How do you stick to your long-term goals?
October 16, 2007 7:14 AM   Subscribe

How do you maintain sight of your long-term goals? I chronically sacrifice long-term success for short-term gains and it's not working out for me.

You know the tale of the Grasshopper and the Ant? Yeah, I'm the grasshopper. As soon as I make a resolution to, say, do my homework, eat more healthfully, stick to a budget, etc, within five minutes I've broken it. I can make all kinds of beautiful plans but I fall woefully short at implementation. On a day-to-day basis I just don't make the visceral connection that all the little breaks I give myself now create a big pile of crap in the long-term--though when it comes around to bite me in the ass it is all too clear.

I've tried to-do lists. I've tried GTD. I have ADHD, and have tried medication and therapy. I put little post-it notes everywhere. I can get the system to work for a few days--even a few weeks--and then I slack off or something comes up that breaks my concentration and it's all over. I think the problem comes at making the transition from the "good" behavior going from a temporary fix to incorporating it into my life.

I'm living like I'm five and there are no consequences, though they hit me again and again. It's gotta stop. What tricks do you use to activate your willpower and implement long-term change so you can ultimately realize your goals?
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (20 answers total)
Stop making plans and just do the right thing (whatever you deem that to be) right now. Don't worry about doing the right thing 5 minutes from now, just do the right thing this very moment. Go take out the trash, foo!

Then just keep doing that. Easy peasy! :-P
posted by ian1977 at 7:33 AM on October 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: See, that's where I run into trouble. I expand my knowledge both through studying and through reading the news and Wikipedia. Neither activities are bad things, but only one of them will lead to me passing my classes. But because both provide the immediate short-term benefit of learning something new, I'm as apt to read Wikipedia or the news as I am to study (and often even more apt, since Wikipedia offers something I'm immediately interested in whereas studying is not always immediately interesting).
posted by Anonymous at 7:44 AM on October 16, 2007

Adding to what ian1977 said, once you get into the correct track of doing the right thing, your inertia will help you to continue on that path. I have a problem buying shit. SOmetimes, I buy things I don't even particularly like, if I'm already at the store and it's on sale. I went to the mall the other week (er, was dragged there), and it put such a taste in my mouth that the only *things* I've bought since then are things that I'd already actually budgetted for.

Same with eating habits. Once I get into the eating-only-fruit-and-clif-bars-at-work routine, I can keep it up, but it's hard to get into that good rut.
posted by notsnot at 7:45 AM on October 16, 2007

Maybe drive yourself to become interested in what you are supposed to be studying? Challenge yourself to be intrigued by calculus or marketing 101 or whatever. Use wikipedia to find interesting stuff about your class material.
posted by ian1977 at 7:46 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: That is, if I were watching, I dunno. soap operas or just surfing Youtube or Newgrounds or playing video games I would have an easier time choosing between the "good" and "bad" activities. But instead of studying I'll be reading the news or foreign policy analysis articles or a quality (in my opinion) book. I classify these as enriching activities, so it is difficult to simultaneously put them in the "bad" category that would make me more likely to switch them for studying.
posted by Anonymous at 7:48 AM on October 16, 2007

Are you aware at the point of making the decision whether it is an appropriate or inappropriate choice? If you are, then I would suggest that it is a question of discipline ("I know I should choose X, but damn if Y doesn't look good").

Anecdotally, from my own experience, once I had formed the habit of this form of self-discipline, it became fairly straight-forward to stick most of the time to a plan.
posted by mooders at 7:52 AM on October 16, 2007

I'm in the same boat as you quite often. The only thing that I can say that this is what they seem to call "will power". You know those corny sayings, that will power is like any muscle, you have to exercise it for it to get stronger? Well, its true. No magic trick, same as there's no magic trick with losing weight.

I did find that when I manage to do something 3 times, each time after that is easier. I have seen people mention that it takes 30 days to stick to an effective habit...

Steve Pavlina, while corny and highly disagreeable at times, has mentioned this. Maybe you'll find him more motivating than me. But the thing that stuck in my mind is - 30 days of anything is not so bad; and in 30 days you can drop it, or take it up, and the choice is yours.

So, maybe keep a calendar of your resolutions? Set timers? Visceral, real, reminders of the passage of time - same as you'd have a timer on your treadmill or stationary bike.

Now, to listen to my own words, and get back to work after this break...
posted by olya at 7:54 AM on October 16, 2007

Err, it sounds like you have a pretty decent handle on separating purposeful activity from idle (albeit enriching) time wasting. So, put that discretion to work and study foo!
posted by ian1977 at 7:54 AM on October 16, 2007

Perhaps use the short-term tempting activities as rewards for working on the "should do" activities. Set the bar low on the reward structure--e.g., five minutes on work gets you 15 minutes on your Wii. Increase to appropriate ratios as you succeed at the small goals.

I also find setting a loud timer across the room is useful for actually making me stop the breaks because I have to get up and physically separate from whatever I'm doing during the break that is appealing.
posted by underwater at 8:11 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Go offline.
posted by fake at 8:21 AM on October 16, 2007

I'm living like I'm five and there are no consequences, though they hit me again and again.

You & me both.

The way I have been dealing with it is to:

1) Stop making plans / schedules / lists. I think many people spend more time thinking, talking & writing about what they should be doing instead of taking action. When you think about something you should do - DO IT.

2) I find ways to make things easy on myself.

Like, I hate cooking after work, so I avoid it and eat fast food or takeout. But I realized instead of expecting myself to come home after work and cook a big dinner, I could meet my expectations halfway by getting healthy frozen meals from Trader Joe's. Or I realize that dinner doesn't always have to be a fussy hot meal, and sometimes I just make a simple turkey sandwich on whole wheat with a cup of veggie soup.

To make sure I pay all my bills on time, I set up all my recurring bills for automatic payments. Then I determined how much leftover cash I should have for spending/gas/groceries, and had that amount of my paycheck deposited into a separate checking account. I *only* carry the debit card for this "spending" checking account, so I don't risk overspending & not being able to pay my bills.

Maybe to make studying easier on yourself, you can make yourself study in a room without a computer or internet connection. Go to a cafe without your laptop, or to the library. Install LeechBlock or Temptation Blocker to block the applications and/or websites that distract you during your study time.

It's not perfect all of the time, and that's ok. But if you start building these habits where you make it easier on yourself to do the things you *should* be doing, you're a lot more likely to actually do them.

If there are any other tasks you have trouble with, that you need help figuring out how to make easier, post it here and I'd be happy to help you brainstorm.
posted by tastybrains at 8:26 AM on October 16, 2007

I've been finding that studying is easier when I try to do it in the little chunks of time I have during my day -- on the bus ride to work, during lunch, while waiting for a class to start. In the evenings or weekends when I have long stretches of time I really want to flop onto the couch with a novel, so I try to keep those long stretches free by cramming in as much as I can during the weekday.

Plus, paradoxically, "I'm going to go over this material for a half-hour at lunch" seems much more manageable than "I have four hours to get this done."

As for long-term changes in general, I think it's important to start slow. Don't expect to change your entire diet, budget, or study habits all at once (let alone all three!!!); just add in one or two good habits, live with them for a week, then if they're working for you, add in one or two more for the next week. And, if they're not working for you, examine why and figure out how you can change the habit so that it fits your life better (or discard it completely if it's just not gonna happen).
posted by occhiblu at 8:27 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Sounds like you have a case of either/or. (Perfectionist, maybe? :) ) Either you do a perfect job, or it's not worth doing at all. Any change, big or small, will require some work, and will probably have some backsliding involved.

In my own life, I only became successful at running and losing weight (45 lbs so far) when I learned to forgive myself for screwing up. So, if I have a meal that's kinda bad or even several meals that are bad or several DAYS where I don't even look at my running shoes, I forgive myself and keep going.

Once you get there, you're not going to look back and say, "Well, this doesn't count because I had that one day when I screwed up." You're going to say, "I made it!" How long it takes, and however many times you have to get back on the horse, don't really matter after a while.
posted by tigerjade at 8:30 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Neither activities are bad things, but only one of them will lead to me passing my classes.

Not passing your classes is a bad thing. You need to redefine activities that contribute to not passing your classes as bad things to do while you still have studying to get done. These are not "bad" in a moral sense, but they are not the "right" (in the sense of correct, appropriate) thing to do as far as reaching your goal of passing your classes.

If your goal is to pass your classes, reading foreign policy articles instead of studying is no better or worse a choice than playing video games or watching youtube (or, ahem, reading metafilter) instead of studying. Stop trying to claim some sort of high ground in the way you choose to procrastinate.
posted by yohko at 9:11 AM on October 16, 2007

That is, if I were watching, I dunno. soap operas or just surfing Youtube or Newgrounds or playing video games I would have an easier time choosing between the "good" and "bad" activities. But instead of studying I'll be reading the news or foreign policy analysis articles or a quality (in my opinion) book. I classify these as enriching activities, so it is difficult to simultaneously put them in the "bad" category that would make me more likely to switch them for studying.

You're so much like me...were we separated at birth? I know how frustrating and painful not being able to follow through on things is. But you're aware of the problem, which gives you a huge advantage.

You're obviously super bright, and what you're describing is one of the symptoms of intelligence. Intelligent people tend to get sidetracked--everything interests us. It's the "lively mind" phenomenon. We see nothing that doesn't answer, as Jane Austen put it somewhere. (I'd be interested in knowing your astrological sign, BTW.)

Education these days isn't, as you're finding, really about getting educated. The whole process can be very disillusioning. But you'll reap certain rewards if you can muster the discipline to play the game long enough to get your degree. Sounds like you know that.

In the meantime, choose structure. Split your life into two parts. Spend x amount of time doing what you have to do to get your long term reward, and then you've earned a break--which you can fill with exploring the things that really interest you. Do both things every day. Don't ever stop doing those other things that don't help you in a practical way. In fact, listen to those things. (If you love reading about foreign policy in your spare time, maybe something is telling you to consider studying political science.) Your true gifts are incubating when you pursue things that you really enjoy, as you probably feel. Your deepest instincts are always reliable.

My last thought would be: Don't get too caught up in the ADHD label. You don't have a condition: you have a gift. One day you'll discover a way to merge the competing aspects of your mental life when you discover what it is you really want to do. I think you've got a bright future. :)
posted by frosty_hut at 10:30 AM on October 16, 2007

Best answer: You might find it interesting to look at the writings off St Thomas Aquinas on the virtue of Studiousness and the opposing vice of Curiosity.

posted by Jahaza at 11:20 AM on October 16, 2007

Best answer: I'm trying not to be judgmental here and I 'm not sure it's working. Have of me says "for pity's sake, grow up" and half of me is looking for solutions.

On the assumption that your own mother is providing the guilt-inducing nag, I'll try a solution.

You are defining "long term goal" too narrowly. Perhaps for you,it would be better to define long term as, for instance, 24 hours. I am not being facetious. Rather than have a vague, life-empowering goal (music swells here) of "stick to the budget," "eat more healthily," "graduate with honors" (or maybe just "graduate" LOL) you should set the goal of "buy the groceries first," "finish dinner, then eat the candy bar," "do today's homework" etc. Meeting these closer-term milestones will eventually lead to the long-term success you desire. If you like to do what's directly in front of you, as opposed to down the pike, then just put the necessary things directly in front of you first.

Also, choose the goals that really get you where you want to go. If living on junk food while in college (grad school?) works for you, then screw the healthy eating. I'd focus on the school work and eat what makes you happy (or at least what doesn't add to your burden). I graduated college just fine, despite the many dinners that consisted of a bag of oreos.

And yeah, cutting down on the distractions online would probably be a good idea (althought I for one would miss you, as you often call me on my sloppy thnking here on MeFi).
posted by nax at 11:23 AM on October 16, 2007

HALF of me.
posted by nax at 11:23 AM on October 16, 2007

I have the exact same problem. I am always making elaborate lists and plans instead of taking action. I get distracted by lots of interesting things online and new projects in place of working on my longer term goals. Sometimes I wonder if I am just interested in too many different things. To maintain sight of your long term goals, I suggest writing down your priorities- maybe once a week - in order to stay focused on the things that do matter most to you in the long run. Don't take longer than a minute to do this - the point is just to reinforce your ultimate goals in your head. Then think of a small step (a short term goal) that you can do today that will take you closer to the long term goal. I have also found that it helps to simply make it your goal for the day to do something productive. Get one thing accomplished before you get immersed in any distractions. It is also very effective to have another person to help you get things done - like someone to meet at the library to do homework with (someone who won't be too chatty), or someone who wants to eat more healthy or wants to stick to a budget like you do. This makes you accountable to someone besides yourself.
posted by ultramarine at 11:41 AM on October 16, 2007

It is possible to have too many things on your plate. Cut down on your list of to-do's. And maybe refine your timeline. Long term might mean 1month whilst you get into your stream and short term could be 24hrs. Once you begin to accomplish your mini-tasks, you can then move on to establishing some more concrete goals. Accountability has already been mentioned and you might find a site like useful in the early stages of goal setting.

So to recap, break your goals down in smaller chunks. Instead of protracting the life-span of your goals impose shorter time scales. Don't over-reach, build up as your confidence grows. Find others with the same desire. Reflect on your progress, or lack of, in writing or through another means as this allows you to see what is or not working for you. I guess I should add the carrot or stick approach but I don't really follow it myself, however I do have a reward element when i achieve certain milestones but never take punitive action when I do not. If at first you don't succeed, try and try again!
posted by mycapaciousbottega at 1:59 PM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

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