Growing up, anytime I prefaced a statement with, “I wish,” my mother always replied, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” I found it annoying. Later in life, after joining the Marine Corps, my Platoon Sergeant expressed the same sentiment differently, “You can wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which fills up first.”
This is what most people do each December when they lay out a laundry list of resolutions for the new year, make wishes. To turn those wishes into actions, a plan is needed. It's like wishing to go to the mountains without any thought about how to get there, or without a map or supplies.
The most often made resolutions are to "get into shape" or "lose weight," and not surprisingly, these are the same wishes that are made by the same people year after year. It reminds me of the conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat when she asks, ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the cat.
‘I don’t much care where,’ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the cat.
If we hope to achieve a different result than we have in the past, we can't continue to do the same things we have always done. The first step is to determine where you want to be. If instead of wishing to go to the mountains, I make the decision to go to Mt. Mitchell, I can locate it on the map. I can determine how far I am from Mt. Mitchell and develop a plan to get there, I can decide what I will need for the journey and how long it should take.
Arriving at the top of Mt. Mitchell is my ultimate goal. It is a concrete location. Instead of ‘running more,’ it is, ‘completing a marathon in under 4 hours during 2020. Instead of ‘losing weight,’ it is, ‘being able to comfortably wear size 34 waist pants without the button popping off. Instead of ‘start writing,’ it is complete a full-length manuscript, proofread, and ready to submit.
Once the ultimate goal is clarified and defined, it becomes easy to create checkpoints on a map between where you are and where you are headed. These checkpoints are intermediate goals. Intermediate goals allow us to break the journey down into manageable chunks. Without them, the idea of undertaking the trip can easily overwhelm. The most effective way to do this is to use the acronym S.M.A.R.T. and write the goals down on paper and post them where you will see them. Read them every day and recommit yourself to taking the actions necessary to achieve them.
Specific- What specifically do you want to do? Bench 300 lbs., play the guitar well enough to join a band, complete a 5k in under 30 minutes? Once you have decided what it is, not only can you plan, but you can begin to visualize yourself completing your goal, and visualization is an incredibly powerful tool. See yourself being successful.
Measurable- Benching 300 lbs. is pretty measurable. You can or you can't. Other goals, like learning a foreign language, can be a little harder to define. Maybe it is completing a language course, or learning a certain number of words, or being able to follow a news report in the language. You will need to determine your measuring stick in order to know when you’ve reached your destination.
Achievable- Goals should be a little scary. They need to push us farther than we are comfortable reaching. Otherwise, the payoff isn't worth it. But at the same time, we have to face facts. I can establish a goal to play in the NBA, but I'm five-foot-seven, fifty-years-old, and have the vertical leap of a toddler wearing ankle weights. It isn’t going to happen.
Achievable can also help identify other requirements that have to be met for us to begin pursuing the goal. If I want to start blacksmithing but don't have any of the necessary equipment, I may need to establish a money-saving goal to buy what I need and read all I can about blacksmithing in the meantime.
Relevant- Intermediate goals need to be aligned with the final goal, just like our checkpoints have to connect the dots from our location to our destination. This can also be an incredibly powerful tool in determining how we spend our time. You should be able to ask yourself at any moment, "Is what I'm doing now moving me closer to achieving my goal?" Not everything will, and that's ok. Burn out or overtraining are other reasons that people fail to reach goals. You need to have some kind of life outside of your goals. The trouble comes in when your life activities are moving you in the wrong direction. If you commit to working out every morning, but also like to stay out late with friends, you have to ask yourself, “Am I committed enough to do the things that will make me successful?”
Time-Bound- Establish a cutoff date. Mark it on the calendar. If your goal is fitness related, sign up for a race. Commit. If it is to read fifty books this year, determine to finish one each week by Sunday evening. Commit. If it is to speak French, plan a trip to Paris, or even to a French restaurant. Commit. Then begin. Take the first step.
One of my favorite quotes of all time is by William Hutchison Murray. “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy… Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too… Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”
Otherwise, we'll be back here next year with a hand full of shit and no horse.
John Dailey is a retired Marine Special Operator who still works for Uncle Sugar. He is the editor of ‘The Raider Patch’ magazine and enjoys running ultra-marathons and drinking beer—not in that order. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Special Operations Command, the United States Marine Corps, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.