Timothy R. Clark: Setting goals and the shelf life of emotion

Published: Monday, Jan. 17 2011 10:54 p.m. MST

Bert Coleman (right) spots Andrew Harris while lifting weights at the 24 Hour Fitness Sport in Provo on Dec. 31, 2007.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

Two weeks ago you could walk into any health club and greet the same scene: An hour wait for a spin bike. Pilates classes spilling into the halls. Smiles, sweat and heavy breathing. From gym to gym, it was the same story. Simply electric.

Two weeks later: Rows of idle ellipticals, racks of stoic weights. And listen. What do you hear? The decibel reading has plummeted from 85 to 42. Give it one more month and the annual burst followed by the desolate aftermath will be complete. A lot of things change over time, but the basic pattern of human behavior remains the same.

In most cases, a goal — in this case a New Year’s resolution — is an act of violence against the status quo. It pits you against yourself. Self 1 wants to experience the exhilaration and rewards of pushing to your outer limits. Self 2 is firmly ensconced in the routines, stability and equilibrium of life. Self 1 wants to disturb. Self 2 wants to preserve.

Self 1 feels the excitement, promise and anticipation of a new year. There is an air of expectancy. Self 2 is resistant and content. But in the first days of the new year, Self 1 overpowers Self 2 with a sense of urgency and renewed hope.

Most New Year’s resolutions are goals to achieve meaningful behavioral change. For example, exercise more, eat less, get out of debt, stop smoking, demonstrate more patience, become a better leader, and the like. These things are more than tweaks or tinkering at the margins.

Effecting behavioral change is astonishingly difficult. It pegs out at a 10 on a 10-point scale. If you have doubts, consider the avalanche of confirming data. Success is a deviant case. Studies show achievement rates in the 10 percent to 20 percent range, so there’s a high chance you will wake up one day before January has expired and realize that your resolutions have passed into history in the form of noble intent.

The pattern is one of early failure. We tend to flame out quickly because we rely on the shelf-life of emotion. Emotion is a great catalyst for change, but it’s more like a booster rocket. It gets you off the landing pad, but it won’t sustain the journey.

Most people go slack after just a few days. Inertia stages a coup and re-hoists the flag of the status quo, quashing the effort. We slump into intractable and rebellious complacency. We accept defeat quickly, run a soothing script in our minds, and resume normal patterns of behavior. And for all of this we have several perfectly logical explanations at the ready. Furthermore, it doesn’t help that our mainstream culture is in a mad rush for on-demand thrills, sensations, and instant gratification. So a long, hard slog to change behavior can be an exquisitely difficult journey.

Thomas Edison said he failed his way to success. Teddy Roosevelt said his life was checkered with failure. Success is not the absence of failure. It’s the rejection of a life of ease, which also happens to guarantee some failure. It’s a willingness to travel to your outer limits.

Go at it again, but this time put up some scaffolding for support. I often use what I call the “8 Here-to-There Questions” to help leaders and organizations prepare for goal achievement.

1. Do I know what the goal is?

2. Do I know how to achieve the goal?

3. Do I have the resources to achieve the goal?

4. Do I have the skills to achieve the goal?

5. Can I measure the goal?

6. Am I accountable for the goal?

7. When will I achieve the goal?

8. How will I replenish energy along the way?

If you have good answers to all eight questions, you have a solid chance of sustaining your efforts far beyond the shelf-life of emotion. Remember, the uncelebrated little things lead to the celebrated big things. Finally, listen to Self 1. Tell Self 2 to hit the gym.

Timothy R. Clark, Ph.D., is an author, international management consultant, former two-time CEO, Fulbright Scholar at Oxford University and Academic all-American football player at BYU. His latest two books are "The Leadership Test" and "Epic Change." E-mail: trclark@trclarkpartners

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS