Archive for September, 2009
It’s probably no surprise that repetition influences the formation of new habits. The time and way you brush your teeth probably doesn’t vary much night to night; it’s habitual. Each night at 10:30pm (give or take a few hours) you probably grab that toothbrush, squeeze some toothpaste onto it, and go about your violent brushing ritual. I can almost guarantee you don’t alternate quadrants of your mouth each night (unless you’re just a little insane) because it’s probably not something you think about anymore. You just do it, and you’ll probably always do it that way unless you make a conscious change.
Do something enough times and it becomes a part of you – perhaps to a fault – and from that point on, it can be harder not to do something at all than to do it. In truth, most of our lives consist of habitual action each day. Have you ever been driving along and realized (too late) that you’ve gone in the completely wrong direction, because you habitually started driving to work even though you were originally planning to go to a friend’s house? Your conscious mind shut-off the second you got into that car and was on auto-pilot until you realized you were heading in the wrong direction. I don’t know anyone that hasn’t happened to.
Forming positive new habits (and replacing negative old ones) is the only foolproof path to achievement there is. Your habits “accumulate up” to your goals – there can’t be real triumph without small wins along the way. You don’t just wake up one day as the president of your company, or as someone who exudes positive energy and contentment, without taking individual small steps to get there. This is the subtlety that’s lost on those people we all know who insist that good things don’t happen to them; not everyone realizes that it’s not just handed to you
One interesting thing about habit forming is that recent research has shown that each time you repeat a behavior, the context in which it occurs is linked in your mind to the activity itself. Context in this example refers to the things happening around the activity – the time of day, the music that’s playing, whether you’re in your car or sitting in your favorite chair, and so on. As explained by psychologist Wendy Wood and her team in Changing Circumstances, Disrupting Habits, an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “habit associations are represented in learning and memory systems separately from intentions, or decisions to achieve particular outcomes. Thus, walking into a dark room can trigger reaching for the light switch without any decision to do so.”
When you search the interwebs for information on goal setting, you find a lot of the same recycled drivel. “Make your goals inspirational” and “Break your goals down into tasks” are common recommendations, but the single biggest bit of repeat advice is to make your goals SMART.
This acronym is one of the most overused in all of personal development, and doesn’t capture the essence of goal-setting. Not because it’s necessarily bad advice, but rather because it isn’t personal and authentic advice. It’s cookie cutter… and is more about task management than achievement.
To recap the SMART designation, the general thinking is that any goal that doesn’t meet the following attributes is a goal not worth having.
S = Specific
M = Measurable
A = Attainable
R = Realistic (or Relevant)
T = Time-bound (or Timely)
Specific is about making sure your goal isn’t too vague, but instead represents exactly what you plan to accomplish, why you want to accomplish it, and how you’re going to do it. Measurable makes sure you can actually see and celebrate progress against the goal in order to move in the right direction through quantitative means. Attainable goals are goals you can actually achieve in the timeframe allotted – i.e. having a goal to make $10 million dollars in 1 week would be an unattainable goal for most people. Realistic refers to having a goal that you’re both willing and able to achieve. Time-bound (or Timely) is all about making sure you have an end-date in mind to hold yourself accountable to; a goal to become President of your company isn’t really a goal unless you set a date by which you’d like to accomplish it.
Sounds great, right? Sure, maybe if you’re a Cylon. For the rest of us, SMART doesn’t give us a solid enough framework to set personal goals. The SMART methodology is believed to have started in corporate America, and was originally used for commitment setting in the new practice of management in the 1950s. It’s intended mostly, to this day, for project management and not for real-world use. Perhaps this is why it seems so “big company” and not very relevant to the uniqueness and quirkiness that is human nature. Sure, you want your goals to be SMART, but don’t you need them to be more than that?
We need a new way to think about goals. A new framework for forming them, and a different way to think about evaluating them once they’re set.