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Conjuring Good Magic: How to Set Powerful Goals

Photo by Sheeshoo

Photo by Sheeshoo

“Life would be so great,” said Ilsa, a fledgling entrepreneur, “if I could just start a business to pay all my bills.” Another client, Sue, wanted to have a baby. “Being a mom would make me happier than anything in the world,” she told me. Like any codependent life coach, I wanted everything for Ilsa and Sue that they wanted for themselves. I longed for a magic wand that would let me bippity-boppity-boo their dreams into reality, fairy godmother–style. Instead, I did the next best thing: I worked with them as they made to-do lists and financial plans and stocked up on computer software and folic acid.

Although it seemed like a good idea at the time, my boosterism had some significant blowback. You see, Ilsa’s business did succeed, but its rapid growth required her to work like a pack mule. Sue eventually had a baby, who filled her heart with love—and her ears with colicky shrieking that nearly unhinged her. Both women were in more distress after achieving their goals than they’d ever been before.

I blame myself. In my fairy godmother role, I should’ve paid less attention to logistics and probed deeper into the reasons Ilsa and Sue had focused on those particular ambitions, because stated goals are quite magical. They dictate our attitudes and behavior and where we put our energy. But using magic inexpertly, as most fables (and almost every Harry Potter movie) can attest, is a bad idea. After years of helping clients like Sue and Ilsa, I learned how to help people set goals to get what they want without unintended consequences.

Words of Power

The difference between a dangerous spell—um, I mean goal—and a safe, effective one has everything to do with parts of speech. Most goal setters use mainly nouns and verbs (“I want my business to succeed,” “I want to have a baby”). This frequently leads to either outright failure or the kind of success that doesn’t make people nearly as happy as they expect. But there’s another class of words that work much better—adjectives.

I’ve come to depend on adjectives because goals made of nouns and verbs are risky: They bring to mind “imagined situations,” as opposed to “imagined experiences.” The two are subtly but crucially different, and experiences, not situations, are always what we really want. Ilsa expected business success to produce feelings of contentment; Sue thought a baby would make her feel loved. Neither fully anticipated what would happen after they achieved their goals.

By using adjectives, you can avoid this trap by focusing all your efforts on the quality of the experience you want to create. This process is harder than “normal” goal setting—it requires some serious soul-searching and perhaps a good thesaurus—but it does pay off.

Step One: Pick a goal, any goal.

Think of a typical noun-verb goal, something for which you frequently hanker. Be honest rather than politically correct. Some people may have deep desires to establish world peace, stop global warming, and end poverty, but maybe you actually think more about, I dunno, reaching your target weight. And that’s okay. This is not a beauty pageant (those contestants can afford to wish for world peace; they’ve all reached their target weight). What I want you to do is fess up to your real desires. Now pick the biggest, most ambitious one.

Step Two: Gaze into the future.

You don’t need a crystal ball to see what’s up ahead; the three pounds of gray matter between your ears will do fine. Use your brainpower right now to imagine what your life would be like if you realized the goal you just identified. Create a detailed fantasy about it. Loiter there awhile, observing your dream-come-true with your mind’s eyes, ears, nose, skin. Then, clear your mind and your throat: It’s time for the magic words.

Step Three: Generate adjectives.

This is the heart of a really effective goal-spell. Begin listing adjectives that describe how you feel in your dream-come-true scenario. This is a simple task, but not an easy one. It requires that you translate holistic, right-brain sensations into specific, left-brain words. Author Craig Childs compares this to “trying to build the sky out of sticks.” Spend enough time in your imagined situation to let your brain leaf through its vocabulary, scouting out accurate adjectives. In goal setting as in fairy tales, the minimum magic number is three. Don’t stop until you have at least that many ways to describe those lovely feelings.

My clients frequently try to squirm out of the process by muttering, “It’s hard to explain,” or “Oh, I don’t know,” or “I can’t describe it.” Well, of course it’s hard to explain; yes, you do know; and if you keep trying, you can too describe it. Your adjectives don’t have to be eloquent; use simple words like energetic, focused, delighted, and fine. But you owe it to yourself to persevere until you’ve found some reasonably descriptive words. Three of ’em. Write them down and then share them below in the comments:

1.____________________

2.____________________

3.____________________

Step Four: Focus on anything that can be described with your adjectives.

Drop the fantasy situation you imagined in step two and concentrate on those adjectives. You might notice that these three words bring your stated goal into sharper focus. For instance, if your New Year’s resolution is to lose ten pounds—a noun-verb goal—but your adjectives are strong, confident, and healthy, you might realize that your actual aim is to get fit. You would see that the strategy you came up with to diet (i.e., eating your weight in hydroponic cabbage) might leave you thinner but also recumbent on a couch without the energy to leave the house—which isn’t what you really want. Thanks to adjectives, you can fine-tune your strategy: Swap a fad diet for a meeting with a nutritionist, and sign up for weight training classes at the gym.

Sometimes tweaking isn’t enough. Your adjective goal might utterly contradict your stated goal. Time to rethink that original target. For example, if you think you want to win an Academy Award, you may imagine your Oscar acceptance speech, and feel “valued, satisfied, and unstoppable.” If you think that only a night at the Kodak Theatre will lead to those feelings, you might spend years obsessively pursuing movie stardom, ignoring everyone and everything except your ambition. Odds are you still wouldn’t win an Oscar, but you’d probably get a rapacious ego that could inhale all manner of rewards without even noticing them. On the other hand, if you immediately begin focusing on aspects of your present life that make you feel valued, satisfied, or unstoppable, you’ll feel an instant lift. All sorts of things may happen. Sure, you might win an Oscar. But if you don’t find yourself onstage, blurting out that the statue sure is heavy, you’ll be left with…a pretty good life. You might even find that as you follow the things that make you feel appreciated, you’ve tripped into an entirely different career. So starting now, survey your life for anything (I mean anything) that can be described with any of those three words. Putting all your attention on those aspects of your life will make you happier right now and help you create future situations that fulfill your true desires.

The Science of Good Magic

I realize that all this sounds a little woo-woo, but psychological research on happiness backs up my strategy. Over and over, researchers studying happiness have found that the situational elements people crave—money, social status, possessions—don’t reliably lead to an experience of well-being. By contrast, learning to find joy in the present moment (a.k.a. focusing on experiences you truly want in your life) increases life satisfaction, improves health, and allows us to live longer, more fulfilling lives.

My clients form my own database of sorts, convincing me that good goal-setting magic is (to use the social science terms) robust and valid. For example, when I asked Ilsa to go back in time and imagine what she once thought she’d get from a successful business, she described herself with the adjectives relaxed, joyful, and secure (ironically, the demands of her wildfire success made her feel tense, joyless, and insecure). When she scanned her life for activities and relationships that made her feel aligned with those adjectives, she found them everywhere: in gardening, reading novels, playing with her niece. “Damn!” she told me. “I’d already succeeded before I succeeded!” Indeed.

In Sue’s case, remembering how she’d expected motherhood to make her feel yielded the adjectives loved, rejuvenated, and emotionally replenished. She realized that her noun-verb goal (having a baby who’s beautiful and also colicky) actually created the opposite of her adjective goal—she felt unappreciated, haggard, and drained. It turned out that her magical adjectives described the way she felt when connecting with old friends. Both Ilsa and Sue managed to give more attention and time to the things that evoked the feelings they really wanted. (That’s the beauty of adjective-based goals: They can work even when you’re already suffering the consequences of unwise noun-verb spells.) Ilsa carved out time for reading and gardening; Sue put the baby in the bouncy seat and caught up with friends on Facebook.

These efforts helped Ilsa and Sue work and parent better, and handle the difficulties conjured by their original goals, all of which eased my fairy godmother guilt.

In other words, we lived happily ever after. So if you find yourself longing for some idealized goal, take a moment to go fishing for adjectives. Then use them to identify the aspects of your life that are already drawing you toward your heart’s desires. Focusing on these people and activities will lead you gently toward even more fulfilling experiences. One day you may find yourself in a situation more interesting and delightful than anything you ever imagined. Listen closely and you’ll hear my annoying little voice in your head, whispering, Bippity-boppity-boo.

How to Stop Procrastinating

Hamburger, cheese burger with tomatoUgh! I’m so full, I can’t breathe!” says Rose as she finishes her cheeseburger. “And I’ve got to lose weight. … I think I’ll have the crème brûlée.” Across the table, her oncologist friend, Linda, lights up, handling the stress of treating cancer patients by smoking like a chimney. Meanwhile Barb is complaining about her 27-year-old son, Randy. “If he doesn’t get a job and move out soon,” she says, “I don’t know what I’ll do.” Rose and Linda know what Barb will do—she’ll keep cooking and cleaning for Randy until she dies of old age. 

In their book The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action, authors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton discuss why our actions often don’t match our ideals, and what we can do about it. Although the authors’ research is drawn from the corporate world, I read the book as a self-help guide, looking for ways to stop perpetuating behavior I know is bad for me: postponing work, playing addictive computer games, eating hotel minibar food that hardens my arteries and costs more than its weight in enriched uranium. If you’re a cognitive dissonance sufferer like Rose, Linda, Barbara, and me, try these dos and don’ts that I’ve adapted from Messrs. Pfeffer and Sutton for closing the knowing-doing gap: 

Don’t Substitute Talk For Action

Mike calls me every few weeks to say, “I need to talk to you about my girlfriend. I’ve been talking to a lot of her friends, and we should talk about what they’ve been talking about. Maybe she and I should come talk to you together.” 

Talk, talk, talk. Mike is tolerating his awful relationship by creating storms of verbiage that make him think he and his girlfriend are making progress, even though they aren’t. He’s not alone. Substituting talk for action is perhaps the most common way we fall into the knowing-doing gap. Many corporate teams spend so much time creating strategies and mission statements, they don’t actually implement anything. The same goes for individuals. We plan, consider, discuss, brood—and count the word-spinning hours as “action.” We think we’re working toward our goals when in fact we’re spinning our wheels. 

Do Hit Your Mute Button

If you’re not sure whether you’re in danger of talking your dreams to death, try something for me. Today, whenever you mutter your usual reminders about cleaning the closet, learning to tango, or finding a new job/boyfriend/oven thermometer, make a note of it on a piece of paper. At the end of the day, read over your list and ask yourself, “Did I do anything that created a measurable change toward each goal?” If not, you’re substituting words for action. You can close the knowing-doing gap only by focusing on observable change—not plans, comments, or excuses. You don’t have to build Rome in a day; small tweaks are more sustainable, and thus more effective, than attempts at total revolution.

Don’t Rely on Fantasy Transitions

One of my favorite cartoons shows two scientists working on a massive equation. In the center of countless numbers and symbols are the words, “A miracle occurs.” This kind of fuzzy logic is actually very de-motivating. As Pfeffer and Sutton note, companies often fail to act when managers don’t know every step in the processes they’re managing. The same thing happens when individuals have an incomplete plan. Uncertainty stops people in their tracks—smack-dab in the knowing-doing gap. 

Do Figure Out What’s Standing Between You And Your Goals

I know what you’re thinking: What kind of high-grade pharmaceutical are Pfeffer and Sutton on? They start off by saying not to get bogged down in details—and now they advise against starting without an itemized plan. It’s all about calibration, spending enough time to come up with a solid plan but not obsessing over it. 

Compared with vague fantasies about achieving great things, grappling with the nitty-gritty realities of action is hard. It requires research, concentration, and creativity. But we’re actually happiest when we’re pushing the envelope of effort, not when we’re lost in daydreams. As you fill in the gaps in your knowledge, you’ll feel the kind of excitement that comes from real possibility, not just happy talk. Figuring out a plan of attack will practically catapult you over the knowing-doing gap.  Read more

The Labyrinth of Life

For the past few days, I’ve been busy helping to build a labyrinth. My awesome friend Chris Brandt, master coach and landscape design artist, came and spray-painted an ancient pattern onto a 40-foot circle of earth under some huge oak trees near my house, and then everyone got busy finding rocks to mark the pattern as the rain washed it away. We put a statue of Kuan Yin, an ancient Chinese goddess representing compassion, at the entrance to the labyrinth. It’s like a gigantic human brain, all folded into itself. 

I told a friend about this on the phone and she said, “I know how to solve those. You just keep your hand on one wall, and you’ll find your way out.” She thought I meant a maze. This is how our culture sees things: you’re in a place full of tricks and blind alleys, but if you’re clever enough, you’ll “solve” it and get out. That’s not what a labyrinth is. It’s a path you walk as a kind of meditative practice. You could walk out of it at any time, but you follow the patterns at your feet while releasing the patterns in your mind. Walking labyrinths is an ancient custom. Now I know why. I’ve walked my own labyrinth just a few times, and its curving lines have taken me straight to the truth about the way I live my life.

About halfway through my first walk, I found myself feeling terrified and angry. My thoughts went something like this: “This is such a waste of time. What am I doing here? I was two feet away from here before, now I’m doubling back for no reason—where is this taking me? What’s the goal? I can get there faster than this if I just jump….” on and on, ad nauseum.

As every life coach knows, the way we do anything is the way we do everything. The same thoughts that make me squirm in the labyrinth torture me when I’m writing, emailing, even sleeping. I should be going faster, getting somewhere. I should have more to show for this. I shouldn’t have to double back, to revisit old emotional issues, to wipe the same damn kitchen counter every day. These thoughts burble along just under the surface of my consciousness every day. They make me slightly anxious—okay, some days irrationally terrified—and lend a driven quality to moments when I could be relaxed and present.

I’ve heard the same comments from countless people, all schooled to the same obsession with forward progress. We set goals, draw flowcharts, march forward, criticize ourselves if we have to go back, if the same old stuff comes back to haunt us. We want to be DONE with things: the chronic pain, the haunting doubt, the bad relationship patterns, the grief of loss. We want to solve the maze and get out, to the place where we imagine there will be no problems to solve.

The labyrinth is teaching me to question the bits of driven, linear, achievement-based dysfunction that can make me miserable in a life of incredible blessings and good fortune. We didn’t enter life to get it done. There is no place not worth revisiting. We double back to find the pieces of ourselves that still clutch the same issues like a baby clutching its pacifier. Compassion invited us to this unbearably repetitive, slow, complex path of self-discovery, to show us that only when we surrender our idea of how things should be going do we notice that the entire thing is breathtakingly beautiful.

My loved ones and I are still building the labyrinth. Our land is not particularly rocky, so we’ve become obsessed with rocks the way a teenage starlet is obsessed with shopping. We cruise slowly past areas of nearby roads marked with “falling rock” warning signs, then stop the car, heave a few mini-boulders into the car, and speed off feeling the joy of acquisition. We have a goal (finish the labyrinth), we have a process (find rocks and arrange them), and the sense of purpose that comes with that is so familiar, so comfortingly linear. But in the end, what we’re building is a circuitous, contemplative, enfolded path that teaches us to be comfortable with the circuitous, repetitive, contemplative aspects of our lives.

Today, if you’re confronting an issue for the ten thousandth time, or feeling that your life is going nowhere, or panicking over how little you’ve achieved, stop and breathe. You’re not falling behind on some linear race through time. You’re walking the labyrinth of life. Yes, you’re meant to move forward, but almost never in a straight line. Yes, there’s an element of achievement, of beginning and ending, but those are minor compared to the element of being here now. In the moments you stop trying to conquer the labyrinth of life and simply inhabit it, you’ll realize it was designed to hold you safe as you explore what feels dangerous. You’ll see that you’re exactly where you’re meant to be, meandering along a crooked path that is meant to lead you not onward, but inward. 

As Proust wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Stop now, right now, and look around you. This is your place in the labyrinth. There is no place else you need to be. See with eyes that aren’t fixed on goals, or focused on flaws. You are part of the endless, winding beauty. And as you learn to see the dappled loveliness of your life, as your new eyes help you begin loving the labyrinth, you’ll slowly come to realize that the labyrinth was made solely for the purpose of loving you.

Lessons from the 4-day win experiment

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Pamela Slim

I promised to report back today on the success of my 4-day win, which I shared earlier this week in Death to procrastination:  Use the 4-day win to get your goals moving.  I encouraged readers to share their own goals and we got some specific examples from Mike, Andy, Latarsha, Rosalind, Billionaire Strategies, Glenda, Kizla, Jan Marie and Judy (see comments on the original post).

My 4-day win involved working on a book proposal, a task I have tried to accomplish in the past (without success, and with great consternation).  My specific goals and rewards are in this worksheet (click to enlarge):
Pams_4day_win
Here are three lessons I learned from the experience:

  1. It makes a HUGE difference to set a small, feasible goal each day.
    I have a classic case of what Martha describes as “monkey brain,” skittering from one bright shiny object to the next when I have loads of work to do.  But with a very small, specific task to accomplish each day, I had no problem getting the work done.  I didn’t feel pressured or rebellious and actually accomplished much more than my daily goal.  My thoughts flowed, and I didn’t exhibit usual signs of stress like a pounding heart, tight throat or pressure at my temples.
  2. A daily reward really works.
    I have had a lot of writing projects lately, and have been wanting to work on a very personal post about immigration, using photos of a farming family I stayed with in Mexico over 20 years ago. All the photos were in slide format, and I recently had them scanned into digital photographs.  Even though I was dying to look at the photos, I made myself wait until I accomplished my daily task.  The anticipation really built up and heightened the enjoyment of the reward.  Opening up each photo, I actually got tears in my eyes from connecting to such an important part of my past. It was a wonderful emotion to associate with my book proposal.
  3. When you accomplish small wins, you can stop and relax instead of living in a constant state of stress and dread.  I have been an “all or nothing” kind of gal for some important projects in the past, either whittling away hours and hours on small, insignificant tasks to avoid a big project or pounding away at the keyboard for hours on end up to the last second of a deadline.  I noticed it is much more stressful to avoid a task rather than to do a small portion of it.  When I accomplished my daily goal, I was able to step away from work and truly relax, which energized me for the next day.

The 4-day win really worked for me.  I am excited about incorporating it into my life and sharing it with my clients.

Alright Mike, Andy, Latarsha, Rosalind, Billionaire Strategies, Glenda, Kizla, Jan Marie and Judy, how did it work for you?

Death to procrastination: Use the 4-day win to get your goals moving

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It has been 15 days since dawn of the New Year and you may be like me:  running around like a rabbit on a 5-shot latte, skittering between the computer keyboard, stacks of books and piles of paper. At this point in the calendar, one of two things usually happens:

  1. You power through your goals and objectives, meeting timelines like a well-oiled Swiss train, confident that this year, like last, you will keep your word and complete all your resolutions
  2. You look at the piles on your desk, pinch the roll of fat at your waist, stare at the blank page on your computer screen and say:  “LOSER!  Once again, you have proven that you have less initiative than a slug in a salt factory.  Now go shove some cookies in your mouth, PRONTO!”

By making your goals broad and far-reaching, you guarantee that they will be immediately sabotaged by your inner meanie.

What’s the alternative?

Instead of beating yourself up, try a 4-day win, which hails from Martha’s book of the same name. The focus of the book is losing weight, but the tool can be applied to any goal or project.

What is a 4-day win?

A 4-day win is a simple method for breaking large, overwhelming goals into comfortable, bite-sized pieces that are accomplished over a four-day period and anchored with rewards to encourage positive behavior.

Once you complete a 4-day win, you take your buzz of accomplishment and create another one.  And another, stringing them together until they become your finished book, or hot body or whatever else you are trying to manifest.

(It reminds me of one of my favorite cartoons which shows a frantic man in the shower with suds on his head screaming “Honey, get me out of here!  The label says ‘Lather, rinse, repeat!’”)

Why four days?

According to Martha:

“When I started exploiting this little bit of psychological numeracy in my coaching, I found that people who had trouble starting a week-long program of change jumped right in if I asked them to sustain a new behavior for just 4 days.  I also discovered that after the 4 days, the inertia that had been keeping them locked into a pattern of action-or inaction-had changed and was now actually pushing them forward.  Even though I specified that they were free to step making a change after the 4-day period, they often said they’d rather continue, because they’d already blasted through the initial resistance and were starting to see positive change.  This happened with so many clients that I started to call it “the 4-day win.”

How do you construct a 4-day win?

Step 1: Pick a goal

Look at your to-do list and pick a juicy goal such as:

  • Write a book proposal
  • Create a website
  • Lose 10 pounds
  • Cook more nutritious meals for your family

From this goal, choose a task that you would like to accomplish in one day.  Example:

  • Write a book proposal → write the first two pages
  • Create a website → design the layout of the home page
  • Lose 10 pounds→exercise for 30 minutes
  • Cook more nutritious meals for your family → cook a meal using all organic ingredients

Step 2: Play halvsies until your goal is ridiculously easy to attain

We start out with what we think are realistic goals, but most of the time they are not, otherwise, we wouldn’t struggle to complete them.  So take your goal from Step 1 and halve it until you know with confidence that you can actually get it done.  Example:

  • Write a book proposal→ write the first two pages→write one paragraph
  • Create a website → design the layout of the home page→choose three colors for your design
  • Lose 10 pounds→exercise for 30 minutes→do 10 squats
  • Cook more nutritious meals for your family → cook a meal using all organic ingredients→add an organic carrot stick to your plate of Kentucky Fried Chicken

Keep playing “halvsies” until the goal feels just South of totally realistic, and just North of so easy it is insulting.

Step 3: Identify a reward

For each daily accomplishment, choose a small reward that will make you happy. Something like:

  • Play 20 minutes of Spider Solitaire, uninterrupted by toddlers or a nagging wife (my husband’s favorite)
  • Read the new issue of People magazine in the bathtub (my favorite)
  • Eat one piece of really good chocolate

Step 4:  Identify a 4-day reward

Think of an additional, slightly larger reward if you manage to keep your ridiculously easy goal for 4 days.  Depending on your budget and taste, this could be something like:

  • A pedicure with an extra decal on your big toe
  • A nice dinner at your favorite restaurant
  • A hike on your favorite trail on Sunday, regardless of how many piles of laundry are sitting on the washing machine

Step 5:  Make sure the action and reward are linked

Martha says:

“If you meet your ridiculously easy daily goals, you absolutely must give yourself the reward. Same with your 4-day goal.  You must also resist any temptation to give yourself the reward if you don’t meet your goals.  If you do all this and you still don’t take any action, reduce the task, increase the reward, or do both, until you start moving.”

Finally …

Fill out a sheet of paper with your own four day win just like the picture of mine here (click to enlarge):
Pams_4day_win

Post it in at least three places:  Your bathroom mirror, your refrigerator door and your workspace.  Check off each day you manage to complete your ridiculously easy goals.

I am seriously going to do my 4-day win
.

If you are motivated by public accountability, write yours here in the comments.  Five days from now (January 20) I will post about how I did on mine and encourage you to do the same.

Final thoughts on the number 4

I couldn’t help but share some additional information on the significance of the number 4, courtesy of my distracted mind combined with Google:

The number 4 in the Tarot :

“Four is the number of manifestation and material reality. There are four elements, four sides of a square, four cardinal directions of a compass, four seasons, four winds, etc. It is a number of order, structure, power, and earthly dominion. Four is the number of the prototypical complete family: a father, a mother, a son, and a daughter.”

The number 4 in Numerology :

“In the Jewish religion, the number four is significant because of the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God which is so holy it is never spoken. In Chinese numerology (as well as that of other Oriental languages), the word “four” is a homonym of the Chinese word for “death”. As thus, some hospitals do not have a 4th floor.

So perhaps “death to procrastination” is more than a dramatic headline after all!

-Pam


Pamela Slim is a Martha Beck certified coach and author of Escape from Cubicle Nation