I’m not really a goals guy

It was bound to come up. I was hoping it might not, but it did.

We had a couple over for dinner on New Year’s Day. We had a wonderful time, doing what couples do: reviewing our Christmas holidays and what we did on NY Eve—for the record, we made it past midnight—and the state of our dogs and kids.

Then, the question was asked.

“So, Tim what are your goals for this year?”

There it was. I took a breath and offered that I was focused on finishing a non-fiction golf book by end of February, and that I wanted to finally finish editing a novel that’s been in the works for too many years.

“That’s great,” he said.

I was nicely surprised he didn’t inquire about goals around my golf, my business, or about the band I play in.

After everyone listed their goals, we clinked our glasses to reaching our goals in this new year of 2023 and, to my relief, we moved on to another topic.

You see, I’m not really a goals guy. This may strike some people as surprising, because as a coach, aren’t goals a big deal?

Isn’t naming one’s goals what one does to reach one’s  “full potential,” as a slew of online articles extol? This begs the question: How does one know if one has maxed out on one’s full potential? And is failing to do so mean one is weak and deplorable?

My trouble with goals is both personal and professional. As a coach, I see many people who name their goals, but chronically fail to meet them, and then beat the living crap out of themselves.

On many New Year’s Days, I’ve scribbled a list of goals in my journal, including improving my business, hitting a target income and ideal weight, and, of course, lowering my handicap and practising more.

I’ve often looked back at the previous year’s goals, only to see that I hadn’t made much progress on them. Again. Sigh.

Of course, I’m not the only one who goes through this.

In recent years there’s been a proliferation of books on the topic of goals and habit change, including Atomic Habits by James Clear, and How to Change by Katy Milkman. I took two main things from these books.

One is that goals are obviously set in the future. This means there’s often little sense of urgency and connection to what I must do today.

Second, we’ve all been encouraged to set goals that are BHAG—big, hairy, audacious goals. For example, ‘By the end of the season, I will have gone from a 12 to a 7 handicap,’ or ‘By June 1, I will have lost 30 pounds.’

But when goals are large, it’s easy to get discouraged.

Clear writes: “Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action …. We put massive pressure on ourselves.”

He says that a more successful strategy is “the aggregation of marginal gains.” He advocates that we aim for “tiny margins of improvement.” He cites the British cycling team as an example. In 2003, the team committed to making one percent improvements in overlooked areas, and by the 2012 Olympics, the team set nine records and seven world records.

His main point is: if you do little things often, you’ll see big results. Eventually.

Clear’s thesis aligns with recent findings in research into habit change and training. Citing research from McMaster University, The New York Times says that a seven-minute workout at home can provide the same benefits as an hour-long workout in a gym. Obviously, doing short workouts at home is far easier to sustain.

In early 2020 as the pandemic lockdown hit, I adapted Clear’s premise.

I had put my gym membership on hold, but I wanted to maintain my fitness. At the time, I could do 25-30 push-ups before maxing out. To keep up that practice outside of the gym, while stepping up my game—but not outrageously, as Clear suggests—I decided to work up to doing 100 push-ups a day. Not all at once—over the course of day, in smaller increments.

Here’s what I did: I committed myself to the following: Upon entering my office every weekday morning and after lunch, I would do a set of push-ups for a total of two sets per day.

Yes, I’m quite aware that I could have done 100 push-ups on the first day by doing four, five or six sets daily. But I didn’t want this to become a job; I knew resistance was going to be a key challenge. I also thought that maxing out each set was important for building strength over time.

In the early going, I did 25 push-ups per set.. A few months in, I was up to 30 push-ups per set. Over two years, I graduated to 35, 40, 45 and eventually to 50.

As in the beginning, there are many days I don’t feel like doing them, but I do them. At a certain point, doing the push-ups became what the change experts call a “non-negotiable.” I think I get through the resistance because it feels so good when I’m done; I finish them in about 30 seconds, my heart is pumping, and I feel energized and ready to work. (I take weekends and holidays off; this helps with the resistance.)

The math is interesting. Two sets of 50 push-ups a day equals 100 a day. That’s 500 a week. Depending on the number of days in a month, that’s about 2,000 push-ups a month. That’s a lot of push-ups. Clear was right: small, incremental goals lead to big-time accomplishments.

I’m sure there are fitness experts who will tell me that I’ve plateaued. I don’t care. I feel awesome doing them.

Maybe I am goals guy. But I don’t set a lot goals in other parts of my life and golf where it might be viewed as more important than maintaining my pecs, such as building my business. Or lowering my handicap or winning my club championship; wouldn’t those goals push me to practice more and to think better on the course.

Since I started writing this damn blog post—I’ve been rewriting it for about a week— I’ve revisited this idea of doing little things every day, and I’m seeing something that escaped me. It’s not laziness or lack of tenacity that’s been my struggle; it’s my resistance, which I believe is driven by my fear of failure and an underlying belief that I don’t have what it takes to meet BHAGs, including writing a non-fiction golf book and a novel.

Everyday, I have the same worries: Will they be any good? Will anyone care to buy them? Do I have anything original to say? Pretty typical.

I think that the whole push-up thing has reminded me what writers have been saying forever: the most important thing is to get your butt in your writing chair every day. That is the hardest part.

When I do that, I find that a few hours go by, and I’ve laid down a bunch of words—some of them pretty good, and surely many of them dreadful—but it feels good.  In the context of a book, the progress is incremental, but I’m a step closer to the goal.

Maybe I am a goals guy.

*(I wasn’t going to write about this, but Howard Glassman dragged it out of me on our Swing Thoughts #17 podcast.  If you want to hear the segment, fast forward in episode 217 to the 41:45 minute mark

Tim O'Connor
Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID — a Guelph punk band!

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