Motivation with Goal Setting

The word motivate is in essence a call to action; moving from a state of 'not doing' to 'doing' - the motivation itself is the spark that initiates the change from 'not doing' to 'done'.

We have all experienced that moving from a state of 'not doing' can be difficult, and frankly getting all the way to 'done' looks a lot like hard work, and so we prevaricate.  We create all sorts of things that must be done before we can start the main job, the actual 'doing' bit.

My father used to refer to this phenomenon as "sharpening your pencils"; the inference being that if you had one pencil that worked ok, everything else is irrelevant to actually getting the job done.  But for me to get into what I thought of as a state of "ready (emotive word that) to start", I felt that to simply pick up a pencil and begin would be 'not doing the job properly' and so there were many pencils I needed to find and sharpen (and line up, in order of hardness or colour or whatever) before I could start 'doing'.  I felt that I was being thorough, and responsible, and lots of other things with virtuous overtones.  In actual fact, I was still in the same place I had been: just 'not doing'.

Agile has a popular phrase "stop starting, and start finishing" and this cuts to the very heart of motivation....we would all prefer to abandon a job before the end, when the interesting bits are done, or about the time it gets really quite difficult, but some of us are better at pushing through that desire to abandon than others (and I do tend to count myself in the latter of these categories, although I have a lot of strategies to deal with it).

So, in order to get something done, let's set some goals.  As a rule, I will nail my colours to the mast straight off the bat here and say; in principle I am a believer in goal-setting.  It seems to make sense that if don't know where my destination is, how on earth can I make any progress towards it - I might even be going in the opposite direction and if that weren't bad enough, I might never even know it.

That said, let's look at some evidence to back this up:  there is a HUGELY well reported study of a bunch of Yale students in 1953 who were asked if they had goals, and whether they wrote them down, 10 years later they were re-interviewed, the results being that 84% set no goals at all, but the 13% who had at least got goals in their head earned twice the average of the ones with no goals.  The 3% who had written down their goals and planned them out earned 10 times the amount of the other 97% combined!  (Are you motivated to write down and plan out some goals yet?)

Let's compare these findings of setting goals to get success with what our own experience shows us happens in our everyday lives.  I like to use New Year as an example of when we might set ourselves some goals and genuinely commit to achieving them - it is fairly widely recognised as, in essence, a festival of new starts: promising to eat healthily, go to the gym, ring you mother, whatever.

So, how well do you do usually with your New Year Resolutions?  Not great huh?  Well, we can console ourselves that it's not just us, pretty much everyone doesn't do great here.  But maybe we just need to get smarter about how we set goals...get it:  (Sorry).

Most people who have ever had any time management training, or leadership training, or frankly had to fill out an appraisal form will recognise that the accepted wisdom is that if you make goals Specific, Measurable,  Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound, then success is practically assured.

Let's go one step further and say, if we have a fairly big goal, let's break it down in to smaller, bite-sized pieces, so I am now going to be able to tick off the smaller goals of going to the gym three times a week for the month of January.  Then February, and so on.  Smaller, more specific goals, more easily achieved, and a lovely positive reinforcement loop as I tick off all my small goals on my way to my big goal.

So let's see how this plays out:

I'm going to nail this, I'm ready - let's start with the gym.....only.....I need some new trainers, so I'll have to buy those first....I can't go today because I'm sick...I have to work late's half term and I have no one to watch the kids....right, this is ridiculous:  I'll start fresh on February first - this time I'm going to nail it.

...and so on.

This doesn't seem to be working does it?  I can't seem to get from "ready to start" to "done" - that 'doing' bit in the middle is quite troublesome, and frankly I feel like I'm failing rather than achieving.  Maybe I'm just not as good as those Yale kids who had so many advantages, money, parental connections, perhaps meeting their goals was easier for them.....

And cue violins and the vast empty calories of a significantly large bar of chocolate.

Sorry, this wasn't what you thought you were going to get from this post was it - let's get back on track.

I'm going to help you to find some motivation by showing you how to recognise it.  It's a tiny little thing, and it's just a start to solving your big goal, but motivation is just that: a tiny little spark.  You can't be motivated once and you're good to go forever, you need that little spark every single time.

So here is your first spark:  just start.  As simple as that.

You want to do something big and nebulous, fine.  Just Start.  Who cares where the end is?  When you've taken some solid steps down the path, look up, look around and then....find a single spark and take another step in a direction that looks good on that day.

The thing is, the resolutions you make on January 1st may not be what you want by December 31st, AND THAT'S OK!  You don't need a whole year plan with steps mapped out to something you may not want when you get there, all you need to do is to start.  Move.

Then next time remember that a spark is just a spark, it's just this gym visit, not three times a week for the rest of your life, just this one visit.  And if it's just one gym visit, those old trainers will do won't they - no point buying new ones, you're not committing to the whole year, you're just doing one thing. Now.

And the next time, remember how brief that spark is, and spend it just trying to be a tiny bit better than you were last time - sometimes that's by doing something again, to get consistency, and sometimes that's by starting something new.  Sometimes it's by finding out this was a dumb idea in the first place, and you'd rather do something else.  All of these are fine.  Just take the spark and move.

The spark of motivation is very small, it certainly won't move a mountain, it won't do anything but give you the motion between 'not doing' and 'done'.  A bit like a fuse on stick of dynamite - not lit / lit.  Not doing/ doing. And many sticks of dynamite, could certainly move that mountain....if they were lit.

Oh, and those Yale boys in 1953?  The study never happened.  It seems that Yale grew tired of regularly being asked to supply data on a study it had never run. You can see their statement from their law department here.

Helen Lisowski
Helen Lisowski

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