating the different ways people approach things—and all the different ways things can get addressed.

15. Work on improving your coping skills and strategies. Try deep breathing and self-monitoring. Engage your “observer: (practice watching your thoughts and developing your awareness of feelings, emotions, impulses, and recurring behaviors). Or get in the habit of moving from the metaphorical dance floor and getting on the balcony in difficult situations, as Harvard leadership expert Ronald Heifetz advises. That means stepping back from the action and observing what’s going on from a higher perspective. Check in with your feelings. Get curious about the situation and ask yourself gentle, possibility-opening questions (e.g., “How might I address this? What would my best self do in this situation?”).

16. Resist your urge to avoid when it appears. Commit to being the kind of person who deals with things and not falling into the trap of avoidance.

17. Get support. Ask for help from a friend, mentor, coach, accountability partner, small group, and/or therapist.

Which of these practices will you try?

 Wishing you well with it!

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Addressing Avoidance

  • “Avoidance coping causes anxiety to snowball because when people use avoidance coping they typically end up experiencing more of the very thing they were trying to escape.” -Dr. Alice Boyes, PhD, author, The Anxiety Toolkit
  • “Avoidance is the best short-term strategy to escape conflict, and the best long-term strategy to ensure suffering.” -Brendon Burchard, author
  • “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.” -Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

+++++++++++++++++

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Get Better at Asking for Help: 10 Tips

Many of us have a hard time asking for help.

Maybe we pride ourselves on being independent. Self-sufficient. A Lone Ranger.

There’s value in being self-sufficient, but when we’re too proud to ask for help it can be costly. It can keep us stuck in hardship and delay our advances, or lead to overwork and burnout. And it can inhibit close relationships with family and friends.

“Going it alone in times of hardship is never a good idea.”
-Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

Asking for help is an important skill that can aid us in all our endeavors, from living and loving to leading and learning. We’re wise to get good at it.

 

How to Get Better at Asking for Help: 10 Tips

Here are 10 things you can do to develop the useful skill of asking for help:

1. Notice that nobody succeeds without the help of others. Where would you be without the help of parents, teachers, coaches, teammates, colleagues, mentors, and friends?

2. Recognize that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. It means you’re committed to your goals and confident enough to show some vulnerability.

3. Realize that the alternative (not asking for help) means continuing your frustration and suffering.

4. Understand that your fears about asking for help are misplaced. Even the worst-case scenario probably isn’t so bad. Perhaps the person refuses to help or can’t right now. Maybe you feel a bit awkward or disappointed for five seconds. So what?

5. Recall that most people like to help others. It makes them feel good to contribute. Think about how you felt when you were asked for help. (1)

“How have you felt when you have helped others? I think we can agree that’s one of the great feelings, right?
Why would you deprive others of the same feeling?”

-Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life

6. Stop waiting so long to ask. Consider how much time you’ve already spent on the issue, whether it’s something you’re good at addressing, and whether there are better uses of your time and energy.

7. Trust others to set boundaries for themselves. They can always decline or chat further about the extent of help they may provide.

8. Tally the potential benefits of getting help. Maybe you’ll get fresh ideas or greater clarity about how to proceed. And in the process you may very well deepen your relationship with the person contributing.

9. Start small when trying this out and build from there. This will make it more manageable and less likely that you’ll abandon it.

10. Be open with others that it’s hard for you to ask for help, but you’re trying to get better. This will make it easier to ask when the time comes.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Tools for You

 

Related Traps

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Seeking Help

  • “If I can leave you with only one piece of advice to increase your probability of creating an earned life, it is this: Ask for help. You need it more than you know.” -Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life
  • “Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.” -Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined
  • “Economists call it the warm glow of giving, and psychologists call it the helper’s high. Recent neuroscience evidence shows that giving actually activates the reward and meaning centers in our brains, which send us pleasure and purpose signals when we act for the benefit of others. These benefits are not limited to giving money: they also show up for giving time.” -Adam Grant, Give and Take

 

References

(1) According to a 2022 study by researchers Xuan Zhao and Nicholas Epley published in Psychological Science, “Those needing help consistently underestimated others’ willingness to help, underestimated how positively helpers would feel, and overestimated how inconvenienced helpers would feel…. Undervaluing prosociality could create a misplaced barrier to asking for help when needed.” (Source: Zhao, X., & Epley, N. (2022). Surprisingly Happy to Have Helped: Underestimating Prosociality Creates a Misplaced Barrier to Asking for Help. Psychological Science33(10), 1708–1731.) There’s also research noting that helping others may promote feelings of happiness, increase social connection and self-esteem, lower stress levels and blood pressure, and promote longevity. (Source: Oliver Scott Curry, Lee A. Rowland, Caspar J. Van Lissa, Sally Zlotowitz, John McAlaney, Harvey Whitehouse, Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 76, 2018, 320–329.)

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

+++++++++++++++++

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Be More Action-Oriented

One of the biggest mistakes many people make is waiting too long before taking action. Not having enough of an action orientation.

What good are dreams, visions, and plans if we don’t act on them? To live well, we must get good at taking action. We have to stop hesitating. We have to stop waiting too long before acting.

 

12 Benefits of Being Action-Oriented

There are many benefits of being action-oriented. For example, it:

  1. helps us learn and develop
  2. builds our confidence 
  3. helps develop our courage 
  4. changes our self-identity to someone with greater power and agency
  5. helps us learn about ourselves
  6. expands our sense of possibility
  7. builds momentum
  8. positions us as a doer and leader—and people respond to that.
  9. yields better results over time and increases our probability of success
  10. invites serendipity
  11. gives us more chances at breakthroughs
  12. helps us avoid the cost of regret for not trying

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Be More Action-Oriented: Five Key Factors

While there are many benefits to being action-oriented, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It requires five key factors:

 

1. Motivation.

We must tap into our desire for a better future and summon our drive to achieve. Yes, that means getting off the couch and getting to work.

 

2. Courage.

Becoming more action-oriented requires a willingness to act in spite of our fears. It requires a willingness to go for it despite the obstacles and risks.

 

3. A willingness to pounce when opportunities arise.

Becoming more action-oriented means becoming more willing to strike, even when the picture isn’t fully clear. We must tap into our warrior spirit.

 

4. A growth mindset.

According to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, a growth mindset is a belief that we can develop our intelligence, abilities, and talents. If we have a fixed mindset, by contrast, we believe those things are static, and we’ll be preoccupied with the prospect of looking bad or being wrong and thus less likely to take action.

 

5. Clarity about what we want and where we’re going.

We can fuel our action orientation with a compelling vision of success, an inspiring dream of a better future.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Conclusion

When we move from hesitation mode to an action orientation, powerful forces start swirling.

Also, isn’t it more fun to be in the game than on the sidelines, not knowing the ultimate outcome but engaging in the pursuit and struggle?

Truth be told, we never really know the perfect time for things, so we might as well get started sooner rather than later. Where does waiting get us?

What are you waiting for?

Image source: Adobe Stock

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Do you have enough of an action orientation?
  2. Or are you hesitating too much?
  3. What more will you do to start taking bold action?

 

Tools for You

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Postscript: Quotations on Being Action-Oriented

  • “The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.” -Meister Eckhart, German mystic
  • “An ounce of action can crush a ton of fear.” -Tim Fargo, author, angel investor, and entrepreneur
  • “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” -Dale Carnegie , writer and lecturer
  • “Often the difference between a successful man and a failure is not one’s better abilities or ideas, but the courage that one has to bet on his ideas, to take a calculated risk—and to act.” -Maxwell Maltz, surgeon and author
  • “Action is the foundational key to all success.” -Pablo Picasso, Spanish painter and sculptor
  • “The path to success is to take massive, determined action.” -Tony Robbins, author
  • “The world has the habit of making room for the man whose actions show that he knows where he is going.” -Napoleon Hill, author
  • “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.” -Wayne Gretzky, legendary hockey player
  • “Do not wait till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.” -William B. Sprague, clergyman and biographer
  • “I think the number one advice I can give is: you just have to start it. Just get your feet in the water and do it. I learned a lot from just trying it out.” -Yoshikazu Tanaka, Japanese entrepreneur

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

+++++++++++++++++

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

What I Learned about Life from Playing Sports

With all the action in sports lately, from college football championships to the NFL playoff hunt, it’s got me thinking about life lessons I’ve learned from sports.

No doubt we can learn plenty from sports about things like teamwork and group dynamics. But what does it teach us about life?

I’ve been an athlete my whole life, starting at age five on the soccer field and continuing through college athletics and beyond. I ran track in high school and played baseball, tennis, racquetball, and a little basketball while growing up. I loved running 10K races with my Dad and brother when I was growing up and dabbled in triathlon as an adult.

What are the lessons that have stuck with me from all these experiences?

 

There’s great power in having and pursuing a dream.

In sports, great motivation flows from the quest for a championship. And so it is in life.

What’s our quest? Our burning desire? What would be a good life for us? What motivates us down to our bones? Our dreams and aspirations can light us up and fill us up with hope and energy, prodding us to take more action in pursuit of our aims.

“Somewhere behind the athlete you’ve become and the hours of practices and the coaches who have pushed you… is a little girl who fell in love with the game and never looked back. Play for her.”
-Mia Hamm, legendary U.S. women’s soccer champion

 

Hard work and dedication set us apart.

Growing up in southern California, I played for the Choppers, a select soccer team with players from around the area. Our coach was into fitness. Big-time. I don’t think he ever wore a shirt at practice. He was always buff and tan. And he worked us like dogs. He focused on fitness, not just skill work. We did pushups and sit-ups alongside our soccer drills. He often had us race each other to see who was the fastest and who had the most stamina and heart.

His lessons stuck with me when I played college ball. I was a good midfielder, but I prided myself on my conditioning. I knew it could give me a big advantage. Nobody would be running as hard as I would be late in the game (or in double overtime) because I had put in massive work before the season began.

There are many things we want in life, for ourselves and our family. The question is what we’re willing to do to obtain them. Hard work day after day can add up to tremendous progress and, importantly, to learning and momentum for more forward progress.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Hard work is amplified greatly by a deliberate and disciplined process and pursuit.

Do we have systems in place to get a little better each day? And to track progress?

Growing up, I always admired wide receiver Jerry Rice. He was fun to watch over his 20 seasons in the National Football League, not only because of his clutch plays but also because of his speed, stamina, athleticism, and great blocking. He retired with an amazing array of records, from most touchdowns and touchdown receptions to most receiving yards and most career points scored for a non-kicker. Not to mention three Super Bowl titles. (Check out his career highlights video.)

In the book, Talent Is Overrated, author Geoff Colvin recounts Rice’s approach:

“In team workouts he was famous for his hustle; while many receivers would trot back to the quarterback after catching a pass, Rice would sprint to the end zone after each reception. He would typically continue practicing long after the rest of the team had gone home. Most remarkable were his six-days-a-week off-season workouts, which he conducted entirely on his own. Mornings were devoted to cardiovascular work, running a hilly five-mile trail; he would reportedly run ten forty-meter wind sprints up the steepest part. In the afternoons he did equally strenuous weight training. These workouts became legendary as the most demanding in the league….”

The key, though, wasn’t just hard work. Rice, according to Colvin, was also very deliberate and strategic about the way he worked out, including designing his training to work on his specific needs (e.g., running precise patterns, evading defenders, outjumping and outrunning people, etc.) and spending as much time as possible on classroom study, conditioning, and working on specific plays.

“Today I will do what others won’t, so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can’t.”
-Jerry Rice, champion wide receiver in the National Football League

 

The confidence that comes from dedication and hard work over a long period of time can be transformative.

One of my favorite photographs of my years on the soccer pitch is a snapshot of my high school co-captain and me posing with Coach Murph after a game. Part of it was that Lahmmy was such a character and Coach was such a great mentor, but mostly it’s that look on our faces. A look of defiant knowing and staunch assurance. We had suffered mightily in practice, with brutal “suicides” (sprints up and down the pitch) a million times. We were in the best shape our lives, and we were ready for any opponent.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Perseverance has magical properties.

One year, when I played for the Galaxies as a teenager, we traveled from Ohio to Florida for a soccer tournament. Late in the tournament, we were getting crushed by a strong team. They were older and much bigger. Late in the match, we were down something like 9-0, but still we hung in there. Sprinting after every ball. Tackling as hard as we could. We played with the same intensity as if we were down a goal with a minute to go. By the end of the game, even the other team’s parents were rooting for us. The crowd erupted when one of our players made a great play—a small but sublime victory of sorts.

Sir Alex Ferguson, legendary soccer coach and former manager of Manchester United, emphasized not only work ethic, emotional fortitude, and extraordinary concentration, but also “a refusal to admit defeat.” Some would say our perseverance was pointless that day. But we knew better. We were playing for ourselves that day, proving something about the kind of players we were—and the kind of team we were building.

 

When adversity comes, it’s a chance to rise.

One day at practice with the Galaxies, a much older player came to practice with us. As I planted my left leg for a kick, he tackled me hard and broke my femur just above the knee. As I was recovering, with six weeks in a full-leg hard cast followed by another six weeks in a soft cast, I learned that the break was right at one of my growth plates. It meant that I needed surgery on my right leg after my broken left leg healed so my legs wouldn’t be too uneven. Another twelve weeks or so for that leg, followed by physical therapy.

I was devastated. It was a test of whether I’d keep playing. I didn’t want an injury to define me, so I worked hard and came back stronger than ever.

“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.”
-Thomas Paine, political activist and revolutionary

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

We must go on the attack when it comes to the important things we want in life.

Marvelous things can happen when we go for it and put ourselves on the line in the face of potential failure. In soccer, I played center midfield in college. As a midfielder, I prided myself on diligently covering the whole field vertically, helping both on offense and defense.

My sophomore year, as I was gaining confidence, I realized that I had to take more shots, and I had to upgrade my mindset. Instead of thinking too much and worrying about whether I’d get a good shot off, or miss, I had to go into attack mode: attack the goal with a cracking shot. Let it rip.

And so it is in life: are we taking enough risks and putting ourselves out there? 

“I learned a long time ago that there is something worse than missing the goal, and that’s not pulling the trigger.”
-Mia Hamm, legendary U.S. women’s footballer

 

Urgency can light fires.

When I watch a soccer game now, one of the things I look for is what happens after a team scores. Of course, there’s the obligatory celebration by the scoring team. But much more important is what the other team does.

I learned this in college from my teammate, Peter. After we gave up a goal, he would haul into the back of our net, fish out the ball, and sprint like a demon possessed to the center spot.

The point was clear: We’re down one, so we need to pick it up. Way up. Forget about the goal. Let’s roll.

Too many teams wallow for precious minutes while their hopes are dwindling. Not Peter. His urgency lit a fire under us, and I never forgot it.

The same thing happens in life. Too often, when we experience a setback, we sit and wallow. We lose our momentum. Or we complain. We look for people or things to blame. Much better to get back to work right away, knowing that the game is still afoot and time is precious.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

We learn a lot about ourselves when we hit the wall.

In high school track meets, I ran the 400-meter dash. Many of my teammates called it the hardest event in track, because of the toll it takes on your body to sprint for that long. (1)

During the race, most of us “hit the wall” somewhere on the final stretch, depending on how we had run the first 300 meters. Hitting the wall is awful—as strange as it is disorienting. Your legs suddenly feel like bricks. You have to struggle mightily to keep moving them forward. You feel your whole body starting to tense up and shut down. Every step gets harder. But still you have to finish, so you keep pushing forward.

Important questions arise when you hit the wall: Do you have the strength to see it through? How well do you finish the race? And how do you respond on Monday at practice? What do you do to get better?

“And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end?
From within.”
-Eric Liddell, Scottish runner and Christian missionary, from the film “Chariots of Fire”

 

The inner game is often where things are won or lost.

In sports, it’s easy to assume that the physical game—our skill, strength, endurance, etc.—makes all the difference. But often, the mental game is more important.

In his book, The Inner Game of Tennis, author, tennis player, and coaching pioneer Tim Gallwey notes the pitfalls of fighting the mind and letting our ego take over. On the flipside, he highlights the benefits of mastering the art of relaxed and effortless concentration and of focusing the mind properly while not trying too hard.

And so it is in life. Too often, we’re focused on the outer game of competitive jockeying, career climbing, ego stroking, and material accumulation, but it’s our inner world that we need to pay more attention to.

We have to stop becoming our worst opponent. We need to silence our negative self-talk and replace it with something that actually serves us.

“…the inner game. This is the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation. In short, it is played to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.”
-W. Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis

 

There’s always a bigger picture beyond the game we’re playing.

In sports, it’s easy to get lost in the drama of the game and boil it down only to the final score. But sports is about more than winning and losing. Recall the Olympian pledge:

“Ask not alone for victory. Ask for courage. For if you can endure, you bring honor to yourself.
Even more, you bring honor to us all.”

Sports is not only about the quest for victory but also about challenge, discipline, character, mettle, teamwork, fair play, sportsmanship, grace, and transcendence.

And so it is in life. In the end, it’s about something much larger than victory or success alone. It’s about learning, growth, development, close relationships, commitment, purpose, contribution, and love.

“The moment of victory is much too short to live for that and nothing else.”
-Martina Navratilova, professional tennis champion

And, as with sports, we must prepare not only for the race or game but the years after too.

 

Conclusion

What are my life lessons from sports? Playing sports has shaped me in so many ways. I loved being on the field with my teammates. Training in the Texas heat and dripping with sweat. Staring down the curve of my lane from the starting line, waiting for the gun. The camaraderie and joy on the bus on the way back from a competition.

I made lifelong friends and learned so much about myself, life, and leadership. I’m thankful not only for the moments in competition but also for their strong and lasting echoes.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. What have you learned from sports or other activities or endeavors that have enriched your life?
  2. What more will you do to honor those lessons and carry them forward in your life today?

 

Tools for You

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Related Articles and Books

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Sports, Life, and Leadership

  • “Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better.” -Pat Riley, former NBA basketball coach and player
  • “I always felt that our triumphs were an expression of the consistent application of discipline.” -Alex Ferguson, Leading: Learning from Life and My Years at Manchester United
  • “Hard days are the best because that’s when champions are made.” -Gabby Douglas, artistic gymnast and Olympic champion
  • “If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.” -Fred DeVito, fitness expert and entrepreneur
  • “Fighting the mind does not work. What works best is learning to focus it.” -W. Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis
  • “You miss 100 percent of all the shots you never take.” -Wayne Gretzky, legendary hockey champion (a.k.a., “the great one”)
  • “Show me a guy who’s afraid to look bad, and I’ll show you a guy you can beat every time.” -Lou Brock, professional baseball player
  • “Anxiety is fear about what may happen in the future, and it occurs only when the mind is imagining what the future may bring. But when your attention is on the here and now, the actions which need to be done in the present have their best chance of being successfully accomplished, and as a result the future will become the best possible present.” -W. Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis
  • “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” -Wayne Gretzky, legendary hockey champion (a.k.a., “the great one”)
  • Audentis fortuna iuvat.” (“Fortune favors the bold.”) -Virgil, ancient Roman poet
  • “I may win and I may lose, but I will never be defeated.” -Emmitt Smith, former NFL running back and all-time leading rusher
“Every time a football player goes out to ply his trade he’s got to play from the ground up—from the soles of his feet right up to his head.  Every inch of him has to play. Some guys play with their heads. That’s O.K. You’ve got be smart to be No. 1 in any business.  But more important, you’ve got to play with your heart—with every fiber of your body. If you’re lucky enough to find a guy with a lot of head and a lot of heart, he’s never going to come off the field second.”
-Vince Lombardi, legendary American football coach, Green Bay Packers,
considered by many to be the greatest coach in football history

(1) I always thought the 800 was worse.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

+++++++++++++++++

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Get his monthly newsletter. Gregg was a co-captain of his high school and college soccer teams and high school track team, First-State in high school track, and collegiate Academic All-American soccer player (Division III). If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Power of Relationships in Our Lives

Article Summary: 

On the costs of social isolation and loneliness, the benefits of close relationships on our health, wellbeing, and happiness, and how to develop and maintain close relationships.

+++

Loneliness and disconnection are big problems these days for many. This year, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on the “public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection.” He noted, “Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness.” According to a Guardian article, about 20 percent of people report that loneliness is a “major source of unhappiness in their lives.”

“Loneliness hangs over our culture today like a thick smog.”
-Johann Hari, Lost Connections

Workaholism and the dramatic increase of screen time in our lives both aggravate the problem. Average daily digital content consumption is now just under seven hours, according to a recent Forbes report.

If we want to address the issues, first we need to understand them clearly, so let’s begin by defining the relevant phenomena.

 

Defining the Problem(s)

There are several factors at work, from loneliness and social isolation to solitude.

In his book, Together: Why Social Connection Holds the Key to Better Health, Higher Performance, and Greater Happiness, Dr. Murthy defines loneliness as “the subjective feeling that you’re lacking the social connections you need.” He explains:

“It can feel like being stranded, abandoned, or cut off from the people with whom you belong—even if you’re surrounded by other people. What’s missing when you’re lonely is the feeling of closeness, trust, and the affection of genuine friends, loved ones, and community.”

Loneliness is a normal human emotion. We all experience it, but it can become problematic when we feel it too often. Researchers have identified several types of loneliness, including:

  1. intimate loneliness: when we feel we don’t have trust and a mutual bond with an intimate partner or close confidante.
  2. relational loneliness: when we feel we don’t have quality friendships and social support.
  3. collective loneliness: when we feel we don’t have a network or community of people who share our interests and values.
“These three dimensions together reflect the full range of high-quality social connections that humans need in order to thrive. The lack of relationships in any of these dimensions can make us lonely, which helps to explain why we may have a supportive marriage yet still feel lonely for friends and community.”
-Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and his book, Together

Loneliness isn’t the same as social isolation. Researchers define social isolation as a lack of relationships with others and little to no social contact or support. Obviously, such social isolation often leads to feelings of loneliness.

Another related phenomenon is solitude. Some people conflate it with loneliness, but that’s a mistake. Researchers define solitude as a state of being alone and note that it can be voluntary or involuntary.

Solitude, it’s worth noting, can be positive. For example, it can help us have more time to reflect (a valuable thing when many of us lack margin in our lives) and lead to greater self-awareness. Also, solitude can help us develop authenticity and become more familiar with and comfortable being ourselves. Dr. Murthy points out that, perhaps surprisingly, solitude can help protect against loneliness.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Costs of Loneliness and Disconnection

Loneliness and social isolation can have adverse consequences in our lives. According to a large meta-analytic review of the research literature over more than 30 years by Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues, “Actual and perceived social isolation” (i.e., living alone, having infrequent social contact, or having few ties with a social network) “are both associated with increased risk for early mortality.” (1)

According to researchers, loneliness and disconnection are associated with:

  1. a rise in cortisol (a stress hormone)
  2. increased blood pressure
  3. elevated blood sugar levels
  4. inflammation
  5. worse immune functioning
  6. poorer health behaviors (such as physical inactivity, worse sleep, and smoking)
  7. faster aging
  8. higher risk of heart disease, stroke, and dementia
  9. greater likelihood of premature mortality (1)

According to the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, poor or insufficient connection come with a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease, 32 percent increased risk of stroke, and 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia among older adults. Also, lacking social connection can increase risk of premature death by more than 60 percent. (2) It can be just as deadly as certain diseases, according to researchers.

As if the physical health effects weren’t bad enough, loneliness and isolation often contribute to mental health challenges as well. For example, the risk of developing depression among adults who report feeling lonely often is more than double the risk among people who report feeing lonely rarely or never. When it comes to children, loneliness and social isolation elevate the risk of anxiety and depression both immediately and far into the future.

“Today it’s widely understood that one of the most important factors
in preventing and addressing toxic stress in children is healthy social connection.”
-Vivek H. Murthy, Together

Isolation can become a downward spiral, fostering discontent and shame, leading to further isolation. Many people have a tendency to go it alone through hard times and transitions, perhaps from their personality or upbringing. Unfortunately, that’s a recipe for more hardship.

“Protracted loneliness causes you to shut down socially, and to be more suspicious of any social contact…. You become hypervigilant. You start to be more likely to take offense where none was intended, and to be afraid of strangers. You start to be afraid of the very thing you need most…. disconnection spirals into more disconnection…. many depressed and anxious people receive less love, as they become harder to be around. Indeed, they receive judgment, and criticism, and this accelerates their retreat from the world. They snowball into an ever colder place.”
-Johann Hari, Lost Connections

 

The Benefits of Relationships

Forming and maintaining relationships, by contrast, comes with many benefits, according to researchers. British-Swiss journalist and author Johann Hari notes that just as bees evolved to be part of a hive, so we humans evolved to be part of a tribe. It stands to reason that there’s an evolutionary basis behind our urge to connect with others and form social bonds. Doing so helps us survive and reproduce, and it helps us access support in times of danger, distress, or trauma.

“…like food and air, we seem to need social relationships to thrive.”
-Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener,
Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth

Social bonds are not just about surviving but also about belonging and thriving. Enter what psychologists call the “belongingness hypothesis”: that we have a “pervasive drive to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal relationships.” (3) In a major review of the research literature on interpersonal attachments, researchers Roy F. Baumeister and Mark R. Leary found that our need to belong has two main features:

  • first, we need frequent interactions with others that are positive or pleasant (or at least mostly free from conflict)
  • second, we want interpersonal bonds that are stable and continuing and marked by genuine concern (and, ideally, mutual concern)

According to researchers, social relationships benefit our immune system as well as our cardiovascular and endocrine (hormone regulation) functions. (4)

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Relationships and Happiness

Researchers have long tied the quality of our relationships to our wellbeing, happiness, and sense of fulfillment. The connection also shows up in surveys. According to a large 2023 Pew Research Center study, 61 percent of U.S. adults say that having close friends is extremely or very important in order for people to live a fulfilling life. (5)

The research on the link between social connections and happiness is extensive and powerful. (See the Appendix.)

“The centrality of social connections to our health and well-being cannot be overstated…. One of the strongest findings in the literature on happiness is that happy people have better relationships than do their less happy peers. It’s no surprise, then, that investing in social relationships is a potent strategy on the path to becoming happier…. people with strong social support are healthier and live longer.”
-Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness

According to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at University of California Riverside, “The causal relationship between social relationships and happiness is clearly bidirectional.” In other words, when we improve our relationships, we’re likely to experience positive emotions. Then, our enhanced feelings of those positive emotions are likely to help us attract more relationships (and ones that are of high quality). That, in turn, will help make us even happier. She calls it “a continuous positive feedback loop” and “an upward spiral.”

 

The Dark Side of Relationships

Though the benefits are clear, we should also note that not all relationships are positive or beneficial. Far from it.

Many people are in relationships that are poor, manipulative, abusive, or even toxic. And good people sometimes have profound flaws that not only get themselves into trouble but also hurt others. Of course, all relationships go through ups and downs, and it’s not realistic to assume that they’ll induce happiness all the time. In fact, many people get themselves into trouble by expecting too much from their relationships, as opposed to doing the inner work of intentional improvement. Researchers have noted that relationships can be extremely stressful. (6)

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

How to Maintain Close Connections and Relationships

Since relationships are so important to physical and mental health and happiness, we’re wise to reflect on what we can do to nurture them. Here are things we can do to develop and maintain our relationships:

  1. Make time for important people in our lives and avoid the traps of perpetual busyness and workaholism that pull us away from them. Stop neglecting people and start cherishing them, starting with attention and quality time.
  2. Be honest, trustworthy, and reliable.
  3. Show interest in them.
  4. Open up and share our inner life, including our hopes, challenges, and fears, with close family and friends we trust.
  5. Demonstrate loyalty and commitment to family and friends.
  6. Support family, friends, and colleagues during their times of need.
  7. Show them we care with our actions as well as our words.
  8. Show them appreciation often.
  9. Express affection (e.g., holding hands, hugging, cuddling, massage). We humans are wired to need physical contact, and researchers have found a link between touch deprivation and many negative health outcomes, including anxiety, depression, and immune system disorders.
  10. Celebrate good news with them.
  11. Be polite and considerate.
  12. Listen more and better.
  13. Be positive—and don’t fall into the traps of complaining/muttering, catastrophizing, or having a victim mentality.
  14. Strive to understand their context, interests, and perspectives.
  15. Seek common ground and mutual interests.
  16. Treat them as they wish to be treated.
  17. Show understanding and empathy.
  18. Stop blaming others so much and take responsibility for our part in things.
  19. Respect their preferences and boundaries.
  20. Manage conflict well, including forthrightly and deftly raising concerns or disagreements instead of letting them fester.
  21. Avoid disrespect and contempt.
  22. Don’t hold grudges.
“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”
-A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

 

Conclusion

Our relationships with others are among the most precious gifts we can have in life. Too many people lose sight of that as they get lost in work, materialism, concerns or the day, or petty grievances.

One of the reasons that connections and relationships are so important in our lives—and such powerful contributors to our happiness—is that they get us out of our egoic shell. They get us to focus on others. It’s through our relationships that we can become better people by developing our empathy and compassion and giving part of ourselves to others.

Connect deeply and often. Do it gladly and urgently. You won’t regret it.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you neglecting any important relationships in your life?
  2. Are you doing enough to develop new relationships?
  3. Are you doing enough to maintain your existing relationships that are important to you?
  4. What else will you do, starting today?

 

Tools for You

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Related Articles

 

Related Books and Podcasts

  • Vivek Murthy, Together: Why Social Connection Holds the Key to Better Health, Higher Performance, and Greater Happiness (Harper, 2020)
  • Johann Hari, Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope (Bloomsbury USA, 2018)
  • The Life-Changing Power of Connecting with Others,” episode 410, December 12, 2023 on the Feel Better Live More podcast with Dr. Rangan Chatterjee

 

Appendix: Research on Connections and Relationships

The research on the centrality of close relationships to our health, wellbeing, happiness, and fulfillment is extensive. Here are some important studies:

 

Harvard Study of Adult Development

The Harvard Study of Adult Development is a massive longitudinal study of hundreds of people for their entire adult lives. The study began in 1938 and is continuing to this day (after having multiple study directors) with its “Second Generation Study.” The study has evaluated mental and physical health and wellbeing, career enjoyment, retirement experience, and marital quality via interviews, questionnaires, medical exams, and psychological tests.

When asked what he’s learned from the study, Professor George Vaillant (a psychiatrist who led the study for decades) wrote: “Warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.’… (We now have) 70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people… matter more than anything else in the world…. Happiness is love. Full stop.”

 

Study of the Happiest People

In a study of 222 undergraduates, screened for high happiness using multiple confirming assessment filters, researchers sought to identify the characteristics of the happiest 10 percent of people among us. They found that the main distinguishing characteristic of the happiest people was the strength of their social relationships. (7)

“Here’s the most fundamental finding of happiness economics: the factors that most determine our happiness are social, not material…. social connectedness is the most important of all the variables which contribute to a sense of wellbeing in life.
And that is true at any age…. We are each other’s safety nets.”
-Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

 

World Values Survey

According to researchers who evaluated data from the World Values Survey, which surveyed people in more than 150 countries about their life satisfaction, the top factors that account for about three-fourths of reported well-being are: social support, generosity, trust, freedom, income per capita, and healthy life expectancy. (Note how many of these factors are social.)

 

The Blue Zones

Dan Buettner, explorer, author, and American National Geographic Fellow, has written extensively about the “blue zones”: regions in the world where people live, or have recently lived, much longer than average, including many centenarians. The blue zones identified are: Okinawa Prefecture, Japan; Nuoro Province, Sardinia, Italy; the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California, U.S.

According to Buettner, there are common patterns of behavior across the blue zones, several of which concern relationships:

  • Belong”: belonging to and participating in a faith-based or spiritual community and attending services regularly.
  • Loved Ones First”: putting their families first, committing to a life partner, investing in their children with time and love, establishing and maintaining family and social rituals, and keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home
  • “Right Tribe”: surrounding themselves with a tribe of people that they interact act with often and over their lifetimes (e.g., Okinawans created ”moais”–groups of five friends that committed to each other for life).
“The most successful centenarians we met in the Blue Zones put their families first. They tend to marry, have children, and build their lives around that core. Their lives were imbued with familial duty, ritual, and a certain emphasis on togetherness.”
-Dan Buettner, The Blue Zones

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Relationships and Connections

  • “Union gives strength.” -Aesop, “The Bundle of Sticks,” 550 B.C.
  • “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” -Ecclesiastes 4:9–12 (English Standard Version)
  • “The better part of one’s life consists of his friendships.” -Abraham Lincoln, lawyer, statesman, and U.S. president
  • “Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.” -Erich Fromm, German-American social psychologist, psychoanalyst, and sociologist
  • “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one. You need one because you are human.” -Jane Howard, Families
  • “We all need to know that we matter and that we are loved…. While loneliness engenders despair and ever more isolation, togetherness raises optimism and creativity. When people feel they belong to one another, their lives are stronger, richer, and more joyful.” -Vivek H. Murthy, Together
  • “There are two pillars of happiness… One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.” -George Vaillant, psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School professor, former director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development
  • “Invest in friends. There is no other instrument that pays such high returns…. We need each other, but perversely we neglect each other. Every day we have an opportunity to exercise friendship, to make huge returns on a tiny investment, but foolishly we relapse into sleep and forgetting. Please take my advice to heart—forget bonds, forget stocks, forget gold—invest in friendship.” -Ronald Gottesman, USC professor
  • “What often matters is not the quantity or frequency of social contact but the quality of our connections and how we feel about them.” -Vivek H. Murthy, Together
  • “Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.” -Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined
  • “We believe that the most terrifying and destructive feeling that a person can experience is psychological isolation. This is not the same as being alone. It is a feeling that one is locked out of the possibility of human connection and of being powerless to change the situation. In the extreme, psychological isolation can lead to a sense of hopelessness and desperation. People will do almost anything to escape this combination of condemned isolation and powerlessness.” -Jean Baker Miller and Irene Stiver, Wellesley College
  • “Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight—one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives.” -U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.” -Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (writing about an epiphany he had while in a concentration camp and thinking about his beloved wife, Tilly)

 

References

(1) Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: A meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237.

(2) Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community,” Washington, D.C., 2023.

(3) Baumeister, R.F. & Leary, M.R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.

(4) Umberson, D. & Montez, J.K. (2010). Social relationships and health: A flashpoint for health policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51(Suppl), S54–S66.

(5) Kim Parker and Rachel Minken, “Public Has Mixed Views on the Modern American Family,” Pew Research Center, September 14, 2023.

(6) Walen, Heather R.; Lachman, Margie E. Social Support and Strain from Partner, Family, and Friends: Costs and Benefits for Men and Women in Adulthood. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 2000; 17:5–30.

(7) Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Very Happy People. Psychological Science, 13(1), 81-84.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

+++++++++++++++++

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Goal-Pursuit: Best Practices

Goal Pursuit: Best Practices

Article Summary:

This article addresses best practices in goal-pursuit, broken down into four areas: mindset, people, techniques, and systems. It’s the fourth article in a four-part series on goals.

+++

Many of us are no strangers to setting goals. We’ve been doing it for a long time.

But how are we doing when it comes to goal attainment? Do we know?

Many of us fall short of our goals fairly often. Sometimes the problem is in the goal-setting process. (See my article, “Goal-Setting Practices: Beyond SMART Goals.”) But in other cases, the problem is in our goal-pursuit process—something very few of us have learned about.

This article outlines best practices in pursuing goals. These practices are important not only because they can dramatically boost our chances of achieving our goals but also because the goal-pursuit process can boost our happiness. In her book, The How of Happiness, researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky notes the following:

“…the process of working toward a goal, participating in a valued and challenging activity, is as important to well-being as its attainment…. Working toward a meaningful life goal is one of the most important strategies for becoming lastingly happier.

 

How to Pursue Goals: Best Practices

It’s one thing to determine which goals to set and another thing to determine how best to go about pursuing our goals. What does the research tell us about effective goal-pursuit? Here are the findings, broken down into four principal areas: 1. mindset, 2. people, 3. techniques, and 4. systems.

1. Goal-Pursuit Mindset

Here are things we can do to ensure we have a productive mindset for our goal-pursuit efforts:

Reflect on the importance of the goal.
This should include how our goal relates to our purpose, core values, and vision of the good life. Doing so will help us achieve more clarity and boost our motivation, both of which are essential. We’re wise to revisit this during the process, especially if our motivation begins to fade.

Visualize success or failure, depending on our motivation level.
Visualization can help us in our goal-pursuit, but whether and how it does so depend on our motivation level—specifically whether we’re already motivated to do the things necessary to achieve the goal or not.

  • If we’re already motivated to do the things necessary to achieve a goal, then yes, spending some time (e.g., one to five minutes) visualizing the scenario of achieving our goal can be helpful because it focuses our mind on a successful result.
  • But if we’re not already motivated to do the things necessary to achieve a goal, then such visualization probably won’t be helpful. Instead, we should spend some time (again, one to five minutes) visualizing failure to achieve our goal and what that would feel like. In that scenario, we’re essentially scaring ourselves into doing the work necessary in order to avoid the pain and regret of failure. This works because it recruits certain elements of our autonomic nervous system and creates shifts in the release of hormones like epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, and dopamine.

Focus on who we wish to become through our goal-pursuit, not just on what we want to achieve.
If we become the kind of person who makes healthy food choices or who exercises daily, those behaviors become automatic. We don’t have to keep engaging our willpower. If we focus only on what we want to achieve, we risk a letdown when we’ve achieved our goal. We essentially put ourselves on an endless goal-pursuit treadmill. And we’re never satisfied there with who or where we are. We just keep running. Instead, we’re wise to gain clarity on what success, happiness, and a good life actually mean to us.

The most effective way to change your habits is to focus not on what you want to achieve, but on who you wish to become…. Your identity emerges out of your habits. Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.”
-James Clear, author

Anticipate setbacks.
Don’t expect goal-pursuit to run smoothly all the time. Adopt a mindset of vigilance. We’re all imperfect and we all encounter changing contexts and new challenges. If or when there’s a roadblock or letdown, commit to getting back on track right away.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

2. The People Factor in Goal-Pursuit

Here are things we can do to make sure we’re connecting with people effectively as we pursue our goals:

Identify people who can help us achieve our goals.
Goal-pursuit is not a solo endeavor. Sometimes we can save a lot of time and hassle by getting input or encouragement from people who have walked a similar path.

Recruit someone to hold us accountable for consistent work toward our goals.
When we pair up with others or have a trainer, coach, or mentor to guide us through the process, we boost our chances of sticking with the process. Group support is one of the reasons groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and others are so effective. According to the research, it doesn’t help as much to tell people broadly about our goal, such as by announcing it publicly on social media. Why? Because the positive feedback we get from others tends to dissipate quickly. Better to have a consistent accountability partner or support group.

Surround ourselves with people who support our goal-pursuit (or who have similar goals).
There’s strength and safety in numbers. And there’s value in becoming part of a group or community of people committed to goal-pursuit. We’re social beings, so we don’t want others to view us as someone who lets others down or who doesn’t honor commitments.

 

3. Goal-Pursuit Techniques

Here are techniques to employ when pursuing our goals:

Devise strategies to make pursuing our goal(s) more enjoyable.
For example, are there any parts of our goal-pursuit process that we can engage in with a friend? Can we do the work in an enjoyable setting and at a time in which we can focus without interruption? Can we find ways to employ our strengths and passions when pursuing our goals—and get help from people who have strengths in areas where we need help?

Employ “implementation intentions.”
It’s important to engage in planning and map out our time with a clear roadmap. According to the research, using “implementation intentions”—specific plans attached to our goals that spell out when and where we’ll do things—can more than double the probability of achieving challenging goals. (1) Hundreds of studies in the research literature have demonstrated the efficacy of implementation intentions.

Part of the value here is anticipating obstacles and thinking about ways to overcome them. Since our motivation is usually highest when we’re setting a goal, this approach can keep us from abandoning our goal when things get difficult. The formula for an implementation intention is as follows:

I will (BEHAVIOR) at (TIME) in (PLACE).

Here’s an example: “I will exercise for 30 minutes at the gym during my lunch break.” In a study of 248 people and their exercise habits reported in the British Journal of Health Psychology, researchers placed the people into three groups: a control group (asked to track how often they exercised), a “motivation” group (asked to track their workouts and to learn from the researchers about the benefits of exercise), and a “plan” group (who got the same presentation as the second group but were also asked to formulate implementation intentions for when and where they’d exercise).

The results: a much higher percentage of people in the third group exercised at least once a week (91% vs. 38% in the control group and 35% in the motivation group).

Recommendation: write down our plans by hand. Why? Doing so engages our neural circuitry and embeds knowledge in our nervous system. It’s ideal to have a measurable amount of time we’ll spend each week in our goal pursuits (e.g., go to the gym X times per week for at least 45 minutes each time).

Write out our top-priority goal each day on a new Post-it note and place it in a different spot each day.
This will help keep it top of mind. If we write out one reminder and place it in the same place for weeks, we’ll stop noticing it. It becomes almost invisible. The key is not only daily reinforcement but also variety.

Break more challenging and complex goals down into smaller chunks of sequential milestones or sub-goals.
This can help us avoid the prospect of losing motivation along the way. Motivation tends to be high at the beginning, with the excitement of launching, and near the end, when the finish line is in sight, but often flags in the middle.

Reward ourselves for successful completion of some (but not all) milestones along the way toward our ultimate goal. With this approach, we avoid the trap of using achievement of the goal itself as the only reward. Tip: try “random intermittent reinforcement.” Essentially, randomly determining whether we get such a mini-reward along the way is better than giving ourselves a reward for each milestone. Here we’re borrowing a tactic from casinos, which use random reinforcements to keep people gambling at the slot machines. Essentially, we’re keeping ourselves primed for reward-seeking—albeit through productive behavior.

Review progress and make adjustments as we go.
If need be, we can adjust our goals. Some goals become obsolete as things change around us. In other cases, we should stop pursuing a goal—and perhaps start pursuing a different one.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

4. Goal-Pursuit Systems

We’re wise to develop systems and habits that increase the likelihood of goal attainment instead of simply setting goals and trying to reach them.

Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results…. Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress. A handful of problems arise when you spend too much time thinking about your goals and not enough time designing your systems….
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems
.”
-James Clear, Atomic Habits

Here are things we can do to build systems and foster habits that contribute to our goal-pursuit efforts:

Use a daily log to track progress toward our goals.
As the saying goes, we don’t get what we don’t measure. It’s not only measurement that makes this effective but also progress. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and her colleagues spent many years studying the psychological experiences and performance of people doing complex and creative work in organizations. Through this work, they identified the power of small wins and what they call the “progress principle”:

Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.”
-Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, “The Power of Small Wins,” Harvard Business Review, May 2011

In an attempt to discover what leads to a positive inner work life (a favorable set of emotions, perceptions, and motivations), they compared the events from workers’ best days at work to those on their worst days. Their finding:

The results were startlingly clear: the single most important contributor to positive inner work life was simply making progress on meaningful work. This is the progress principle. In fact, 76% of our participants’ very best days involved making progress. This dwarfed any other kind of event mentioned in the diaries on those days.”

For the progress principle to work, they found, the work must be meaningful in some way to the workers—not necessarily in the sense of lofty aims but rather in the sense of working on valuable products or services for customers or otherwise “contributing to something worthwhile.” What characterized their worst days at work? When workers experienced setbacks or had their progress blocked. (2)

According to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, “Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them.”

Employ reliable mechanisms to help ourselves stick with the goal-pursuit process.
Such mechanisms will come in handy if our motivation flags or if we fall into the procrastination trap. There are many possibilities. For example, we can commit to sending weekly progress reports to a friend or colleague. According to research, people who did this achieved a significantly higher percentage of their objectives.

With a “don’t break the chain” approach, we can keep a tally of how many days in a row we’ve followed our plan, and we have to start over if we miss a day. This approach gives positive reinforcement for consistent effort and negative feedback when we fall short. Example: we can take a large calendar with the entire year on one page and hang it on a wall. For each day that we accomplish our predetermined tasks, we place a big red “X” over that day on the calendar.

With a “precommitment” approach, we promise a friend that we’ll give them money for each day we miss our targets. The idea is to give ourselves strong incentives to continue with the daily work.

With a “measure backward” approach, we take stock of progress at the end of each week on key metrics relevant to our goal, showing our progress and making us want to avoid the pain of falling short.

And with the “paper clip method,” we place two jars on our desk: one filled with paper clips and another that’s empty. Whenever we take a distinctive step toward our goal, we take one paper clip out of the full jar and place it into the empty one. We keep going until we’ve achieved our goal.

Prime our environment to promote habits of goal-pursuit.
Too often, our environment works against our goal-pursuit, for example, via distractions and temptations that waste our time. (That can include some of the people around us.) James Clear calls our environment the “invisible hand” that shapes our behavior. “Create an environment,” he advises, “where doing the right thing is as easy as possible.” Example: set out our workout clothes the night before so we’re primed to exercise in the morning.

Leverage technology to help us automate our goal-pursuit.
We can use technology to automate things that we do, or should do, repeatedly (e.g., automatic deposits in our savings accounts). Also, we can use our digital calendar to ensure we’re focusing on the right things at the right time, building goal-pursuit activities into our schedule and benefiting from the digital reminders. We can also use tools like focus/silent mode, habit trackers, and streaks on our digital devices.

Eliminate the triggers that get in the way of our goal-pursuit.
We can remove the television and other devices from the bedroom and turn off smartphone notifications. Also, we can delete apps or games from our devices, and we can stop putting junk snacks in the pantry.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Which of these goal-pursuit practices are you already employing?
  2. Which new ones will you try?
  3. How else can you improve your goal-pursuit efforts?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles and Resources

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Goal-Pursuit

  • “Success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.” -James Clear, author
  • “We are kept from our goal not by obstacles but by a clear path to a lesser goal.” -Robert Brault, author
  • “What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” -Zig Ziglar, author, salesperson, and speaker
  • “…every organization, if it wants to create a sense of alignment and focus, must have a single top priority within a given period of time.” -Patrick Lencioni, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business

 

References

(1) Gollwitzer, P.M., and Brandstatter, V. (1997). Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(1), 186.

(2) The negative effects of those blocks on progress were, according to the research, “two to three times stronger than the positive effects of progress.”

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Goal-Setting Best Practices: Beyond SMART Goals

Goals

Article Summary:

This article addresses best practices in goal-setting, including criteria for setting goals, a framework for evaluating a draft set of goals, and a goal-setting checklist. It’s the third article in a four-part series on goals.

+++

Goals are common in our life and work. But that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Far from it.

How many goals have we missed over the years? For most people, it’s many. What’s going on?

Here we address what the research says about best practices in goal-setting and offer new criteria to use in goal-setting in two areas: first, in terms of setting individual goals and, second, in terms of evaluating a draft set of goals for quality and coherence.

In our previous articles in this series, we covered “The Benefits of Setting and Pursuing Goals” and “The Most Common Mistakes in Goal-Setting and Goal-Pursuit.” (Our focus is on individual goals—whether personal, professional, or otherwise—and not on goal-setting for teams or organizations, though much of what’s offered here applies in those cases too.)

First we take a quick look at existing goal-setting frameworks.

 

SMART Goals and Other Frameworks

There are different approaches to goal-setting in the literature and in practice. For example, researcher Edwin A. Locke identified five factors (clarity, challenge, commitment, feedback, and complexity), while University of Washington psychologist Frank L. Smoll identified three essential features of effective goal-setting (the “A-B-C of goals”: achievable, believable, and committed). In an MIT Sloan Management Review article, Donald Sull and Charles Sull recommend setting “FAST goals”: frequently discussed, ambitious, specific, and transparent.

The most famous formulation, of course, is “SMART goals,” developed by consultant George T. Doran, who proposed the SMART framework in a 1981 Management Review (AMA Forum) article. Here’s how Doran originally defined this approach:

  • Specific: target a specific area for improvement.
  • Measurable: quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.
  • Assignable: specify who will do it. (Note that many people these days use “achievable” or “attainable” instead of “assignable.”)
  • Realistic: state which results can realistically be achieved, given available resources. (Some people use “relevant” here.)
  • Time-related: specify when the result(s) can be achieved. (Or “time-bound.”)

SMART goals are useful but insufficient. It’s a popular and memorable framework but missing several essential elements that are important for setting goals. Also, it doesn’t address how our goals may or may not hang well together. We address both facets of goal-setting in turn below.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Criteria to Use in Setting Each Individual Goal

We begin with goal-setting criteria. Here are 7 criteria we should use in setting our individual goals:

1. Important to us
Set goals we can commit to wholeheartedly, knowing they’ll summon our dedication and resolve because they matter to us. We can even begin with the question: What’s most important to achieve now (or in the time period of our choosing, whether it’s the next quarter or year)?

2. Authentic
According to psychology researchers Ken Sheldon and Andrew Elliot, we’re happier, healthier, and more hard-working when we’re pursuing goals that are authentic to us and determined by us, not by others. In other words, our goals should be “self-concordant”: consistent with our core values and deeply held interests. A bonus: we experience bigger boosts in happiness when we achieve such goals. (1)

The more that we choose our goals based on our values and principles,
the more we enter into a positive cycle of energy, success, and satisfaction
.”
-Neil Farber, Canadian contemporary artist

3. Purposeful
We must be clear about the why behind our goals: Why do we want to achieve our goals? What benefits can we expect when we succeed? Ideally, our goals flow naturally from our personal purpose, core values, and vision of the good life.

4. Intrinsically motivating
Intrinsic motivation is the inner drive we have to do things out of our interest, enjoyment, or inherent satisfaction, rather than the desire for a reward (extrinsic motivation). According to researchers, intrinsic motivation is generally more potent than extrinsic motivation. When we work on things that are intrinsically motivating, it tends to involve us deeply and feel personally rewarding, pleasurable, and meaningful.

According to researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky in her book, The How of Happiness, “Numerous psychological studies have shown that across a variety of cultures, people whose primary life goals are intrinsically rewarding obtain more satisfaction and pleasure from their pursuits.” (2) Why? Such activities are enjoyable and inspiring to us, making us more likely to invest in and persevere and succeed at them. Also, they’re more likely to fulfill our core needs, such as autonomy, competence, and relatedness (see self-determination theory).

How of Happiness

If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes.
-Andrew Carnegie, Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist

5. Clear and measurable
A big problem with many goals is that they lack clarity and specificity. This dilutes the accountability factor. The clearer we are about what we seek to achieve, the more motivated we’ll be in our pursuit. And goals must be measurable. As the saying goes, we don’t get what we don’t measure.

6. Time-bound
If we don’t indicate the target date for accomplishment, we risk letting progress slip indefinitely and losing motivation. Effectively, our goals have no teeth. There’s no better motivator than a hard deadline.

7. Challenging but achievable
If a goal is too easy to achieve, it won’t inspire a sense of urgency and awaken the arousal systems in our brains. But we should avoid making a goal too arduous, because we’re unlikely to reach it if we don’t think we can. If we believe we might be able to achieve a difficult goal if we put in a lot of effort, that’s a good sign. (3)

It’s also good sometimes to have “stretch goals”—or what authors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras call “big, hairy, audacious goals” or “BHAGs.” These are goals that would really take our breath away if we were able to achieve them. But again, feasibility is important.

Stretch goals can be crushing if people don’t believe they’re achievable.
-John Doerr, Measure What Matters

 

Criteria for Assessing a Draft Set of Goals

There’s no shortage of criteria for individual goals out there, but it’s rare to see frameworks for how to assess a draft set of goals and whether they’re appropriate as a collection. Here are three criteria to use for that important analysis. The set of goals should be:

A. Highly selective
As we set goals, we must continually ask: Is this the right priority now? What’s the “opportunity cost”—the cost of the time and energy that could be spent in other pursuits? Ideally, we have only a few goals we’re focused on during a certain period—or a handful at most.

Psychologists note the problem of “goal competition” in which our goals can compete with one another for our time and attention. Essentially, the biggest barrier to one goal may be our other goals.

We tend to be too ambitious and set too many goals. By limiting our goals to the bare essentials, we help focus our energies. (See my article, “The Problem with Lack of Focus—And How to Fix It.”) When in doubt, reduce the number of goals. Less is more.

We must realize—and act on the realization—that if we try to focus on everything, we focus on nothing.”
-John Doerr, Measure What Matters

 

B. Complementary
We must ensure that our chosen goals hang well together. We want them to add up to a powerful whole. And we should ensure that they don’t work at cross-purposes. Ideally, we look forward to our vision of the good life and think about what goals would move us in that direction.

 

C. Prioritized
We should arrange our goals in order of importance, from most important to least. Doing that will help us know which one to focus on if our goals end up competing for our time or resources.

Also, it’s extremely valuable to have total clarity about what our top-priority goal is. When people fail to achieve their goals, one common reason is overwhelm. There’s great power in having a singular focus—a rallying aim. There’s power in drawing a dividing line between what matters most and, well, everything else. If we don’t identify our top goal, we risk dilution and diffusion.

 

Goal-Setting Checklist

(See my online tool: Goal-Setting Template.)

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Conclusion

Since we’re so accustomed to goal-setting, we may take it for granted and believe we’ve got it down. But if we had a true scorecard for all the goals we set, it would probably reveal a high percentage of abandoned or downgraded goals.

By using these 7 criteria for setting individual goals and 3 criteria for assessing our draft collection of goals, we can dramatically up our goals game.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. How are you doing in terms of these goal-setting criteria?
  2. What changes do you need to make in your goals?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles and Resources

 

Appendix: OKRs

Many organizations nowadays use a management framework and goal-setting system called “Objectives and Key Results” (OKRs). This method was pioneered at Intel and is used by many organizations, including Alphabet/Google, Coursera, Disney, Exxon, the Gates Foundation, Intuit, MyFitnessPal, Nuna, and Remind (and many people, including Bono, the lead singer of U2, in his efforts to fight extreme poverty and preventable disease via the ONE Campaign).

In this OKR framework, the objectives are the concrete things we seek to achieve. In his book, Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs, legendary venture capitalist John Doerr recommends that objectives are “significant, concrete, action-oriented, and (ideally) inspirational.” He notes that they’re a “vaccine against fuzzy thinking—and fuzzy execution.”

The key results indicate how we can reach the chosen objectives. Doerr recommends ensuring that KRs are specific, time-bound, aggressive yet realistic, measurable, and verifiable.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Setting Goals

  • “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” -Michelangelo, Italian sculptor and painter
  • “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars.” -Les Brown, speaker and former member of the Ohio House of Representatives

 

References

(1) Sheldon, K.M., and Elliot, A.J. (1999). Goal striving, need satisfaction, and longitudinal well-being: The self-concordance model. Journal Personality and Social Psychology, 76: 546-57.

(2) Also, according to a study of job satisfaction based on data from hundreds of workers, the ones who concentrated on intrinsic professional goals were significantly more satisfied with their jobs than those who didn’t. Source: Judge, T. A., Bono, J. E., Erez, A., & Locke, E. A. (2005). Core Self-Evaluations and Job and Life Satisfaction: The Role of Self-Concordance and Goal Attainment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(2), 257–268.

(3) More than a thousand studies have shown that setting goals that are challenging and specific (versus easy and vague goals) is linked to increased motivation, persistence, and task performance. According to decades of research on goals by psychologist Edwin A. Locke, a pioneer in the field, setting goals improves performance. Also, hard-to-achieve goals improve performance more than easy-to-achieve goals, and having specific targets in our goals improves their effectiveness. Source: Edwin A. Locke, Toward a theory of task motivation and incentives, Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, Volume 3, Issue 2, 1968, 157-189.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Most Common Mistakes in Goal-Setting and Goal-Pursuit

mistakes in goal-setting

Article Summary:

This article notes the most common mistakes in goal-setting and goal-pursuit. It’s the second article in a four-part series on goals.

+++

Though researchers have examined goals and goal-setting for more than a century, the practice of setting and pursuing goals is still widely misunderstood and often badly misapplied.

There are dangers of not getting it right. When we don’t set and pursue goals properly, we can experience frustration, stress, burnout, and disillusionment.* In this article, we’ll first address the most common mistakes in goal-setting and then turn to the most common mistakes in goal-pursuit.

 

The 8 Most Common Mistakes in Goal-Setting

There’s no shortage of advice and opinions on setting goals. Unfortunately, much of the advice gets some things wrong or falls short on at least a few key factors.

Given how little training we’re given in goal-setting (if any), perhaps it should be unsurprising that there are many things we’re missing. Here are eight common mistakes:

1. Not identifying and focusing on the most important goal.

2. Getting overwhelmed with too many goals.

When we have too many goals, it risks diluting our efforts. (More on this in my next article: “Goal-Setting: Best Practices.”)

3. Adopting other people’s goals.

We’re social creatures prone to extensive influence from others, but taking on the goals we think we should have or ones that others will admire can take us away from our own aspirations and aims. This mistake often results from the trap of caring too much about what others think.

…to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life—
the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

-Hunter S. Thompson, letter to his friend Hume Logan

4. Setting goals out of ego.

We may set goals from a place of wanting or needing to attain status or prestige from others if we achieve certain things they value. (This can lead us down the trap of excessive materialism, which can be a drain on our ultimate happiness because of “hedonic adaptation”—our tendency to return quickly to our baseline level of happiness even after experiencing major changes or events.)

5. Setting goals only in one area.

Many people leap right into goals about a promotion or target weight but overlook the importance of setting goals for their relationships, education, or community. Why not set goals in a few different key areas (perhaps choosing from these categories: quality of life, health, relationships, education, work, service, or finances), while also being careful not to have too many goals? Researchers have found that relationship goals tend to bring greater wellbeing than achievement goals.

6. Assuming that achieving our goals will make us happy.

Naturally, many positive emotions tend to accompany goal attainment, from satisfaction or relief to excitement or elation. But the effect is often more short-lived than we imagine. Most goal attainment only changes things temporarily, and we humans have a tendency to adapt quickly to the new normal (again, “hedonic adaptation”). There’s more to life than achieving goals.

It’s often the pursuit of the goal that really engages our motivation (writer Chris Guillebeau calls it the “happiness of pursuit”). Many people struggle with the doldrums or low motivation after achieving a big goal because their animating focus has suddenly disappeared. Also, lasting happiness is much more about close personal relationships, purpose, and contribution than it is about goal attainment or material status.

7. Thinking too much about the end result we’re after and not enough about whether we’re willing to endure the pain and sacrifice to achieve our goals.

Dreaming of marvelous scenarios of goal attainment is the easy part, but only a small fraction of the process. The real question is what we’re willing to do and give up to make our goals a reality.

The major reason for setting a goal is for what it makes you do to accomplish it.
This will always be a far greater value than what you get.

-Jim Rohn, entrepreneur and author

8. Focusing too much on the goal and not enough on developing the habits, systems, and practices needed to achieve the goal and measure our progress along the way.

We can dream or visualize all we want, but in the end we need to roll up our sleeves and get cracking with the sometimes boring but always important grind of goal-pursuit.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

The 6 Most Common Mistakes in Goal-Pursuit

What do many people get wrong when it comes to pursuing their goals? A lot. Here are six common mistakes:

1. Lowering goals if we fail to achieve them.

It may be tempting to lower the bar after hitting the first hurdle, instead of redoubling our efforts. Ratcheting goals down should not be the knee-jerk response to roadblocks.

2. Letting our goals master us.

Sometimes all the time and energy we pour into accomplishing something devolves into an unhealthy fixation. When that happens, we can lose perspective, rationalize poor choices, and detach from our core values. Letting this happen can result in health and relationship problems or ethical failures and regrets.

3. Investing too much of our identity and self-worth in whether we achieve our goals.

There’s nothing wrong with being committed to our goals. Far from it. But if we judge our identity and worth by whether we always achieve our goals, we’re essentially placing our happiness in unreliable hands because we can’t control all the variables.

Sometimes we get ill, or face a family crisis or unexpected work challenge, or the market turns, or a recession or pandemic hits. At the end of the day, are we only goal-striving machines, or are we worthy of love and respect regardless of the fickle ups and downs of fate? (See my article, “Is Your Identity Too Wrapped Up in Your Work?”) In her book, The How of Happiness, researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky notes that “happiness will come from pursuing goals, and not necessarily from achieving them.”

We are not devastated by failing to obtain a goal.
We’re only devastated when our sense of self-esteem and self-worth are dependent upon achievement of that goal.

-William James, American philosopher and psychologist

4. Undermining our intrinsic motivation.

When we try to supercharge our motivation by seeking extrinsic rewards (like praise, awards, or fame), it can sap our interest and enthusiasm, according to researchers, by turning what we previously viewed as play into work.

5. Not updating our goals as we learn more about ourselves and as we grow and develop through life’s chapters.

New experiences and hard-earned wisdom come with each chapter of our lives. And our priorities are likely to change as we go through the seasons of life. Young people, according to the research, are more drawn to goals that involve experiencing novelty and gathering new information or knowledge. Meanwhile, older people tend to be more interested in emotionally meaningful goals and personal connections.

6. Losing steam in our goal-pursuit.

As humans, we often struggle with the future when it comes to our motivational hardwiring. When something is far off in time, and our immediate experience with things involves challenge and frustration, we tend to slack off—at least until the immediacy of a deadline or fear of failing can kick us into gear.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. How are things going with your goal-setting and goal-pursuit?
  2. Which of these mistakes, if any, have you made or are you making?
  3. What will you do about it, starting today?

 

Tools for You

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Common Mistakes with Goals

  • “Make sure your vision or goal is not an inflated image of yourself and therefore a concealed form of ego, such as wanting to become a movie star, a famous writer, or a wealthy entrepreneur. Also make sure your goal is not focused on having this or that, such as a mansion by the sea, your own company, or ten million dollars in the bank…. Instead of seeing yourself as a famous actor and writer and so on, see yourself inspiring countless people with your work and enriching their lives. Feel how that activity enriches or deepens not only your life but that of countless others.” -Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
  • “Career goals that once felt safe and certain can appear ludicrous… when examined in the light of more self-knowledge. Our work preferences and our life preferences do not stay the same, because we do not stay the same.” -David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

* There are even some situations in which goal-setting can work against us. For example, researchers have discovered that in tasks that require complex thinking (e.g., when we’re solving problems, engaging in creative work, or learning), goal-setting can sometimes backfire. One main reason is that the goal itself can take up so much space in our attention and working memory that we have less cognitive firepower left to generate new ideas and think through new solutions. Essentially, the goal can become a distraction.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!