Give me a lever long enough and I shall move the world (how to really achieve goals)

artwork-16923_1280For nearly 20 years I have conducted two goalsetting workshops every year as part of my aviation job targeting course at MSU Denver. I have helped literally thousands of people establish and articulate their goals, and develop a plan of action to achieve them, yet the majority still fall short. For years I have wondered why. Even in my own case, where I have achieved plenty of goals in my life why do some still elude me? Why do they still elude you? Why do they elude all of us.

It’s about leverage.

I am not talking about gigantic leverage I’m talking about a tiny bit of leverage – the size of a seed. Maybe that’s what Jesus meant by his statement “If you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘May you be uprooted and thrown into the sea,’ and it would obey you!”

Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world,” Archimedes.

No, Archimedes wasn’t one of those single-names celebrities, like Beyoncé or Madonna or Prince – he was a Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer who was describing the power of leverage.

Author Caroline Arnold seizes upon this simple concept in her book, Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently. Have you ever made any of these resolutions?

  • Lose weight
  • Get organized
  • Be on time (my favorite)
  • Get out of debt
  • Be more loving
  • Live more in the moment
  • Be more assertive
  • Get in shape
  • Quit smoking
  • Be more appreciative and thankful

So, how did those go for you? If you’re like me not very well. In most cases, if you made the resolution in January you probably didn’t make it past February 1. In fact, if you made it past January 15th, you’re already beating the odds.

There are some of those goals I have been able to achieve but typically only after years of trying and even years of backsliding. What is interesting, is that even for people who are highly successful professionally they still often fail at these smaller resolutions (xv).

The answer is: micro resolutions, or what Archimedes called leverage.

Despite being on this planet for thousands of years we still largely function with our reptilian brain. We are motivated by things that instantly gratifies us and provides instant benefit as we relater these things to survival – this is only reinforced by our smart phone carrying, app-for-everything, 24-hour news cycle, completely bombarded with the endless data stream from the Twittersphere, Facebook and all the other forms of social media. If we do not see immediate benefit, we are less inclined to do it (no matter what “it” is). In fact, just today I saw a commercial promising an immediate 5 pounds of weight loss within the first week. These people understand marketing – people think that after one healthy meal they should see an immediate result, even though the opposite is not true. One Big Mac does not add 10 pounds to your butt.

Sometimes our resolutions fail because we are overwhelmed at the thought of having one more to–do added into our already overcrowded schedules (xvi). Sometimes we make the wrong resolution such as some sweeping generalization to get fit, be organized or lose weight. The old management at axiom works here, if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it. But most all of us know that effective goalsetting must be specific (xvii). But even with specific action items many of these goals might as well start off “Dear Santa…”

Other times resolutions fail because we rely on willpower alone. These are what Arnold calls wannabe resolutions which are stimulated by powerful fantasies of our future self (xviii).  Self-control is a limited, physiological resource that is easily exhausted. But the notable Munraven/Baumesiter study shows that after using willpower to resist temptation people perform more poorly and are less resistant to subsequent temptations (xx).

What it really comes down to is making small changes to our habits. We are driven by our unconscious habits many of which have been entrenched through repetition and largely planted early in life (xix). We live our lives mostly on autopilot, doing a series of actions repeatedly and each time we do them, we further push the habit’s groove, deeper and deeper into our psyche. Just like in an airplane, autopilot will do what is told to do. If you wanted to climb to an altitude or hold a specific heading it will do so. If you want it to do something else you need to tell it to do that.

“Transformation is a process, not an event,” Arnold (xxi).

The key to mircro-resolutions is identifying the triggering event or action, that leads to the greater goal. Maybe you want to get organized – start by just making your bed in the morning and leave it at that. Making the bed gives you in instant victory (something our brain wants) and paves the way for more victories – its a momentum builder.

Maybe you have a desk that is so disorganized that Indiana Jones wouldn’t come near it. Its piled yard deep in paperwork, sticky notes, magazines you intend on reading someday, lost memos looking for a filing cabinet and the odd foodstuff left over from Bush 41. Rather than the grandiose (and unachievable) goal of “I’m going to keep my desk organized,” make a micro resolution to just keep one corner organized, or to sort and file incoming memos. Don’t eat the whole Elephant at once (which you’ll probably find one of those underneath the paperwork as well). Just make a small resolution to do one small act, then sit back and watch the momentum build.

Call to Action: what’s a goal you want to achieve this year? Now, what’s one small part of that goal you think you could achieve. Let’s hear what you’ve got – I’m happy to help you whittle this down.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle.

Arnold, Caroline L. Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently. NY, NY: Viking, 2014. Print.

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2 Responses to Give me a lever long enough and I shall move the world (how to really achieve goals)

  1. Great blog Jeff. Goals are so critical but you are correct, some times elusive. I think small rewards as we achieve the baby steps towards our goals is brilliant just to give us that initial sense of accomplishments. Thanks for the reminder!

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