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Behavioral Goal Setting

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

- Mary Oliver

I have this quote by Mary Oliver hanging in my office, I see it every time I look up from my desk. I love this quote because to me it speaks to both the finite and the infinite. We have a finite amount of time to act on an infinite number of possibilities. Working in long-term care for many years I made the observation that we don't regret the things we've done, we regret the things we didn't do, the road not taken. When you get to a certain age, what might you regret not doing? I'm an avid reader, in case you haven't surmised that by all the book recommendations I leave at the bottom of posts! I have been an avid reader my entire life. I've always felt like this created a debt, I've been reading and enjoying the hard work of others, it's only fair that I contribute something. I feel like a bit of a free-loader, so right now this is a step towards paying that great debt.

I tell this story to illustrate an important clarification related to goal setting: it's much easier to achieve goals that are actually our own. When a goal is of our own choosing it's more work to not work towards it, than to surrender ourselves in service to something that's important to us. Writing is my goal, not my husband's, parent's, or children's goal for me. We can only set goals for ourselves. We can't set goals for the people we love, regardless of how badly we may want to. Isn't it so much easier to see the potential in others, rather than ourselves though? Maybe if we gave ourselves the same compassion and goodwill that we give others our own potential would be a little more obvious.

Let Yourself Daydream

If you allowed yourself to be the best version of you, what would you be doing differently with your life right now? Go ahead, take a few minutes to daydream. Now sit down with a notebook and list some ways that your life might be different. Would you have a different job or career? Be in a different place in your current career? Would you be spending time with different people? Would you immerse yourself in different cultures? Remember, this is your daydream, not anyone else's, so you get to be completely selfish even if that doesn't come easily to you. Now pick one of these dreams and set a realistic time period to it.

"I want to have a blog in the new year."

Behavioral Goals vs. Aspirations

Notice an important facet of the goal that I stated above: I have 100% control over the outcome. I am completely in charge of whether or not I write my blog posts. I point this out because when we set a goal that isn't actually under our control, it's really better described as an aspiration. Aspirations are wonderful things to have, but they aren't what this post is about. I aspire to be a healthy person, my own choices and actions certainly play a part, but outcomes are also effected by genetics, illness, age, and many other environmental factors that I can't control. Being a healthy person sounds great, but it isn't a behavioral goal because I'm not 100% in charge of the outcome. I can however have behavioral goals that support this aspiration: to exercise five days per week, for an hour each day, to limit sugary snacks to once or twice per week, etc. These are goals that are 100% in my control. Working towards goals that we can't actually control can be a very frustrating experience, so think about what you do and don't have control over.

Are your goals behavioral goals or aspirations? If they're aspirations that 's completely fine and a great place to start, but let's narrow down and turn them into actionable goals. Go back to your list and now write down two columns: what you have control over and what you don't. If your aspiration is a new career, what do you have control over and what not? Have you applied to educational programs? Have you reached out to potential mentors? Have you researched requirements and regulations? The answers to these questions might give you some actionable steps that can be turned into behavioral goals that you, and only you, have control over. You can control whether or not you educate yourself about your choice. you control whether or not you apply to educational programs and reach out to mentors. Now you don't control whether you're accepted or not, so that's an aspiration, not a behavioral goal, but applying to a number of programs can be, and will certainly work in favor or increase the likelihood of getting accepted. So, again think about what your aspirations might be, then narrow that down to specific behaviors or activities that increase the likelihood of fulfilling that aspiration.

Get Specific

Let's put some specific time expectations around your behavioral goal. Will you act a certain number of times per day, week, month or year? Will this action take place for any particular length of time in minutes or hours? This becomes an easy template: My aspiration is to be of service to others in healing and building their best life and self. My goal is to build a collection of blog posts that others might find useful. My behavioral goal is to write at least three pages, every day on a specific topic of my own choosing for a period of twenty-five days. Now using this formula I want you to write your behavioral goal:

"I want to ...(aspiration). In service to that I am... (present tense behavior) for ....(time orientation)."

This looks like:

"I want to be healthy. In service to that I am lifting weights three times per week for three months."

A more complex aspiration + behavioral goal might look like:

"I want to be a consultant helping large companies become more egalitarian and humane places to work. In service to that I am attending at least one corporate event each month for the purpose of networking."

I can drill this down even more by saying:

"I am handing out at lease three business cards at each event I attend."

Break It Down

As an undergraduate, then graduate student, I had the job of tutoring students with learning disabilities. One very useful tool that I learned and practiced in that role was breaking large, overwhelming tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces. I think that this practice is very applicable to behavioral goal setting as well. If your behavioral goal feels overwhelming, break it down into smaller components. A second behavioral strategy that you might find useful is rewarding yourself for keeping the commitments that you've made to yourself. This can be as simple as acknowledgment:

"I went for a thirty minute walk three days this week, that's awesome!"

Rewards can also be more complex like taking a trip, spending time with a friend, or going to a movie. It really doesn't matter what it is (as long as it doesn't sabotage your behavioral goal) it just needs to honor the fact that you kept your commitment to yourself. I'm very curious to hear what aspirations and behavioral goals that you come up with, or ways that you have found to help motivate yourself to reach goals in the past. I'm also curious to hear from readers what sort of things have gotten in the way of achieving your goals? If you're interested in learning more about effective goal setting, the book Unfu*k Yourself by Gary John Bishop is a great read!

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