By Paul Morin
I finally figured out and understand at a visceral level why goal setting is so important.
As I’ve stated elsewhere, based on my extensive work and research with entrepreneurs and achievers of all types, the strength of your willpower is perhaps the most important differentiating characteristic for those who accomplish “great things” versus those who don’t.
My interaction with “super-achievers” has been even more intensive lately as I write and prepare to release my latest book, called “10 Steps to Greatness: The Super-Achievers’ Little Handbook.” This more intense interaction with those who’ve achieved “greatness” has convinced me more than ever that having an indomitable will to succeed is the single most important characteristic of those who most everyone would agree have achieved exceptional levels of accomplishment in their fields of endeavor.
Okay, so what does all this have to do with the importance of setting goals? Well, today I experienced first-hand something that I’ve experienced many times before without a similar “a ha moment” — a simple goal can keep you on track and keep you from quitting, no matter how much you might want to do so. Let me explain the circumstances of this “a ha moment” and how it drove home the importance of short-term goal setting as it relates to the all-important matter of willpower.
Earlier today, I was going for a standard weekend workout, which consists of 2.5 hours of aerobic exercise of varying levels of intensity.
In this case, the workout was a combination of running and cycling. As is customary these days, I do the running first, and then finish off the workout with cycling. The difference today, which hit me in the face as I walked out the door to get started, was that although it was just 6:15 a.m., the heat index was through the roof.
Although it was pretty early and the sun had not yet come out, the humidity made it feel like being in a sauna on full blast — not an ideal environment for an intense workout. We decided to give it a go anyway. My wife wanted to do just the first half of the workout with me and we decided to do it at a quick pace. So by the time we finished the first half, I was already relatively spent, but I decided to take an energy gel and another electrolyte pill and push on through the rest of the workout.
When I arrived at the one-mile circuit for cycling, which is about four miles from our house, I knew I was going to be in for a tough hour and roughly 15 minutes. The sun had come up and it felt like a sauna with no roof and a strong sun shining in. That was the first point where I would have liked to have quit and said, “I’ve done enough already; there’s no need to push it.” However, we’re preparing for a couple of upcoming races, and I knew if I could just push through it, it would be excellent preparation for those races, which will take at least 2.5 hours, and could also be in relatively high heat conditions, too.
Even though I wanted to “soldier on,” I was feeling pretty lousy, so I knew I needed something to keep me going and prevent me from throwing in the towel. That’s when I remembered one of the articles I’d written relatively recently about the Navy SEALs Pool Competency Test and how short-term goal setting could get you through pretty much anything that’s uncomfortable and challenging.
So I decided to give it a try in this pressure-cooker, extreme-heat situation. I calculated exactly how many miles I needed to finish to reach my overall goal for the day, taking into account that I’d also have to ride another four miles to get back to my house. The calculation led me to realize that my cycle computer would read 202 when I reached that number.
So, from then on, whatever negative thoughts came into my mind were quickly replaced simply with “202.” I would not allow myself a single negative thought. Into my mind would pop, “Man, this is ridiculous,” only quickly to be replaced with “202.” Then would come up “Who would ride this many miles in a sauna without a roof?” And that, in turn, would be quickly erased by “202!”
And so on.
I’m not sure how many times this happened, but it was a bunch. And you know what? It worked. Before I knew it, I looked down at the cycle computer and it read 200.3. I was virtually ecstatic. I knew it was just a couple more miles and I could head for home. Without this approach, I’m pretty sure that all the suffering I was feeling would have caused me to head for home much earlier. [Note: I was sure that I had everything covered from a hydration and general fitness perspective, so I wasn’t worried about serious physical problems — this is obviously extremely important any time you’re “pushing the envelope,” especially in high-heat conditions.]
Why did this work? As I was going through this experience and coming up to my “a ha moment,” and when I wasn’t saying “202” in my mind, I was asking myself that question: “Why does setting simple short-term goals and focusing on them help you get through tough challenges?” At some point, it occurred to me that the effectiveness of this approach is strongly linked to the importance of willpower in success and extraordinary achievement. The human will can be absolutely incredible, but we need a way and a reason to access it. We need a simple and powerful “why” to keep pushing on through exceptionally difficult circumstances. In the immediate- and short-term, that “why” is a simple, clear, easily understood goal (or goals). For me, in this case, it was “202,” which I knew would get me to my overall mileage goal for the day. This only explains the immediate and short term, of course, but we must get through them before we can get to the medium and long term. The graphic below shows how this “virtuous cycle” works.
So, how can you put this goal-setting “virtuous cycle” approach to work for you? First, you must decide what, if anything, you’re trying to accomplish at this moment would make it worth “turning yourself inside out” (to use an expression the Tour de France commentators love) to achieve. Is there anything you care that much about achieving to put in a “superhuman” effort? We’re not just talking about a sports or exercise setting here. The reality is, no matter what your field of endeavor, if you want to accomplish extraordinary things, you need to put in a “superhuman” effort sometimes, if not very often. Second, you need to decide what you are willing to do to achieve something extraordinary. How far are you willing to push yourself? Third, you need to do it!
The key is that you know what “it” is. Do you know what it takes to be great in your field of endeavor? If not, find out. Once you have discovered what it takes to achieve greatness in your endeavor, formulate your goals accordingly. You’ll need short-term, medium-term and long-term goals to keep you on track, focused and interested. Make sure the short-terms goals build toward the medium-term goals and that the medium-term goals put you on track to accomplish the long-term goals. Once you’ve done this, make an agreement with yourself regarding what “price” (pain, sacrifice of other activities, etc.) you are willing to pay, then, to quote a famous shoe company, “Just Do It.”
Once you’ve used this technique of having simple and clear short-term goals to access your willpower and get through difficult challenges, let me know how it goes. For my clients, we’ll be talking in any case. For others, shoot me an e-mail or, if you have comments to share with everyone, please leave them below.
Paul Morin founded CompanyFounder.com. Morin has worked with various entrepreneurial companies in senior management roles and has led the development, review and selective implementation of several hundred start-up and corporate venture business plans, financial models, and feasibility analyses. You can e-mail Morin at email@example.com.
Originally published: Sep 19, 2011