Often, in the spur of the ‘new year, new me’ moment we set audacious goals. Goals that you know are impossible but you set them anyway because they allow you to dare to dream. You write them down even though in the back of your mind you know you won’t be able to achieve them. You’re just about to scribble them out when that tiny voice pops up out of nowhere.
“Yeah, but imagine you did achieve it.”
You get overcome with excitement of the high that maybe, just maybe, you will achieve it and become a success. All of a sudden you’ve found yourself setting a goal that you have no hope of achieving and are guaranteed to feel shit about when you don’t.
For me, this year, that goal was this:
“Read 52 books this year, 1 book a week.”
Now, I know what you’re thinking, people have dared to dream bigger (albeit slightly). And they have, I know this isn’t a great, daring dream. The problem though is that it was paired with several other competing goals. Those other goals included writing 200 articles in a year, cycling 200 times (I was yet to own a bike or ride one for several years) and renovating my decrepit house.
On their own, they are all fine goals. If you have a 9–5 and basic life stuff, these goals in isolation are manageable. Altogether though, I’m not sure there is enough time in one year. And there is definitely not enough time for me, who was notoriously bad at building habits.
Fast forward 8 months and I thought it would be good to see how far, or short, I’ve come. The books? Well. I’ve read a total of 12. A mere 23% of the overall. But yet I think I’ve learnt something along the way about goals and about life in general.
In the Beginning, It’s a Novelty
The human brain craves novelty or at the very least it is captivated by it. It’s the reason you can’t take your eyes of something you’ve never seen before, why you are fascinated by magic and why you cry with laughter when you hear a joke that sparks your imagination.
It’s the newness that you like.
It’s why on the top ten TedTalk’s that will change your life, “Malcolm Gladwell: Choice, Happiness & Spaghetti Sauce” is number 6. For a start, the title is something we’ve never seen before. Choice and happiness fit together nicely, we are used to seeing those two words sat together, but spaghetti sauce? Spaghetti sauce, what’s that doing in an article title? And that’s the punchline, it’s the novelty that catches us.
In a sea of normality, we are drawn to the new and creative. It’s like our brains get bored of seeing the same shit every day and so they think “let me look for something that will spark my interest”. It’s the equivalent to your brain thinking “that’s got the same title or similar as I’ve read before, I don’t need to read that again”.
That’s exactly what happened to me in my book reading expedition. The motivation was through the roof in the first few weeks. Book after book, I would read before work, after work, on my lunch break. I would read all weekend some weekends. This new stream of information that was pulsing through my brain and had me hooked. In the beginning, the novelty does all the leg work for you.
Lesson 1: In the beginning, motivation comes from novelty.
But Novelty is Only Novelty for So Long
Novelty, by definition, is the quality of being new. Thus, anything done for a prolonged period of time is no longer novelty, it’s old news. Once that novelty falls by the waist side, you are then left with something else. Well, you should be left with something else, if you’re not then that leaves you with a problem.
Relying on pure novelty as your motivation is problematic because well, it goes. Once novelty goes you need to have something else to be getting motivation from. Whether that’s the thrill of the chase or the love of the game, whatever it is, you’re going to need something.
Whilst riding high on the novelty wave, you need to be asking yourself throughout ‘what do I love about doing this thing?’ Whatever your thing is, whether it’s writing, designing websites or making YouTube videos you need to get something else from this thing, something more than just the novelty of it.
If in the early days you can identify that thing, you’ll have more chance of sticking with it. With reading, I didn’t do that. I didn’t identify what else I got from doing this activity and thus ended up getting rid of it.
That’s a stark contrast to writing. I’ve now been writing consistently for 4 months, pretty much every day. And that’s because I love the idea of my ideas getting out into the world. The thought of an article reaching people and changing someone’s thoughts on something is motivating to me. That’s why I keep showing up.
Lesson 2: Identify early what else you get from doing this thing, something bigger than just the novelty of it.
You Need Something More to Get You Through
There are a number of things you can lean into to get more from what you are doing. In order to do that though, you need to be consciously asking yourself questions that will help you understand what you are getting out of it.
Some helpful questions are:
- How do I feel when I’m doing this? (relaxed, happy, frustrated, confused);
- Does my mood change when I’m doing the said thing?;
- Am I more positive/ ambitious/ hopeful after the said thing?
If you can identify what you are actually getting out of this thing that you are doing, then you can be in it for the long run. It’s no longer the novelty getting you through.
Lesson 3: Ask yourself some questions to help understand how this thing is benefitting you.
A Goal is a Guide for a Larger Why
In the case of reading 52 books a year, the real purpose was to learn as much as possible. It wasn’t necessary to read that many books. What I was actually craving was learning. I wanted to learn new techniques, habits, productivity tips and life lessons. Enough learning to be better, to work harder, to create better habits to increase my income. That was the real goal.
The books were just the vehicle, the chosen vehicle to get there.
That doesn't mean I’m a failure if I decide partway through that actually, reading books, is not the best way to get the information I want. Whilst in the early days reading an entire book was an efficient way to leverage information and learn, I found that after a while that began to dwindle.
I would read a book that I wasn’t getting much information out of because I felt obligated to read it all the way through. The persistence of attaining a goal was actually having a negative impact.
Now in hindsight, this is quite silly. I was literally sitting down each night for a week thinking:
“This book is rubbish, I’m not getting anything out of it, but I need to finish it”.
The trouble is, when we write down a goal, we feel chained to it. But really goals are just a pathway to get where we want to go. The goal isn’t really to cycle 200 times or to read 52 books. The actual ‘why’ behind the goal is to feel better and healthier or to learn some information that will improve my life.
Taking that further, what I really was is to feel healthy so I can live longer. I want to learn enough to increase my income, teach people stuff and feel secure that the future me will be alright.
Lesson 4: Understanding the ‘why’ behind your goal will unstick you. It will help you be flexible when things aren’t working.
You’ll Love Some Books, It’s Obvious From the Very Beginning
Some books are like an enticing love story, from the very beginning you know it’s going to be good. That happened with Dale Cargenie’s absolute masterpiece ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’. The first pages are just captivating.
It’s original, it’s honest and it restores your faith in the world. Cargenie asks us to take a genuine interest in people’s lives, to ask questions about what interests them. He asks us to be nice because that is a thing we should all be doing. It’s nice to be nice.
He restores your faith in the world, that contrary to popular belief, you can be nice and win in life. In fact, it’s a prerequisite.
There are other books that, in direct contrast, are complete rubbish. You open the first page and you are barely convinced, the second page convinces you that you shouldn’t have read past the first page.
For these books, I say close them and move on.
Yes, you’ve spent money on them but much like a first date, you know if the basics are there to move on to the second date. If the basics aren’t there, close the book and move on.
It’s not worth wasting your time.
Lesson 5: Don’t string it out, don’t ask for a second date if you didn’t like the first.
So What Are the Lessons?
For many people, achieving 23% of a goal is a failure. For me, I think differently. I realised at 23% that having a goal to read 52 books wasn’t the right goal. Instead, my goal was to learn, grow and develop good habits. I’ve found that through kick-starting my year with 12 books and allowing myself to pivot, I’m much freer to optimise my time.
I still read, but I also watch YouTube, read articles, read papers and listen to podcasts to improve my knowledge. I then use writing articles to embed that knowledge and the cycle continues.
Having a goal of 52 books allowed me to create a system. A system that now allows me to learn in the fashion that suits me.
So for all intents and purposes starting with this goal and allowing myself to pivot has caused me to achieve my actual goal in a much more efficient way.
It’s important to remember that we set goals when we are in a particular mindset, as we work through our goals we grow and develop. Much like tweaking a good recipe after tasting it for the 3rd time, we should allow ourselves to pivot if we need too. If your goal is starting to restrict you, ask yourself the real ‘why’ behind your goal and create a new one.
There are no rules.