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The less stressful way to accomplish your goals

It’s almost a new year, which means it’s time for random strangers on the internet to offer you unsolicited advice on setting big goals. Time to join a new gym! Lose weight!

Meh.

Instead, here’s the low-key approach I take to achieve improvements in my life, calendar turnover be damned. It works for anything, be it financial, physical, or a skill I want to learn like speaking Italian or playing piano.

For me, it breaks down to a simple difference in mindset: daily progress vs. an end goal. That simple trick takes a pressure-laced situation and unfolds it into a pleasurable activity.

  • Relationships: Not “I want a great marriage,” but “I strive to be kind to my partner in the daily interactions.” (Yes, even when I’m hangry.)
  • Business: Not “I want to double revenue,” but “I will double the number of potential clients I connect with.”
  • Writing: Not “I want to write this many blog posts or gain this many new readers” but “I want to write most mornings about things I am enjoying or improve my life.”
  • Fitness: not “I want to lift this much or achieve this race pace” but “I’ll try to stick to this training plan most days.”
  • Language: Not “I want to speak at a C1 fluency level by ____ date” but “I’ll study my Anki flashcards consistently and take a weekly lesson.”
  • Piano: Not “I want to play the (devilishly fast) Liebestraume by Lizst” but “every day, I’ll try get my hands on a piano to practice technique and work on repertoire.”

What I love about this is that it takes away the pressure. Down with arbitrary deadlines to speak this well or play that song or send that rock climbing project or hit that business revenue goal.

As Chuck Close said, ““Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work.” But screw that, amateurs can tap into the magic as well!

By focusing on what I can control—daily actions—I trust that I’ll make progress. No more gripping the reigns with white knuckles and gritting my teeth, just a daily practice that moves me forward. (It ties neatly into designing your perfect day.)

As a bonus, there is also far less recrimination attached to daily goals. If I miss working out or piano or Spanish study, I do it the next day! Consistency builds resolve, routines become rituals, and progress follows naturally. Journey, not the destination.

In other words, I just sit down and practice my scales. I enjoy it, even REVEL in the knowledge that note by note, pushup by pushup, and word by word, this is how songs are learned, muscles are strengthened, and books are written.

(Additional reading: my blog post about Boulders of Awesomeness.)

Want to suck less at skate skiing? Get dragged around by your more skilled friend allll winter long.

Forget goal setting, invest in skills

Goal: Bikepacking the Colorado Trail. Skills to do it? Acquired over many years.

Ah, a new year! A fantastic time to hate the old us: let’s whittle away our bloated physical bodies, quiet our ping-ponging minds, change our crappy jobs, and eat celery while taking cold showers and doing pushups.

Meh. I don’t buy it. Can’t we just be happy with who we are and still be on a personal growth path?

Maybe that’s why I loved Mark Manson’s recent thoughts on goals vs. developing skills. As he says,

“What are you improving at? What are you learning and gaining?

Instead of thinking about what you want to achieve in the new year, ask yourself, “What do I want to be good at that I’m not?” Then get to work on it.”

Mark Manson

Goals are things you want to accomplish. Skills are things you DO. (Which, incidentally, can help accomplish goals.)

Want to lose weight? Skill: learn how to cook three healthy meals.

Want to make more in-real-life friends? Skill: Learn how to be more vulnerable and listen better.

In the past, I’ve prioritized freedom and flexibility over a strict schedule. Game for an outdoor adventure or a friend hang at any time. Benefits, yes…with the downside that I wasn’t consistent with skill development.

Last year, I booked weekly Italian/piano lessons and committed to drawing consistently. I didn’t miss a day of studying my Italian flashcards with Anki and slowly but surely learned 4,000 vocab words. Thanks to that, I made tangible and incredibly satisfying progress. Small, consistent efforts lead to real skills.

I’m not as available now, but the tradeoff in schedule flexibility is 100% worth it. Now the days where I barely play music or skip a drawing session feel incomplete. I can’t imagine going back to the old me.

Which reminds me of this quote from Stillness is the Key…

So: to hell with goals. What skill can you commit to developing this year?

I’ll go first: I want to improve my portraiture skills, so I’m starting 2022 with drawing a portrait every day in January. Gawwwd they are hard!

A young Franz Liszt (composer and virtuoso pianist).
Beethoven portrait sketch

Ditching a Self-Bullying Mindset

monteverdi composer sketch portrait
As part of learning to draw and reading about music history, I’m doing a quick daily portrait of a composer. Here’s opera pioneer Monteverdi and his badass beard.

I’m one of those Type-A people who enjoys filling a 30-day calendar challenge with X’s. Solidly motivating for me, or at least a simple reminder to practice my Italian!

Recently I saw a challenge with a different take: a repeating loop of “do activity, get less awful.” (Paraphrased.)

I found it funny…until Chelsea pointed out how that mindset is essentially bullying myself. Which hadn’t registered at all for me. 

In fact, I often beat myself up for falling short of self-prescribed expectations. I want to be GOOD at things. But what does that even mean? 

If we think we’re not “good” at something, is there a finish line? There’s always someone more skilled at a hobby, richer, fitter than us.

How freeing would it be to drop all (or at least most) comparisons and be happy with our efforts and current abilities simply for the joy of the activity? Enjoy the journey, not the results. Draw composers because the process entertains me, not for the finished sketch.

Would you trade it all?

Reminding myself how much effort and sacrifice goes into proficiency – much less mastery – of anything helps me gain perspective. As Ryan Holiday writes, would you permanently swap your entire life with someone – negative and positive aspects – to have their talent?

I sure wouldn’t trade all my hours of travel and outdoor adventures for portrait drawing ability or the wizardry to play Beethoven piano sonatas. (Welllll…how many hours are we talking here?)

This felt like a powerful reminder that approaching life’s activities with a negative mindset – “I’m not good enough, so I need to improve myself” is a recipe for life-long disappointment. “I’m bad at piano, so I need to practice” pales for long-term motivation next to “this process is satisfying and I’m excited about learning it no matter the progress.” I want to practice the latter.

What if we talked to ourselves the way we talk to a best friend? Supportive. Inquisitive. Loving us for who we are and celebrating us as a human being, not a human doing. If we can do that for our closest friends, surely we can do so for ourselves.

I’m still aiming to put the X on the calendar to keep my streaks alive. And also to feel fine if I miss a day or struggle with a piece of music.

Practice–>Enjoyment–>Practice–>Enjoyment. That’s a loop I want to be in!

******

P.S. Check out this podcast with Jim Loehr from minutes 25-30 for more insight on our inner voice. From the chat: “Would you broadcast what your inner voice is saying on a Jumbotron?”

Beethoven portrait sketch
Beethoven! Looking a bit stern and with six fingers because hands are impossible to draw. Just ignore the bike flying over his head.