Making Goals Work for You Rather Than Against You

Before getting into our topic, here's a lovely quote for the New Year:

Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every New Years find you a better man. Benjamin Franklin

We’ve all done it – given ourselves a deadline to achieve some goal, intending for deadline to motivate us to get it done. Instead, the timeframe is too short, life intervenes, the whole project makes us crazy, and we wind up feeling worse about ourselves. It doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s talk about making goals that support and nurture your progress rather than make you feel pressured and stressed.

I think in many of these situations, the problem isn’t creating a goal, or even a workable one, but identifying all the steps involved and creating a livable timeline. So let’s focus on these.

Since hoarding is an issue for many people on this list and those of you who took the Time Management workshop before last year have not heard this example, let’s use overcoming hoarding to demonstrate how goal setting works.

The first thing to recognize is that before a timeline can be created, all the steps need to be identified. In hoarding, as in probably most problem-resolution goals, this is a two-phase process. One is changing the thoughts and emotions that support the behavior, and the other is actually changing the behavior. Although the physical process of clearing things out may seem and be arduous, it is the smaller, easier part of the process. Internal change is a challenging and tricky business – for some people, the realization of the need for change and actually doing it are simultaneous; for the rest of us, change takes a lot more work, and is often a matter of cyclical insights. However change works for you, this part of the process cannot have a timeline: no matter how much you push it or want to push it, insight and awareness come at their own pace. There are certainly many things you can do to encourage this happening – journaling, carefully monitoring your thoughts and feelings, talking with others, and reading about the issue, but you still can’t force it.

The physical process is another matter. That we can timeline. Here’s how.
identify all component steps and their sub-tasks
identify how long it takes to do each of the sub-tasks
plot the volume of the work against the rate of doing it and, voilá, you have your timeline.

(In some cases, usually work settings, the goal and the timeline are handed to you simultaneously and you don’t have a lot of choice or flexibility in either. In such a situation you just have to be really relentless about identifying all the sub-tasks and make sure that you hit all those deadlines. Fortunately, recovery from hoarding and achieving other personal goals are not like that.)

So what are the steps to deal with the physical component of hoarding, that is, clearing things out and not acquiring more? Here they are as covered in the Hoarding workshop:

Stopping the influx
Assembling your tools
Identifying your priorities and starting points
Identifying the best time(s) for working on clearing out
Identifying helpers
Getting started and keeping it up
Deciding what to keep, what to get rid of and how to organize it

Since this newsletter is about goal-setting, we’ll skip how to do the items this list and discuss using it to create an effective, comfortable timeline.

Stopping the Influx of new items doesn’t necessarily need a timeline – it could happen in an instant, at least in theory – but until it stops every other task on the list will be more difficult. So part of the planning process would need to be a realistic assessment of how long it will take you to reach that milestone. This doesn’t mean that interim work on the other elements is impossible, just that it will be less effective.

The second element, assembling your tools, may be the easiest part of the formula, at least for this example. Even for more complicated scenarios, calculating how long it will take to get together whatever is needed to move forward is not that tough.

Identifying priorities and starting points though may be more difficult with hoarding than with most other tasks. Although any big goal has its moments of overwhelm, in hoarding they are endemic so the key is to make all the sub-tasks really small. Breaking tasks into their smallest components is the best approach for any kind of planning because it helps to ensure that nothing is overlooked, that all steps and pitfalls are seen, and that a realistic timeframe is created.

Identifying the best time(s) for working on clearing out is another easy one. The key here, as with any big project, is consistency – the more regular one is in working on the tasks, the better the odds of success. It helps to set aside the same time every day to work towards whatever goal one has.

Identifying helpers may not apply to every goal, but if it does apply, it’s usually one of the easier tasks. Recruiting them, however, may be another story, so if helpers are a vital ingredient for the accomplishment of your goal (often, but not necessarily the case in hoarding), then your plan must include the time for rounding up support.

Getting started and keeping it up – as the step where your vision starts to become reality, this step is the one where the most calculation is required. You could time the sub-tasks (i.e., how long does it take to clear a pile or surface, cart things out, organize a drawer or shelf, or empty a box or bag), then multiply it out times the number of such tasks. This works great for goals such as getting through college or moving, however, for hoarding, I actually recommend that people do not try to look ahead like this because of the overwhelm problem. What is needed is to set a daily goal, such as one surface, drawer, box, bag or shelf per ___ (the blank could be filled in with hour or day, depending upon your tolerance for work and other commitments; I don’t recommend going slower than that – progress would become invisible and disheartening). The point here is not when will the goal be met, but when will you actually work on making it happen. Clearly, as with any goal, the more time and effort that is committed to it (up to the point of overdoing it), the better the chances of success and the sooner the goal will be realized.

I have used this process many times to accomplish tasks that most people would say are impossible, so I know it works. Other than hoarding, the more one plots out the sub-tasks, the better the control over the whole project. Once you have all the sub-tasks identified, you just calculate the time they will take and there you have your timeline. If you are working from a set deadline, you just calculate backwards from the deadline to see the rate at which the subtasks must be done; this tells you how intensely you have to work on the project. For project management, laying out all the tasks on a spreadsheet is a great way to keep track of everything and ensure that it all moves forward.

Overcoming hoarding isn’t the only goal where it is better to focus on the daily effort than the ultimate outcome; it’s the same for any addiction. Any goal that can only be carried out in the concrete, daily effort is like that. You can have a goal to lose 50 pounds by the end of the year, but only daily effort can make that happen, so the only way for this goal to be met is to honestly determine how often and consistently you are willing and able to exercise, go to support group meetings, and be disciplined about and write down what you eat. For goals for personal issues like this, setting a timeline is often more hindrance than help. You just have to do it!

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