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  • The Renaissance Surgeon

Don't Set Realistic Goals This Year

“Being what most people think is realistic is only a way of justifying negative thinking.” - Bob Rotella, How Champions Think


We need targets. If you don’t know what you’re after, you won’t know what to do, how to act. Stretch your idea of what’s possible. This doesn’t mean setting a goal that is literally impossible or so far-fetched that you can’t believe it yourself. But no one else has to believe it’s possible. And if you can question your own beliefs about what you can do, you can start to remove limits. Set challenging goals. It’s the journey that matters, so if you don’t realize your goals that’s ok.



Photo: Ronnie Overgoor via Unsplash

Did you know that scientific data supports that if you write down your goals, you significantly increase your chance of achieving them? Well I did, and I’ve been writing them down, but they still felt like New Year’s resolutions, overambitious ideals that get sacrificed to the exigencies of daily living once the year gets going. I’ve always glossed over hearing people say that goals need to be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound). ‘Of course goals need to be those things’ I would tell myself. Since I am writing down goals, however, I had the chance to look back at last year’s. (Problematically, the first time I looked back at my 2022 goal sheet was when preparing to write 2023 goals.) Also problematic, I realized with chagrin that my goals, by and large, were not SMART goals! They were often not specific, measurable or time-bound! For example, at the end of 2021, I wrote, “pursue your ideal self,” and “maximize energy and alertness.” Not to say these aren’t laudable ideas, but is it any wonder they weren’t worth looking back at throughout the year?


After finishing my slice of humble pie, I sat down to plan my athletic year and write down 2023 goals. This time I made them SMARTer. Rather than “maximize energy,” I wrote, “sleep at least 7 hours per night.” (Time asleep, not time in bed, mind you.) Last year I wrote down “marathon.” (Fortunately, I did drill down into something SMARTer by the time I started training.) This year, I wrote down, “run 1000 miles.” In running, I’ve never set a mileage goal for the year, or paid much attention to how many miles I ran in a year. Last year was my highest mileage year since I started tracking – 688 miles. Is increasing my mileage by 46% realistic? As I sit here in January not having been able to return to running regularly since my November marathon, one might say no. Running 500 miles is realistic. Is 1000 miles achievable? That’s a slightly different question. I used to have the self-limiting belief that if I ran more than 15-20 miles per week, I would develop an overuse injury. This too easily became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ten to 13 miles a week is comfortable. Realistic. But I would argue that running 20 miles per week to hit 1000 for the year is SMART. If injury or other external forces derail the effort, so be it. It won’t be because my mind created a limit. I will start the process of achievement this week.


The key change (for me) involves converting goals such as becoming a better runner to process measures. This can be thought of as focusing on inputs rather than outputs, or lead measures versus lag measures. If you convert a goal to a process, you’ve got something you can control. I can’t control whether I run my goal time (output) but I can control whether I lace up my shoes and get out the door for a run three times per week (input). The race time is a lag measure; getting a workout done is a lead measure. (The race result lags behind the daily input of training.) Goals are nice for deciding where to aim. As Stephen Covey says, you don’t want to climb the ladder only to realize it’s leaning against the wrong wall. But in our daily lives, we need to focus on process. Make process primary. It’s ok to pick an outcome that you want, like winning a competition, but that depends on factors outside your control (like weather, other competitors, illness etc). Feel free not to be ‘realistic’ about what you want, but then get dialed into a process. As our lovable giant Cameroonian Sixer Joel Embiid says, ‘trust the process.’



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