“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”Aristotle
This past summer I set a goal to drink more water. I knew the health benefits, I was motivated to incorporate more H20 into my life by dreams of hydrated skin and flushed out toxins. I planned to pour myself a pint glass of water in the morning, again in the afternoon, and have some beside my bed at night. Since I was in the habit I’d probably be inclined to drink more in between.
That was it – my whole plan start to finish. I set an intention…and then I assumed my best-intentioned-self would follow through. The plan was obviously good for me. It was logical – and – it was my idea. Why wouldn’t I be motivated?
I followed this plan for a sum total of 36 hours. It looked a bit like –
- Morning 1 – I got up and drank a glass of water before I started the coffee maker. Killing it.
- Afternoon 1 – Water with lunch and felt pretty good about the new me.
- Evening 1 – Glass of water beside my bed – smart. Fell asleep before I could finish it – at least I was sleeping!
- Morning 2 – Mid-morning water, forgot before coffee.
- Afternoon 2 – Had a liquid with my lunch (ok, it was a diet cola)
- Evening 2 – Well, the day didn’t go so hot, maybe I’ll pick it back up tomorrow.
- *Not actually to be picked up again for another month. Rinse, repeat.*
I’m going to bet that you have found yourself in a similar position at least once in life. Clear, measurable, beneficial goal. An intention to start. Get started and feel good about yourself – and then it falls off the rails. I was left feeling mild shame (The goal was so easy! What is wrong with me?) and like I had had a minor set-back. There wasn’t a lot of incentive to try again tomorrow once I was in that headspace and I let it go. You multiply that feeling by twenty small goals not achieved in a year because <insert reason here> and you’re left with a large dose of frustration.
Breaking The Cycle
After the water incident I wanted to break that ‘idea – fail – shame’ cycle and decided to try a new approach – a goals journal.
- I had journaled through my childhood and teen years. Journaling has been proven to increase short term working memory while in parallel clear the mind of intrusive thoughts. With a settled mind the writer then can make room for more helpful cognitive functions like stress management and decision making. I needed to infuse both into my process.
- In my school years I had also become a strong note taker in class because I retained more information by writing key points down than if I just listened to the lecture. Was there a way to bring back some of those skills and apply them to my goal planning?
My hypothesis was that if I wrote it down it would be more likely to stick. I decided to purchase a goals journal and give this method a shot in an attempt to create lasting habits and more confidence in my ability to stick to it. I decided I would take my goals journal everywhere with me as a physical reminder of pending action. I would be as consistent as possible writing daily for three weeks. I gave myself permission to stop in three weeks if I didn’t feel like the practice was adding enough value for my effort. Finally, I asked a trusted friend right up front to check in on my progress (‘Hey! How is the goals journaling coming along?’) a few times during this experiment time frame.
The Experiment Ends
I stuck to my rules and journaled my goals and progress for three weeks. Here’s what I learned from the experiment –
- Writing down goals clarifies how life will improve once you reach that milestone. It’s important to understand WHY you are working toward a specific objective and describe the intended outcome. Example – ‘I want to create space for my passion projects because being sparked creatively gives me more joy in everyday life.’
- Its easier to goals journal than it looks. I’m not interested in writing long form in a journal at this point in my life but being able to jot down notes in the moment took up no more time than checking my phone.
- You jog your own memory. As evidenced by the fact that I stuck to my plan to journal for three weeks – when you have a physical manifestation of your plan it’s hard not to pay attention to it. A daily look at 2-3 main goals and how your life is expected to improve when you reach those goals is a powerful motivator. You keep your own internal conversation going about your priorities and aspirations as you give yourself time to pause, reflect, evaluate your own progress. Other priorities may creep into focus but you can purposefully choose – putting time into these existing goals is still important.
- Describing how you achieved your goals that day – even in the smallest ways – reminds you that you are capable, and reaching that milestone is possible. It was satisfying to be able to check off habits each day. If I missed a habit that I committed to, it was a reminder to course correct in the next 24 hour period. Having my notes all in one place gave me an advantage in that I could go back and see all of the days in the recent past where I had gotten to that habit, even if today wasn’t one of them. I avoided the shame cycle and just kept going.
- Sharing your goals with a friend keeps you accountable. I opted to be careful with this one and choose a friend who is positive and I know truly wants the best for me. There was no pressure in the check-in, simply an interested question to keep my journaling top of mind. Recent studies have shown that there is an almost 40% increase in likelihood that you will reach a near term goal if you write that goal down and check in with a friend on your progress. I found that talking with another person was its own unique motivator to keep it up.
- You don’t have to buy a pre-made goals journal to get the benefits. Paper and pen is all you really physically need. If you can create the structure yourself to keep your goals, habits, and micro-habits clear and measurable then you should be just fine. It might help to start with a pre-made journal to get an idea of rhythm – or – there are plenty of resources online to give you an idea where to focus.
Did It Make A Difference?
At the end of the three week cycle I had achieved –
- 24.5 new actions from habit commitments. Out of the five main habits I checked off each day, I was generally successful 70% of the time. This equates to (5 opportunities a day * 7 days a week = 35 opportunities to reach my goal )* .7 success rate = 24.5 new actions every week. I added more consistent action to transform my habits. [Author’s Note – Ha! And here I thought all those math courses would never come in handy.]
- 14 new actions added because I was more mindful of my goals as I wrote down daily progress. Example – I want to increase my wellness and movement (goal), and I committed to a minimum of 20 minutes of exercise each morning (habit). I then also found ways to work extra movement into my day (I can journal that I took the dog for a 2 mile walk today after work!). I averaged 2 ‘extra’ actions per day tied in some way to my goal achievement, above and beyond the pre-set habits. 7 days multiplied by two actions on average per day equates to 14 extra actions per week.
- In total, I completed ~39 extra actions to reach my goals each week because I had goal journaled. I would not have taken these same steps without that system in place.
The System Works
Aristotle has been quoted to say “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Goal journaling is a simple yet surprisingly effective method to consistently change habits and reach goals. There is very little start-up cost and you can start tomorrow with a pen, paper, and a plan. Adding in a friend or two to support your efforts, paired with writing down your goals, is a proven method to consistently reach your goals. I would encourage you to test the waters and give goal journaling a try. Set yourself up with this simple yet powerful system and reach your goals consistently by tracking progress along the way.
About the author: Hi! My name is Jess Anderson (MBA, CSPO). I am a technologist based in Louisville, Ky. I lead technology product and project management teams and am ‘mom’ to two school aged kids.
You can also find this article and others like it on my Medium page , follow for new content as it’s published. Here’s the friend’s link to the article so you can read it even if you are not a paying member. Because what are we if not all friends here?