When It Comes To Your Big Goals, Get It In Writing

Get Your Important Goals in Writing

Country-music star Dierks Bentley has a hit that includes the lyrics: “I know what I was feeling, but what was I thinking?” (Emphasis mine.)

I can relate.

Between Christmas and New Year’s, my wife had to replace the workout facility and pool she used because her usual facility was being remodeled for most of 2019. She evaluated several locations, including a YMCA with a nice pool just a short walk from my office, which I also liked since it would be so convenient for me. She enrolled us both.

Not long after that, I started thinking of a personal goal. Our town has a one-mile lake swim every Memorial Day weekend. I had not trained seriously in the pool for 30 years, but with the swim five months away, I latched onto the idea of completing this swim.

New Year’s resolutions are not my thing, but I have been goal driven throughout my corporate career, and in my new role as a business coach, I now know goal achievement is a process. I printed out the one-page template “Seven Steps to Goal Achievement” based on the work of Brian Tracy. The template is consistent with SMART goal concepts (specific, measurable, aligned with your values, realistic, and time-bound).

Pick a goal and a deadline

The first two steps are to write down exactly what you want and pick a deadline. All the concepts of a SMART goal come into play here.

Being realistic was especially important for me. I had not trained in the pool for three decades, and I am a decent swimmer but am not fast in the water. Doing a mile in a lake in a pack of 350 other swimmers is also different than swimming a mile in a pool with a guiding line on the bottom and lane lines to divide the swimmers. No kicking each other, swimming over someone else’s back, or getting a big splash of water just when you turn your head for a breath.

So, my specific goal was simple — complete the one-mile lake swim in Lake Audubon on Sunday, May 26. I wrote that goal on my template and filled in the deadline.

Looking back now, “I know what I was feeling, but what was I thinking?”

This is where most attempts at goals stop, but here is where the work to transition from aspiration really begins in the goal-setting process.

List obstacles and habits

The next step on the template is to list the obstacles in the way of achieving the goal and the habits that need to be developed or changed. These obstacles and habits are why most folks do not achieve their goals, so the time spent identifying and making a plan to deal with them has a huge payback. Some of my obstacles are doozies!

In addition to the usual challenges of scheduling training, limited lap-swimming hours at the pool, and getting into a routine, I wrote three major obstacles on the template:

  1. I did a triathlon 30 years ago, and the mass start to the one-mile lake swim leg was very intimidating. I need to anticipate and mentally prepare for a similar challenge without the anxiety that could deplete my energy.
  2. While living in Brazil, I got caught in a rip current; despite swimming as hard as I could, I was pulled backwards out to sea. Fortunately, I knew what to do and made it back to the beach safely. However, a young man drowned in the same spot the next day, and we found out later that over 30 people had drowned in the same spot that year. While Lake Audubon doesn’t have currents, I need to manage the lingering open-water anxiety from that memory.
  3. An accomplished swimmer died during this race last year. This is a bigger obstacle for my wife than for me, but it is a fact I need to confront.

Develop new skills

The next section of the template is for listing the skills required. First, I needed to put in the miles in the pool and exercise overall, but it was also essential that I mentally deal with the obstacles. In addition, I needed to learn to stay on course without lane lines and a guiding line so that I don’t swim any more than the one-mile distance of the course.

The skill I noted as most important was to be realistic in my training. This is where the specific goal of completing the swim was helpful. We have been around talented swimmers, including our daughter, who was team captain at Vanderbilt University and held the school record in the 200-meter breaststroke, and our son, who also held a school record and made the NCAA meet his final two years at University of North Carolina. At their respective meets, we saw high-level skill.

But that was their competition. For me, this Memorial Day swim is not a race or for time. “Be realistic,” I wrote on my template.

List the people involved in the goal

Identifying the people required was the quickest but most important step in the process. My wife had to support my goal, especially given the fatality in the 2018 swim. There would be sacrifices as I worked to get the miles in. But sharing the goal with her got me more committed.

I also had to work out a schedule with my boss (in my case, me) so that I could achieve this goal without taking my eyes off building my new business.

Writing down each step on the template helped me become truly committed to achieving the goal. By addressing the obstacles and writing the action plan, I could see clearly what I needed to start — and stop — doing. As my commitment increased, my accountability did as well. In my written plan, I saw the path to dealing with the obstacles, developing the skills required, and acting toward goal achievement.

Take action

The final stage of the goal-achievement template is to act by doing something every day towards the goal. This is where reality sets in.

Accomplishing big stuff is hard work, and it is easy to give in to the obstacles. Brian Tracy’s secret weapon of writing a goal almost daily helps with moving toward that goal. Less than 5% of adults in the U.S. have written goals, and only a small percentage of them write their goals daily, so it is easy to see why so few people achieve them.

Back in late December, I had a feeling of what I would like to accomplish, based on my enthusiasm for the new year and my related ambitions. That feeling can be fleeting when reality hits. Thinking through the goal-achievement template and building my commitment made achieving my goal more doable. My written action plan drove my activity, which developed new habits.

Would I be prepared to complete the lake swim if I had not thought through the template steps and written my goal daily? No way! My plans for Memorial Day weekend would be very different.

When it comes to goal achievement, perhaps a slight tweak to Dierks Bentley’s lyrics is in order: “I know what I was feeling, but what I was thinking (and writing) led to the doing!”

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