Find one that’s just right
I’ve broken into the house of the three bears and am exploring a bit and I find myself in a room with a bed that is too big and too hard.
I shrug, kick my shoes off, and stretch out a bit.
I close my eyes and think of some goals I might embrace.
Maybe I’ll knock out a best selling book on writing best selling books.
Oh, I know, I could lose 80 pounds.
Hang on, the thing I really should do is learn machine learning.
Each one of these goals would be awesome to achieve, but like this first bed in the bears’ house they are each too big and too hard.
Unlike the bed, a goal that is too big or too hard is one we never get into. It feels overwhelming - we might as well not even start.
I shrug, get up, slip my shoes back on, and make my way down the hall to another room.
Ah. Baby bear’s room. The bed is too small and too soft.
This time I don’t even take my shoes off. I can arrange myself so that my head is on the tiny tiny pillow and my feet hang over the end of the bed.
I don’t need to close my eyes to hold these goals in my head. They’re small enough enough that I can run through them while looking up and following a crack in the ceiling that runs from just near the bare bulb to where the ceiling meets the far wall just about the window.
Mow the lawn. Pay the water bill. Answer a couple of emails that have been sitting in my inbox. Watch part two of the Carlin documentary. Go for a bike ride.
Actually, now that I write these down, these are less goals than they are to-dos. They are too small for goals.
The good news is that I’m likely to do them. They are all short and actionable.
The bad news is mostly “so what”.
They are all things that need doing but there is no real accomplishment or achievement in finishing them.
Whoo hoo I paid the water bill!
I should eat healthier.
I should make better use of my time and watch less tv.
Oh, I know, I should be nicer to other people.
These feel more like goals but they are soft goals. What do any of them mean? How do I measure achieving them? How do I go about trying to achieve them?
Fortunately, I know this story. Somewhere between too big and too small, somewhere between too hard and too soft, somewhere between the extremes I should find just right.
There are the familiar platitudes that a journey begins with a single step or that a programmer eats an elephant one byte at a time.
But these goals are likely too big.
I’ve talked about the bike I bought a year ago because I wanted to bike more.
“Bike more” is a soft goal. It doesn’t mean anything but it was the aspiration I needed to make the purchase.
I decided that I would bike 100 miles a month.
That was a clear goal that felt achievable. It meant that I would need to bike a little more than three miles a day.
I decided a daily goal wasn’t good. There would be days that I didn’t get on the bike and I didn’t want a reason to give up or quite because I hadn’t ridden my three miles.
Daily was too small a time period for success. Yearly was too big.
Monthly felt right.
100 miles a month translated in my head to about 25 miles a week. This allowed me to judge whether I was on track or not.
The rule remained 100 miles a month but if I had a week where I rode less than 25 miles it made it easier to crank up the commitment the following week.
Soon, I discovered that when the weather was nice it was easier to bike anywhere that I’d be driving five minutes or less. Then ten minutes or less became a reasonable metric.
A two mile drive was replaced by a bike ride.
I got carriers for the back of the bike and started to run errands with my bike. I’d go to the grocery story - not all the time but more than I ever have - with my bike instead of my car.
I’d bike to the library like I had during my entire childhood.
I put my computer in the back and ride to a coffee shop and get work done.
Of course I still drive but my 100 miles a month was enough of a nudge to get me on the bike when I otherwise would have driven.
After the first month back on my bike this year after a long and cold winter, I decided I could double my goal to 200 miles a month.
Last month we were coming to the end of the month - only four days left and I was still sixty miles short.
That’s where having a goal that’s just right really pays off. It got me off my couch Sunday morning and I went for a long morning ride. Monday I met a friend for coffee. Tuesday I had a short ride left to finish things off and Wednesday I rested.
All that is to say that this morning my odometer passed 1000 miles.
If I’d started out to bike 1000 miles in less than a year on my new bike it would have felt overwhelming.
In the same way if I’d planned to write a book a year of essays on observations it would have seemed like too much.
But instead I thought, “I’ll try to write a newsletter each week and see how it goes.”
A little over two years later I’m a quarter way into what could be my third book of essays.
Biking 1000 miles, like writing, a little bit at a time and pausing to note the achievements as I pass by to motivate me.
I have no idea if I’ll keep at it but it was a reminder of why it’s important to have a reasonable, measurable goal.
One that isn’t too big or too small.
One that isn’t too hard or too soft
One that that is just right.
Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 116. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe