Goals: 'Why' Is Often More Important Than 'How'

When confronted with forks in the road, with choices that could provide temporary respite, ease and gratification, or lead to the tough work my goals required...I could ask myself the crucial guiding question...what would someone like me, someone with these values, do in this situation?

A major reason so few of us achieve the goals we set for ourselves is because we lose sight of why they are important to us. I've achieved a number of goals in my life: I've climbed mountains, earned my black belt in Judo, and gotten the love of my life to marry me. Yet the goal that really started it all was turning my life around from sitting in prison as a drug-addicted high school dropout, to a successful business owner with a Ph.D. who is making a positive contribution to society. There are a variety of reasons that I was able to turn my life around where others have failed or never begun, but the single most important factor in achieving the goals that made this possible was my consistent awareness of why it was so important to do so.

I spend a lot of time at conferences using my story to illustrate the psychology of goals and achievement. Most of this and the general information in this area focus on "how" you can achieve your goals. Yet what matters most is what actually maintains your motivation to keep doing the hard work required to achieve really meaningful goals, and that's your consciousness of why they are important to you. Without an ever present idea of this it's difficult to stay motivated and not just slip back into old habits or convince yourself to take a break today and get back to it tomorrow, next week, next month, next year...

Why a goal is important to you will generally depend in part on your values and who you aspire to be. Yet I didn't have a clear idea of who else I could be and what my values were when I started down the road to transformation. In many respects I didn't need to know at that stage. Choosing to work on progressing my goals rather than enjoying the immediate gratification of drug use or other distractions instead depended on being conscious of the costs and rewards of those choices.

I didn't have to look far to see the costs of not making drastic changes in my life. I was in prison serving 10 years to life for a drug related murder conviction. Prison is a place where violence and fear are the norm and where you can watch your life slipping away day-by-day before you. I have written and spoken elsewhere about the harsh realities of maximum-security prison, but even lower security is pervaded by violence and intimidation. For example, I remember how happy and relieved I felt to be transferred from maximum to high-medium security. I walked into the wing carrying my box of possessions and was taken to my cell and locked down. The rest of the wing was unlocked, but it is standard operating procedure for new arrivals to be locked down on their first day. Within minutes of the guards returning to their office I had three fully facially tattooed gang members kicking the door to my cell and telling me they were coming for me at unlock the next morning. I felt my relief evaporate and a sense of foreboding set in...it didn't seem life was going to be any different in high-medium security. We were to be unlocked at 6:30am and I stood just inside the door with clear tactics in mind and a ballpoint pen in my hand. The worst-case scenario would be all three of them getting into my cell. In a confined space their numbers would seriously count against me being able to fight them off. So I decided to do everything in my power to use the doorway to create a bottleneck where their numbers would count against them. I had the pen in my hand to halt their progress by stabbing whoever tried to come through the door first. I would be aiming for the eyes. Unlock came and went without their appearance. I would have run-ins with these guys on other occasions, but this was just an example of how some prisoners like to test out new entrants to a wing or unit. Will the newbie call the guards and sign onto protection? Will they offer themselves up as a victim? Or will they stand their ground and require further consideration?

Yet it's not just the violence, the cost of prison is also the loss of the fundamental human requirement of autonomy and freedom in choice and action. Even something as simple as acquiring toilet paper is outside of your control and dependent on the mood and whim of the guard on duty.

It didn't take many years in prison before I saw the cost of not making change and this prompted me to do something different. It prompted me to start studying and try to achieve something positive in my life. In doing so I also quickly became aware of the benefits of working towards my goals. With small victories came a sense of pride, a sense of self-worth, and the belief in my own capacity to do something positive and worthwhile with my life.

It was mindfulness of these costs and benefits that kept me working towards my goals. It was this awareness that stopped me deprioritising the small steps that would move me towards achievement. Understanding why I needed to achieve my goals made success possible. And as I progressed towards them my values and an idea of who I aspired to be more clearly emerged. As a result, when confronted with forks in the road, with choices that could provide temporary respite, ease and gratification, or lead to the tough work my goals required...I could ask myself the crucial guiding question...what would someone like me, someone with these values, do in this situation?

Here are three take away messages:

Why is your goal important?: Figure out why your goal is important to you. Knowing how you will progress towards your goal is crucial, but staying motivated to do the work required only happens if you have a clear and conscious sense of why it's important to do so.

Be conscious and clear about outcomes: Clearly understand and articulate the costs of not achieving your goal. What has not achieving this goal cost you so far in your life and what would it mean for your future? Also clearly understand and articulate the benefits/rewards of achieving your goal. How would achieving this goal change your life and yourself for the better?

Ask what someone like your aspirational self would do in this situation?: Know your values and who you want to be so that when you are confronted with temptations or find yourself in situations that might result in poor choices, you can ask yourself what someone with your values would do in this situation? This helps you make the right choices and avoid rationalisations and excuses not to do so.


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