A strategy to really, truly reach your goal

Top of the mountain

Stuck Moment: After a few weeks of gung-ho enthusiasm, we’re tempted to slip back into old habits and give up our resolutions.

You have to admire the enthusiasm that washes over us every January. It’s like we’re scrubbed shiny-clean with aspiration to make our lives better. Plus, we know we’re not the only ones trying to shed holiday pounds or master Twitter or finally launch a new business — giving us a nice boost from the camaraderie department.

Sometimes fresh zeal and plenty of company are enough to reach the finish line. But, not usually. This is a big “but,” because when we fall short, it’s easy to blame our willpower or circumstance, and be done with it.  “Okay,” we say. “I’m too tired at night to cook, so it’s another year of ordering takeout. I can afford it. Sort of.” Sigh.

Not okay, because we haven’t given ourselves a decent run at it. Achieving a goal is not simply a matter of grin-and-bear-it endurance. Actually, it’s the opposite of that.

The key is to embrace the process of what we’re doing in service of meeting our goal. When we get truly involved in the practice it takes to get there, we stay in the moment rather than get stuck on the prize.

Before jumping into the practice approach, let’s step back to make sure we’re set up to succeed.


Do you want your goal? This may sound obvious, but if you’ve ever been stuck acting like a Drifter, you know that sometimes your goals are really someone else’s that you’ve convinced yourself are yours. Use these four questions to double-check:
• Where did this goal come from?
• Is this goal in line with who I am?
• What is my motivation?
• When I reach this goal, will I depend on others’ praise to make it meaningful to me?

If you’re not happy with your answers, it’s time to figure out what you do want. Here are three exercises that can help.

Do you believe in the possibility? The more goals we reach in life, the easier it is to summon the confidence for the next one. But even the most seasoned of us can sometimes stop believing before we even try: “I want to quit smoking, and I’ll give it another shot, but I don’t think I really will.”

This is the voice we need to quiet, so our more hopeful thoughts can surface. Think about all the reasons why you won’t meet your goal — then, for each one, write down why you will or why you want to. This list will become a credo that you can return to whenever those negative thoughts creep back in.

How will you do it? It takes more than saying “I’ll go to the gym more often” if you want to look cut come springtime. You need a plan with a few details and realistic expectations. Unstuck’s “Get Your Game On” tool makes this simple, but if you don’t have the app handy, here are our planning guidelines for the non-planner.

We need to get a little Zen about this and embrace the “beginner’s mind.” This is when we set aside preconceived ideas, experiences, and expectations to focus on what we are practicing and what we are learning as a result of the practice.

We naturally do this as kids, when our job is to learn, not analyze, criticize, or otherwise block the process. Think about the time you learned to ride a bike or play cat’s cradle. You were fully focused, unaware of time or distracting thoughts. As an adult, however, your life experiences actually create clutter that diminishes this approach.

Re-creating this mindset will help us practice just about anything more effectively. According to Thomas M. Sterner, author of The Practicing Mind, the beginner’s mind is about self-discipline and self-awareness. A powerful benefit is that “it gives us patience with ourselves, with others, and with life itself.“

There are three principles that work in concert to help us attain and keep the beginner’s mind.

It’s all about the doing. During practice, your goal becomes a distraction, an idealized object that makes the effort of what you’re doing seem tedious in comparison. And that can kill motivation. To avoid this trap, pack away your expectations of becoming the world’s best tango dancer and just focus on your 8-count basic.

“When you shift your goal from the product you are trying to achieve to the process of achieving it, a wonderful phenomenon occurs: all pressure drops away,” writes Sterner.

Suspend judgment. After the fourth time you flub your backhand swing on the tennis court, you may start beating up yourself mentally. As a result, you beat up your enthusiasm to ever develop a good backhand. And that’s a shame, because if you accept your performance for what it is without clouding it with negative emotions, you’ll have clarity and energy to continue practicing, and ultimately mastering, the swing.

Practice in the moment. Similar to putting the goal out of your mind, practicing in the moment means you think only about what you’re doing. This doesn’t come naturally in our multi-tasking world, so at first it will require extra concentration and practice itself. For instance, on your tenth attempt at the bunny slope, try to check your mind when it wanders to places like: How well am I doing? How long have I been at it? What will the final outcome be? Who is better or worse at this than me? I’d rather be doing…, I can’t do this because…, What happened last night? What am I doing later this evening?

With all that clutter out of your head, it’s much easier to be deliberate and focused in what you’re practicing. And when you’re deliberate, you’re fully active, fully present. In other words, you’re paying attention.

Oh, how we wish there were a button we could push that would put us in practice mode. But until that gets invented, we’ll continue to count on focus, single-tasking, patience, and ourselves.

PRINTABLE TIP CARD #18: How to practice so you really learn something

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