Stop Treating Your Goals as Checklists and Turn them into a Lifestyle

When we set goals, our inclination is to add their pursuit as items on a to-do list.

It’s our base assumption about goals — that they’re things we “have to do.” We add their pursuit to our days, tacking them on before and after work, before and after dinner, before we go to bed at night and directly after we rise in the morning.

We add them as items on a checklist — and maybe we’re really disciplined, and we check them off for a few days, or even a matter of weeks. But they feel awkward and clumsy, and it’s hard.

And then we fail.

And we wonder why.

The problem is entirely in the approach. We treat the pursuit of goals as something entirely unnatural; we set a frame that requires effort and stretching and discomfort to maintain. And that sets us up for failure before we even start.

Items on a checklist are work. Our assumption is that they require effort — that’s why we put them on a list in the first place. When we encounter them, we experience resistance — because things that require effort force us to work for them.
It’s like the difference between negotiables and non-negotiables. If something’s negotiable (meaning there’s a chance, however small, that we might be able to get away with not doing it), we have to negotiate with ourselves throughout the entire process of doing it to keep ourselves on track. On the flip side, if something is non-negotiable (meaning we have no choice but to do it), the resistance diminishes. We don’t have a choice, so all of our energy goes immediately into executing on the thing we’re working on. We become more efficient. The tension slips away, and our efforts become streamlined.
When we put things on a checklist, it implies to our brain two things:
  1. There’s a chance we won’t do it (that’s why we’re writing it down), and
  2. It will require work to do it.

Putting goals on a checklist makes them harder than they need to be.

If you truly, truly want to pursue your goals, you have to turn them into a seamless part of your day. They have to be non-negotiable (meaning there’s no option of not doing them — you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you will), and they have to integrate seamlessly into your routine.

They need to become part of your lifestyle.

Instead of asking yourself “how can I cut out space to intentionally pursue this goal every day?” (which requires work), ask yourself “how can I make the pursuit of this goal part of the way I engage with life?”

Instead of cutting an hour block out of your day to read (which is effective, but intrusive into the rest of your day — and also requires effort to maintain), how can you integrate reading into one of your existing habits? My favorite answer to this question is to replace phone with book. Meaning — every time you feel a compulsive desire to pick up your phone and scroll (admit it — we all do), pick up a book instead, and start reading. Even if it’s just a few paragraphs — the habit quickly compounds. Your literary intake ups drastically, your impulses to check your phone go down (without major withdrawals, because you’re still getting your input fix), and reading becomes a habit.

I recently did a similar thing with health and fitness. I used to be a habitual fitness buff — it was part of my day, and it was easy, even cathartic. I loved working out, and I looked forward to it on a daily basis. But then life got busy, the gym got farther, my nights got later, and I stopped working out as frequently. As much as I loved it, it became an item on the to-do list — and the one that perpetually kept dropping to the bottom.

It wasn’t working anymore. I wasn’t getting my fitness fix, and I was feeling the price of it — both physically and psychologically.

So I made fitness part of my lifestyle again. Instead of shaping my lifestyle around my fitness (which clearly wasn’t working), I started shaping my fitness around my lifestyle. I brought my kettlebells into the office, so I could use them in the mornings and evenings and in between meetings (side note: a kettlebell circuit in between calls is a fantastic energy reset. I’d highly recommend). I made it easy to pursue fitness, almost seamless. I replaced my habit of going for restless walks in between calls with a brisk kettlebell circuit.

I made healthy sustenance a habit, too, and brought a stash of healthy food into the office, so I wouldn’t have to think about it in the mornings. I eliminated the need for being intentional about health — the things I needed were there when I felt an impulsive need to eat.

Here’s the shift in paradigm: goals aren’t something that you pursue separate to your life. They’re a part of your life. Successful attainment of your goals requires them to become a part of your lifestyle.

Most of us fail in the pursuit of our goals (both large and small) because we pursue them outside of our day-to-day life, as an extraneous add-on — something clunky and unwieldy and hard to manage. And then we wonder why we fail to obtain them, when we aren’t able to integrate the pursuit of these goals into our days.

Instead of adding a piece to an already over-complicated system (our days), we have to hack the system and insert the tasks required to pursuit our goals in the most seamless ways possible. We have to make them a seamless and organic and complementary part of our existing lives — and when we do that, then we set ourselves up for success.

My challenge to you: don’t read this passively.

What are the biggest goals that you have that you want to integrate? Write them down. Then for each, write down the ways in which the pursuit of that goal might integrate seamlessly into the framework that already exists — so that it stops being work, and starts becoming lifestyle.

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