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Hitting the Reset Button

Ahhh, the first week of the new year. It’s the time we get to hit the reset button on the previous year, forgetting all of the commitments and lies we told ourselves a year ago. Many of us will excitedly proclaim “This year will be different! I’m going to lose weight, I’m going to get in shape and I’m going to launch product XYZ!”

This initial excitement doesn’t usually last long. Most of us last more than a week but not even half of us make it to mid-year. A mere 8% of us are able to make it to the end of the year and claim those goals as having been reached. That’s a pretty abysmal failure rate. But we all do it to some extent and the question of how this comes to pass bears some discussion.

Reflecting on 2015

I set aside some time in December specifically to reflect on my accomplishments for the past year. My most notable accomplishment was publishing The Single Founder Handbook. I was and still am proud of this accomplishment. It’s the single longest piece I’ve ever written and while I know that I’m biased in saying it’s a good book, plenty of other people have said the same thing. It’s the book that I would have wanted to read before I started down the path of being an entrepreneur a full decade ago. Some of the topics I wrote about, I learned from other people. Unfortunately many others were ones I learned from hard experiences. In some ways, I wish I hadn’t had to run into them myself, but at the same time, I wouldn’t be where I am now had I not encountered some of those challenges.

On the other extreme of the spectrum, this was also the year that I made the painful decision to stop working on AuditShark. This was a product I had dedicated the better part of the last several years to building and after extensive consideration, I felt that it was best to move on. I wanted something where I would be more successful faster and AuditShark just wasn’t going to do that for me. It was more of a situation of “maybe eventually successful” at something that was ridiculously difficult. But I had to be honest with myself about where things were at and what was realistic. You don’t get extra points for succeeding at something that’s ridiculously successful.

This particular decision involved far more personal turmoil than I’ve commonly experienced in the past. You can listen to the podcast episode where Rob Walling and I discussed this decision here, but I won’t bore you with the details of it today. That’s not the point of this post. I’ll give a post mortem on it some other time but suffice it to say, it wasn’t easy to let go.

Why do we set annual goals?

Vast numbers of people set annual goals at the start of each year because it’s an opportunity to hit the reset button on a part of our lives that we’re not happy with. We want these changes to happen but the undertaking for each one is big enough that it feels like there should be a line in the sand to mark the starting point. Nobody starts a new workout routine on a Thursday. It doesn’t make any real difference in the long run, but it “feels” better to start on a Sunday or Monday.

Similarly, the beginning of the new year feels like a good time to set goals so we have a concrete and memorable starting point from which to measure all of our progress each year.

For most “normal people”, these goals tend to be personal or career focused. These types of goals include things like getting into shape, losing weight, looking for a new job, finding that special someone, a new hobby or taking more vacations.

For the insane people entrepreneurs among us, the new year is a chance to do better than we have in the past. The new year is an opportunity to move past some of our prior failings and shortcomings so that we can build a better future for ourselves and for our families. Our goals tend to be more business oriented. These goals might include growing a mailing list by 100%, increasing revenue by 20%, quitting your day job or even just making an extra $1k/month on the side.

Very few people set goals that are completely and utterly unattainable. And yet, each year so many of us fail to reach what should otherwise be reasonable goals that countless articles are written about it. This begs the question…

Why do we fail at meeting our goals?

Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You to Be Rich points out three reasons in particular.

Here’s why New Year’s resolutions fail:

  • They’re unspecific. We say “I want to get healthy this year” but when faced with the birthday parties in March, the overtime in June, and the family vacation in August, that goal falls by the wayside.
  • They’re unrealistic. “I want to go the gym 5x/week.” Really? You averaged twice a month last year. Setting unrealistic, highly aspirational goals is a quick way to guilt and failure.
  • They’re based on willpower, not systems. We say, “I want to walk more” instead of parking our car 10 minutes away. We say, “I want to stop messing around and go to sleep earlier” instead of testing different ways of falling asleep (like leaving our laptop in the other room, unplugging our TV, quietly covering our partner’s face with a pillow, etc). Hey, it’s a test.

It’s difficult to take serious issue with any of the reasons that Ramit lays out. Oh, you can certainly nitpick at them but calling them flat out wrong is rather difficult. As an example of nitpicking, an unrealistic goal of going to the gym 5x/week is totally doable. Last December, I made it to the gym 6x/week for nearly the entire month. Unfortunately, I tore something in my shoulder which ended my workouts a few days early but I didn’t stop early due to lack of motivation or any personal shortcomings. I was able to manage going to the gym every day because I had a good motivation system in place for getting there.

What was that you ask? I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but one of my fatal flaws is that I have something of a “prove you wrong” streak and on this particular occasion my wife had said “I don’t think you can do it”. More on that some other time, for sure.

There are ways to do accomplish just about anything if you put your mind to it, even if it might seem on the surface to be unrealistic based on historical performance. Which again begs the question: Why do many people regularly fail to meet some of their annual goals?

There are many factors involved but if you study extremely successful people to identify the secret to their continued success, whatever their “field” might be, you’ll find the same thing over and over. If you study a marathon runner to understand how they’re able to compete in so many marathons, you’ll find that they run a lot. If you study a professional musician in an A-list band and analyze how they became successful, you’ll find that they practice playing music a lot. If you study a professional programmer, you’ll find that they write a lot of code and build a lot of side projects.

Consistent progress towards a goal is one of the key differences between people who are successful and people who aren’t. Knowing this is a key data point but it doesn’t help people to make consistent progress. After all, not everyone is born a marathon runner. And therein lies the problem.

The key to making consistent progress boils down to your motivation to do the work Click To Tweet This is an extremely subtle difference. I might really want to be a rockstar but if I don’t enjoy practicing, then what I’m really looking for is the benefits of being a rockstar without any of the work required to get there. Motivation to do the work generally distills down to enjoyment of the work itself.

You Must Enjoy the Journey

Consider the marathon runner. She runs because she enjoys it. The musician plays his instrument because he enjoys playing. The software developer doesn’t need encouragement to write code because to her, it’s fun. I call these things “practice” and successful people don’t need to be motivated to practice. They enjoy practicing for the sake of practicing.

The rest of us see their achievements and believe those achievements to be their goals but that’s not the case. The reality is that what they want is to experience the journey and practice their craft. Their goal is to do what they love and they’re doing it every day. The achievements we recognize are a byproduct of that practice and while they’re a nice perk, those achievements are not the goals in and of themselves.

If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, then a lack of motivation will inevitably follow. Click To Tweet To combat this, people use a variety of systems, accountability partners, personal trainers, weight loss coaches, software tools and depending on the goal, any number of other mechanisms to help motivate them to “practice”. These are band aids to the problem of not enjoying the journey.

The inherent problem with using these band aids is that very few types of goals have a hard-stop at the end. There’s almost always a certain amount of effort required to maintain the results you were originally looking for. If your goal is to lose 25 lbs come hell or high water, you will find ways to motivate yourself to lose the weight.

But if you hate exercising or dieting, once you’ve achieved your goal, then what will happen? Are you going to continue doing the things you hated to keep the weight off? Probably not. It’s far more likely that you’ll scarf down Cheetos on the couch and gain most of it back within six months because after you achieved your goal, you stopped doing the things that got you there. Then you’re right back where you started. It may not happen right away, but the end result of that neglect is inevitable.

Do a Mindset Check

Before you set a goal for yourself, use the 5 Why’s method to help get to the root of what you’re really looking for. Then ask yourself if the activities involved in reaching the goal are ones that you can maintain, even after achieving that goal. If they’re not and your goal requires some level of extended maintenance, then you have a problem and need to make a decision.

Should you:

  • Push through it anyway, knowing it’s going to require a ton of extended effort and several systems to keep you on track?
  • Modify your goal to make it easier?
  • Outsource parts that you don’t enjoy?
  • Pick something else entirely?

None of these options is incorrect. However if you can’t see yourself performing maintenance effort, then chances are good that you either won’t reach your goal at all or you won’t do the work necessary to maintain that level of success afterwards. Either situation is a cause for eventual failure and that failure could very well put you in exactly the same position a year from now.

Before Setting Your Annual Goals

Ask yourself just one question about that goal. Do you want to do the work? Or are you just in love with the benefits of doing the work?

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Steven January 15, 2016, 2:58 pm

    Nice post Mike, and very timely since I just reset my goals for 2016 🙂 Few thoughts to add:

    For goal setting, the SMART goal acronym is useful. Many know it, few do it.

    Specific: not broadly or general; must be clear and unambiguous; address what, why, who, where.
    Measurable: identify metric(s) used to measure both end results and more important, intermediate progress towards goal.
    Attainable: goal must be realistic; you can set a stretch goal to push your limits, but that should still be possible to attain.
    Relevant: does the goal matter towards the ultimate goal / purpose / mission?
    Time-bound: set a specific dates to create a sense of urgency and accountability; set intermediate milestones and due dates for those milestones to measure if you’re on track; identify what you need to do today, this week, this month, this quarter etc.

    For enjoying the journey, I completely agree with your comments. But I think it’s important to recognize that we usually don’t enjoy stuff we’re not good at, and it’s helpful to remember that our enjoyment will grow over time as we get better at something. Also, it’s very possible to modify either the task or your mindset to make it more enjoyable — actively seek out the enjoyment of the task. Don’t like running to lose weight? Find another sport or activity. Don’t enjoy coding, writing, or marketing? Talk to someone who does, try to understand why they enjoy it, and try to seek that enjoyment in your own work.

    Great post, and good luck in your new venture!

  • Mike Taber January 15, 2016, 3:46 pm

    The SMART system is helpful but there’s a difference between setting a goal that can be achieved vs being motivated to achieve that goal. The crux of the issue is whether or not the goals you’re setting are things you’re going to enjoy going for and therefore be motivated to go after them or if you’re doing it because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

    Perhaps it comes down to having a good understanding of what your ultimate goal/purpose/mission is and doing more to separate that mission from your SMART goals.

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