Want to Know How to Achieve Your Goals? Stop Trying So Hard

by Amy Shaw on March 21


As I thought about what I wanted to write for Spiraling Up this week, I finally settled on willpower. Willpower is everything in personal development. It’s the force that moves us towards our goals. It’s like a muscle, we’ve heard time and again, and someday, when we strengthen the muscle enough, we can achieve whatever we want.

Goals and willpower always come together in this way, a package deal. We’re taught that achieving our goals is a matter of making ourselves do things.

“Like a muscle”…”just do it!”…”Push yourself!” There is so much struggle implied in the way we talk about building willpower. I wondered why we insist on equating our goals—presumably, the things we care about most in—life with hard work all of the time, and whether it’s helpful.

The answer that immediately came to mind was that, well, it often feels like hard work, doesn’t it? We know we are more productive when we wake up early, but it feels so hard to get out of bed. We know that we feel so much better when we eat healthy, but it’s hard to avoiding the temptation to eat convenience foods. And no matter how much we love a hobby we want to get better at—sometimes it feels like work to make ourselves do it.

However, I wanted to figure out how to transcend this ridiculous contradiction we’ve set up: that achieving our goals necessarily has to be difficult. To be clear, I’m not talking about living in some fantasy land where life is never hard. But I wanted to find a way to reframe the “willpower” mindset of achieving our goals, whatever they may be.

I did a little experimenting over the next week, and this is what I came to discover:

One way we can get out of the “willpower” mindset is becoming more aware of the sense of pressure it creates. When we think about our goals taking a ton of effort, we put pressure on ourselves. There is so much to do! It is so overwhelming! That pressure then doubles back on itself and creates inertia. It’s too much, so we do nothing. Take note of this resistance whenever you feel it instead of being its prisoner.

I think what often happens with me is that I feel this intense pressure I put on myself—which is really the pressure of my ambition—and that makes me want to escape. I have big goals, and I chastise myself mentally all the time for not doing enough. In response, I retreat into my familiar escapes: inaction and laziness. Mindlessly scrolling through social media feels way better than actually confronting that drill sergeant.

But the drill sergeant has good intentions. It’s just that her methods—just DO it, push yourself!—are exhausting, not motivating.

So I think we have to come to terms with our dissatisfaction first, before we do anything else. The more we are aware of how often those feelings occur, the more we can begin to lovingly detach ourselves from them.

Setting smaller goals really does work. Want to get in shape but can’t remember the last time you actually exercised? Then do yourself a favor, and don’t sign up for CrossFit. When you start with something too challenging, you set yourself up for failure for a few reasons. One, when you’re fighting so hard, it won’t seem like you’re making any progress. There’s that old “effort” and “struggle” creeping in again. Two, because you won’t feel like you’re progressing, you’ll lose motivation. Things will feel too hard; you won’t be excited to go back to the activity you absolutely sucked at your first (and probably second, third, and fourth) time.

Instead, set a ridiculously small goal, like doing 2 pushups. Almost anyone can complete 2 pushups. Better yet, don’t “set a goal”—just do it now. I have found it stupidly easy to adopt better habits by setting almost laughably small goals. The idea here is that you have to integrate the work you put towards achieving a goal into a habitual action. At some point, you will work yourself up to any amount of exercise you want, but the important thing is that you create consistency first. If you haven’t been exercising at all, even making it to 30 minutes can feel like torture. So why not aim for 5? 5 is better than 0. Soon enough, you’ll want to keep pushing yourself as your sense of confidence builds. Consistently doing 2 pushups a day for a week sets a much better groundwork for achieving the ultimate goal of fitness than attempting to run a marathon on day one.

Connect the “boring” goals to a greater sense of purpose. Not all goals are glamorous. Part of my own current goals include staying on top of various “adulting” tasks. So how else can we approach day-to-day life maintenance besides imagining that it will take superhuman amounts of willpower?  Tim discusses a smart technique in his article on purpose. His idea is that we have to start each day with purpose, a “big picture” idea that guides us. For instance, I see doing the dishes as a really boring, though necessary, chore. However, I find it a lot easier to overcome my resistance when I remind myself that having clean dishes supports me in making sure I’m well-fed, which then supports me in achieving whatever I’m working on for the day. Suddenly, a really simple daily chore comes with a greater sense of purpose attached. No matter what I happen to be doing, if I’m hungry, I’m going to have a much worse time. So reminding yourself of the larger purpose behind basic, life-maintenance type habits can help them feel more effortless. When I think about how important food is, doing the dishes becomes something highly necessary—and I’m less likely to think about it as something I have to struggle against.

All in all, come to terms with your feelings, shrink the size of your goals, and remember that even the tiniest actions are important. All of these techniques can lessen the sense of “effort” needed to achieve what you want. What about you? What’s the best way you’ve found to achieve your goals? Do you find the concept of willpower helpful or hindering?


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Amy Shaw

Amy is a part-time teacher, part-time freelance writer and editor, and full-time building a life out of her passions. Always seeking new, fresh ways to improve herself, Amy's approach to personal development has shifted over time: she has been influenced by everything from Tibetan Buddhism, to New Age spirituality, to Mark Manson's "slap you in the face" style of self-help. She claims no status of guru-ship, but she hopes that you can find yourself in her down-to-earth, reflective writing. Amy is Spiraling Up's editor, and she can also be found at Fiction Edit. She loves cooking meals from scratch, drinks espresso multiple times a day, and plays in a rock band called Dr. Martino.

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