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Speech of the Week: Appropriate Goals (pt2)

Even though we said we were going to talk about behavioral goals last week, we’re going to take a short detour to examine the Motivation-Guilt Cycle. 

Because it’s such a common phenomenon, I’m going to use an example of someone who wants to lose weight. (although it not hard to recognize the pattern in other areas: career improvement, skill development, etc)  

  1. Dissatisfaction.  You realize that you want to lose weight.  This isn’t unusual.  The level of dissatisfaction ranges from mild discomfort about your appearance (that is easily shoved aside) to deep down disappointment in life.  Usually this oscillates.  Sometimes it’s not so bad, you have other things going on after all, and sometimes it feels like the most important thing.      

  2. Desire to change.  You’ve had enough of the dissatisfaction.  “Do I or do I not have free will?” You ask yourself.  “other people can change so why can’t I?  Somewhere in here is a spark of hope.  It could be fueled by advertising or maybe you were inspired by someone else.  This desire has happened before but now you’re going to act on it.  You begin to formulate a plan.  

  3. Initial motivation and enthusiasm.    You act on your plan.  You join a gym, download an app, buy a notebook, get new workout clothes, hire a trainer, watch a video, go for a run, start counting calories, etc.   Your first workout is INTENSE and LONG.  You pat yourself on the back.  “Now THIS is what being in charge of your own destiny feels like!” you tell yourself.  Maybe you even tell everyone about the new you.  

  4. Inability to sustain.    Your still on track, you say.  You just can’t do your workout today because you’re sore.   You’re tired.  It’s ok, you deserve it, you say.  You can’t keep up your new diet because you ran out of groceries or you forgot to cook it in time, or a meeting came up.  In fact, things keep coming up.  Oh well, next week is good, right?  

  5. Rules broken, progress sidetracked.  At some point, you realize that you’re not on track at all.  In fact, maybe you never were.  You’re forced to admit that you’re not doing what it takes to change.  You BROKE the RULES! 

At this point, one of two things happens, you either….

Feel like a failure and wallow in depression and settling for being stuck where you are, in which case you continue with your current set of skills, habits, routine, and comfort that you’ve already baked into your life until such a time as you experience desire to change and motivation again. 


You DOUBLE DOWN!  STRICTER RULES!  HARDER PATH TO SUCCESS!  LESS CALORIES!  LESS FLAVOR!  HARDER WORKOUTS!!!  If you opted for this, then you get to bypass step 1 and you go straight back to step 2 again (enthusiastic efforts).  This is also doomed to fail.  This time, when you work your way through the cycle, you are just setting yourself up for a further, harder fall.     

I think this phenomenon is appropriately labeled as a cycle.  Chances are, you have experienced multiple rounds of this cycle in several different areas of your life.  And unfortunately, setting an achievement goal can be part of the set up (a goal is often set somewhere between “desire to change” and “initial enthusiasm).  After all, you applied firmer rules with your SMART goal, right?  You did all of the “correct” steps. 

It’s a formula for crying out loud! 

UP NEXT: break the cycle by changing your expectations of what goals, progress, and achievement look like to begin with.  

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