Jan 5, 2022

Goals Group: a system for improving your life

Reading Atomic Habits by James Clear convinced me that discipline may not exist. Disciplined people are actually just experts at structuring their lives to make it easy to do the good and avoid the bad. 

Example 1: a bowl of chocolates on your kitchen bench might empty in 2 days, with those empty calories transformed into your body fat. A clear jar might last 4 days. An opaque jar, 10 days. A jar inside a cupboard, 20 days. Store the jar in your garage and only bring it out for parties, and the loss to mindless snacking approaches zero. "Disciplined" people know it's better not to rely on willpower, and that out of sight is out of mind. 

Example 2: you want to go to the gym every morning, yet after an initial burst of training you struggle to get out of bed and motivate yourself and start hitting the snooze instead. Instead of trying to white-knuckle your way through dozens of temptations, you make it easy to go to the gym and hard to stay in bed. You leave your phone on the dresser so you have physically get out of bed to hit the alarm. You leave your gym clothes out and ready, and your work clothes in your car, so it's easy just to throw on your activewear and drive to the gym, and hard to put on your gym clothes, go get your work clothes, bring them in, change clothes, and put away your gym clothes. You sign up for a class, put down money, make friends to compete with, and post about it on Strava to get some juicy social media dopamine reinforcement. You have made it easy and rewarding to do the right thing and weird and annoying to do otherwise.

Sounds great, but what if you don't know how to set goals, and need some pushing to stick to the project of restructuring your life? Here's where a goals group can help.

Goals groups are 3 or 4 people who meet to hold each other accountable. Any more and the meeting gets too long. They must be people you can be totally honest with, about sensitive issues, from your mental health to your relationship troubles to your wildest dreams. They have to be comfortable calling out your bullshit excuses and vice versa. 

Start by setting goals over 5 years, 1 year, and 3 months. Goals should be SMART: specific, measureable, achieveable, relevant, and timely. Dumb goal: get super fit. SMART goal: run 5k in under 25 minutes by July. To identify goals, you can write out your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT analysis). You can write headings like fitness, nutrition, finances, social, educational, work, psychological, moral, spiritual and brainstorm ideas in each. You can write down everything you do in a typical day and look for the good and bad - James Clear style Habit Scorecard.

You write down your goals the night before the first meeting and post them to a Facebook group or private blog. At your first meeting you take turns reading your goals. You give feedback to keep them SMART. You each pick a quarterly goal to focus on for the next 3 months. This should be an outcome goal (run 5k in <25 minutes by July) and attached process goals (run 5k >=4 times/week, tracked on Strava so others can check and provide positive reinforcement). It's easy to tend towards fitness goals because they're easily quantified, but with some creativity you can do anything:

  • Bench press your bodyweight via 4x weight sessions a week
  • Cut alcohol to once a week via removing stores from the house
  • Waist measurement below 80cm via 10% calorie deficit on My Fitness Pal
  • 10 minute meditation daily via app with streak-counting and reminder notifications
  • Write two blog posts weekly via 20 minutes writing a day
  • Reduce social media use to <1h / day via app blocker
  • Save 10k by Christmas via budget app
  • Make 2 new friends via calling once a week, seeing once a month
  • Achieve intermediate Spanish via 4x Duolingo lessons/day
  • Read one book a week via 30 minutes bedtime reading
  • Quit smoking via NRT and self-determined rules

The group then meets once a week at a regular time. Can be virtual. The night before you post on your goal progress. In the meeting you read this out and the team reinforces your successes, calls out excuses, and helps you figure out how to structure your life for better adherence. Why haven't you run? Haven't been getting up early enough? Why not? Tried the distant alarm trick? Getting to bed too late? Why? Try setting a bedtime? Cutting down on TV? etc. 

Soon enough you anticipate this and start calling out your own excuses and structuring yourself so you don't have to write an embarrassing report. But the group is still there to hold you accountable.

Ideally, your post should include a visual representation of your progress like this.
Though it doesn't have to be as fancy:

Every quarter you have a special meeting to report on the final outcome of the goal. You should comment on whether and how you intend on keeping your new habits. Set a new goal. Usually from the 5 year 1 year 3 month goals you brainstormed last time, which you might choose to revise. 

There's many variations. The above is just what my group does. We have also become dear friends and supports in other ways. We often add a weekly life update of non-goal material to our post. We sometimes set multiple goals, or carry one over to the next quarter, or finish a goal partway through a quarter. What matters is that the group examines any change, ensures it is well thought-out and not impulsive, and makes a joint decision. 

Do you want to be the designer of your life, or just a consumer? If the former, read Atomic Habits, and also The Elephants by Nick Crocker, the blog post from which we stole this idea.  

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