I’ve been doing freelance writing on the side for nearly ten years, though nowadays I’m only working with one client. She’s a professional athlete and I recently helped her caption an Instagram post celebrating an exciting, yet somewhat scary, middle-age milestone.
Milestone birthdays tend to stir up emotions and force us to contemplate what we’ve achieved, how we have changed across time, and what we hope to accomplish in our remaining days. I have continued to work with her over the years because her ideas are always so positive and inspirational—working to give her ideas form has helped me become a better person.
One of the key ideas conveyed in her latest post is that the aging process is inevitable, despite what the pharmaceutical companies say, so we must learn to embrace our current abilities and set realistic goals in accordance with those strengths and skills.
“In all of living, have much fun and laughter. Life is to be enjoyed, not just endured.” –Gordon B. Hinckley
At times, we all fall prey to the desire to compare ourselves to others, or even to our younger selves. We envy the friend who has the luxury of traveling the world, seeing only the highlight reel of her life. We save our favorite pair of jeans for fifteen years, certain that we’ll one day get back to our high school weight. We see the cheerful child who always says “please” and wonder why we ended up with a little hellion.
The problem with the above examples is that we’re peeking at life through a crack in the door, often making assumptions without any clear context. Perhaps the world-traveler is deep in debt and seeking external validation so she can feel better about herself. Maybe the mother of the disciplined child has focused a lot of energy on teaching etiquette, and she may even have her own difficult child at home. And, as for ourselves, bodies and abilities change across time in response to habits and hormonal shifts; setting unrealistic expectations for your dress size, run time, or discretionary budget will only hinder progress.
The Importance of Metrics
I live by the idea that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” In my work, the concept helped me optimize performance and achieve goals. In my fitness, it’s helped me to increase lifts and manage my macros. In my personal finance, it’s help me monitor my net worth and prioritize long-term goals.
Metrics offer us insight and tell us blankly whether or not our current regimen is working. Thus, metrics offer an opportunity for adjustment and change.
Everything can be quantified. While many people would argue with this statement, I personally believe that even subjective experiences can be captured and analyzed on a sliding scale. For example, when you go to the emergency rooms and they ask, “On a scale of 1-10, how much does it hurt?” They don’t care whether the sensation is dull, stabbing, or numb–it’s their job to quantify your condition so that they can best assess your care plan.
This is not to say that qualifying information is to be neglected, but rather to suggest that subjective ideas can often be transformed into a more easily measured and understood form: metrics.
Personalized Metrics for Success
So, how do you go about developing goals that match your current abilities and align with your future hopes?
Set a General Theme
Take the big picture idea of what you want to achieve and distill it down to its most generalized form.
Do you want to lose some weight, rock a bikini, gain self-confidence, eat better or exercise regularly? Your theme might be health and wellness.
Do you want to find a better job, make more money, transition into a new field, pursue a new degree, or add a sense of fulfillment in your life? Consider work life as your theme.
Do you want to find Mr. Right (or someone just for tonight), plan an elaborate wedding, start a family, or develop a strong sense of companionship with someone? The theme might be relationships.
You should get the idea.
Find What Resonates
Next, look at your theme and decide on the one goal that really gets you excited. Some people will get excited about numbers on a scale, while others want to feel good about making healthier choices (even if the numbers don’t budge). Figure out the exact verbiage that works for you and own it.
Do you want to take sexy yoga pictures at the beach in a bikini? Okay! Do you want to take a salad to work for lunch four days a week? Great! Do you want to move your body every day? Perfect!
Set A Baseline
Now that you have a goal, figure out your starting metrics. If your goal it to shed pounds or body fat, determine your current readings. If you want to look good in a bikini, take pictures of yourself in a bikini today (front, back, and side). If you want to take a healthy lunch to work, write down how many times per weeks you’re doing so currently.
When you know where you’re starting, you can track progress and gain momentum as you move forward. The baseline is a great tool to help you celebrate improvements that aren’t so obvious.
Set Micro Goals
You know where you are today and you have a vision of where you hope to be one month or one year from now, so how do you bridge that huge gap? Whether it’s 50 pounds, 3% body fat, or five hours of meal prep, big goals can be intimidating.
Humans are drawn to opportunities for instant gratification–social media likes, lattes, and newly-released tech devices. This is why those trying to battle debt are often advised to follow the “snowball effect” and pay off their smallest credit card first. The win feels great and motivates them to keep going. The key here is to start building a habit.
We can leverage this same idea when approaching other goals. Rather than trying to lose 50 pounds over the next year, focus on losing one pound per week for 52 weeks. Rather than shying away from a daunting project at work, identify each individual step involved and create an exhaustive checklist. Instead of committing to workout for an hour each day, start with five minutes a day and continue longer if you feel like it.
Whether you’re checking tasks off a checklist, compiling weekly progress pictures, or crossing your daily workout off the calendar, keep track of your progress (or lack thereof).
When you set milestones, such as achieving a certain weight by a particular date, the metrics along the way allow us to reflect on our progress. Am I on track with my goal, pretty close to where I want to be, or moving in the wrong direction? Comparing where we are at any given time allows us to analyze what is helping and hindering our journey.
When things aren’t going as well as we would like, it can be hard to look at the numbers on the scale or the overdue tasks on the calendar, but doing so will often light a fire under your behind and get you moving toward where you want to be.
Long-term goals can feel impossibly long and drudging, so it’s important to celebrate milestones along the path, whether they are preset or chosen at random during your journey. When you lose 10 pounds, treat yourself to a fun fitness class or a new outfit. When you complete the first iteration of a work project, go out for a beer or spend the evening planning how you’ll spend your upcoming bonus.
Rinse, Wash, Repeat
Just as life is a journey, goals are also often an ongoing project. When you reach your ideal weight, you can’t cancel your gym membership and start eating cake for breakfast, at least not if you want to remain fit. Once you finish that massive work project, you can’t throw up your hands and walk out of the office, at least not if you still want a paycheck.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned through writing and editing for a professional athlete is that goals are always changing. Aging, injury, motherhood, career, and responsibilities will always intrude in on our lives and compromise our goals. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Thus, we must be acutely aware of exactly what is is we are striving towards.
By measuring our personal metrics, we have the chance to continually improve one or more important areas of our lives. When we spend years and decades following this pattern of observing progress, adjusting our sails, and celebrating small successes, we are almost guaranteed the satisfaction of achievement. Pursuing personally meaningful goals that match our abilities provides the dopamine hits we need to keep going and prove that our potential extends far beyond what we originally believed possible.