On goal-setting and time management
- When we follow our dreams and afterward we are still left feeling incomplete, that’s OK. The key message, though, is that we had the wrong dream.
- What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.*
You are sat in a tent pitched in a wooded glade deep in the forest at night. Candlelight sends up a flicker-pad tapestry of silhouettes against the tent canvas – drawing on distortions of all the things inside. Your camping buddy returns from the forest and enters your den of dancing shadows. She has taken some photographs with her camera. One of them is a picture of your tent shot from a stones throw distance by the line of trees that mark the boundary of the copse. You hold the photo up to the light and absorb the image. You are seeing what the tent looks like from outside, even as you are inside it. But although the photograph creates a fine and detailed impression from the perspective of an outsider, it is not enough for you to ever know, from just looking at this miniature two-dimensional image, what the tent is actually like when you experience it as an outsider. The conditions inside the tent create the environment in which you view the image of third party privilege. Candlelight flickers across the photograph as you hold it out in front of you and you hear the wind softly whistle against the tarpaulin as you soak up the content of the shot. The photograph is but an impression. It captures a moment in time – but real experience is out of time. And although the photo is encouraging you to consider an outside experience – you are no closer to having that experience than you would be if the photo did not exist. You are seeing the outside from within. To really grasp the essence of how the tent comes across to an authentic onlooker, you would have to be an authentic onlooker. This would involve you leaving the tent.
But what if you can never leave?
A word about goals
I glanced down at my upper right arm while twisting my hand anti-clockwise. The faceplate of the phone that was strapped to my tricep fell briefly into my eye-line, albeit upside down, the dull mat plastic cover of the armband muting the glare of the back-lit glass. The correct time was five eighteen a:m. The city was silent and still. Too still. As if I hadn’t really left the flat and walked outside. I was entirely alone on the urban streets and it was stunning.
To my left the sky peeled off in an electric blue. To my right it hung in a rich velvet bar of azure and racing green. Straight ahead the high-ball street lamps of Broadwalk beckoned like the geometry arc of an empty landing strip. Friday was just beginning as I eased into the morning jog. Broadwalk is a half-mile dead straight pedestrian landing that cuts up a sink estate of nineteen inner-city high-rise blocks on the western fringe of the city of Manchester. The wrong side of the tracks. Where only salesmen and relations go – some might say. Yet a cardio paradise. A no-go zone to traffic and populated by the local essentials: food banks, soup kitchens, hostels and social service drop-in centres that necessitate disabled access ramps feeding a central boulevard devoid of obstacles and paved with flagstones. The perfect training warm-up space and right now the harbinger of serene qualities worthy of big skies and mutations in light. I find a jogging pace while the tech on my arm silently generates deep tanks of micro and macro data. And my goal in all of this? It’s already been scored.
Mind versus body
There are two ways of jogging the city streets, I had come to notice in the last couple of years. The first approach: you can just let your body find its own rhythm and pace without the mind consciously enforcing brakes or speed. You can just let that take you and submit to what suits your own body on that particular day, making no specific demands and just witnessing how that feels. Like the driver of a car putting the vehicle on auto-drive and letting the machine decide what’s best. Within a half mile as I pass McDonalds and the Working Class Movement Library and certainly as I cross over into the second mile at Adelphi Wharf on Salford meadows and then into the third on Manchester Deansgate, such distances of relatively flat, straight and undisturbed continuous movement are more than ample for the mighty intelligence of the body to manifest and produce a palpable rhythm. It’s like taking your horse out across the moors or taking your dog for a walk. You are just accompanying the animal. Observing. Experiencing. Enjoying. Sharing the energy field. Being with. This is an act of bearing witness. You are not actually doing anything.
Or you could push it. This is the second method of exercise. What I call running on the front foot. This is when you are making a pace with conscious effort. This typically is what you do when you have a performance goal in mind. Speed. Distance. Run to wake up. Session time. Clock time. Comparisons with yesterdays effort. Get back to catch the postman. Put in a killer seventh mile. Aim to get faster each mile. Aim to get slower each mile. That type of thing. Those kind of games that are, actually, nothing to do with the body and are everything to do with the mind. Mind games.
The trouble with running on the front foot is that you can never know your real state. By real state I mean the untampered condition. The isolated base truth. The signal amidst all that noise. Your own body. The pure indexible reality.
I permit modern technology to track and measure my jogs and my runs through Salford and Manchester and occasionally through parts of Scarborough, Blackpool and some hilly parts of West Yorkshire. I’ve got it wrong enough to have learned how to get it right and to have learned that I’ll get it wrong again. I now know that there’s a world of difference between master and servant. Without due care and attention, those streams of abstract numbers on that snappy little App on your phone or Desktop will be owning you even while they got you thinking you are the Circus Master. All data is an abstract – I remind myself.
Leaving my body to its own devices and allowing it to be the manager of itself in terms of speed and distance (and, quite often, route), I can log into the data at arms length every couple of months or so and pull out the signals from the noise. The data in this context is both a retrospective curio and a very handy breeding ground of patterns from which I can learn about me. It is not a generator of forward instructions. That would be cart before horse.
Whole life design
I am out here collecting experiences for writing content and to explore the depths of my relationship with this glass and concrete jungle which, devoid of other life forms and under these ephemeral skies is like discovering a new planet. Goals without finishing lines. Like painting by numbers. Subservient to that, I hope for digital data to afford me a glance of my body as a dynamic organism that responds to the music of the changing seasons effortlessly and with chameleon grace. I notice immediately how, when I am the only person on the horizon, the sky falls lower and scoops me up such that I am in it.
Looking back over May, June and July I can see that my mile splits have shortened by over one minute. This is only meaningful in that, unbeknownst to me whilst it has been happening, I have been getting faster and running longer distances, without trying to do so. My body is responding to the summer climate as a healthy body might. This is a real (or actual) signal of cardio and pulmonary strength and expansion in a controlled environment, with other things remaining equal. My respiratory and circulatory organs and their systems will expand and speed up in summer and they will contract and slow down in winter if I am healthy.
So what is this goal of mine? Collect new writing content. Get up early and be out in the open for the break of dawn. Witness the city as it sleeps. Absorb the silence. Enjoy the buildings and the emptiness of traffic lanes. Break out a run to the dances of the changing light and the melodies of birdsong.
And this goal is not a toxic goal: a token, silly little jump through a hoop. It is authentic. It is experiential and empiricism knoweth not the cheap reductionist lines of program code. Large tracts of it lay beyond the dragnet grab of any algorithm and the aspects of it that do wind up as charted data are logging a record not setting a bar. It is not a goal for the sake of having to have one. It directly plugs into my core hobbies of self-awareness, urban architecture, artistic expression and good health. Sleep, relaxation and nutrition lurk in the foreground as key factors for these positive health signals. Life in-the-round is still just that. Whole life design.
When I reviewed the data for winter I saw patterns of what could be misinterpreted as regress rather than progress. Slower lap speeds and shorter distances. But I have come to understand that my body had naturally adjusted to shorter windows of natural light, cooler temperatures and longer sleep patterns. So no regress or progress at all. Just healthy living, still. Environmental responsiveness.
The signal and the noise
But imagine if I had been trying to beat yesterdays speed or that I had gone out determined to deliver my record for the month in terms of this or that metric. Had this been the case then no such signal could be detected as to my pulmonary and cardio state, simply because I had introduced a false level of conscious interference into an otherwise controlled environ. Forcing the issue is a new variable that interferes with my ability to track the target value or to allow me to relax and appreciate the changing light and the hard-edged Modernist design of high-rise Salford against the softness of morning dew.
If I had let my mind drown in smartphone performance goals and immersed my thoughts in clever-tech data and that ocean of short-term targets, counts, measures, rates, achievements, accolades, titles and wins that modern digital life is made up of, then I would have learned nothing at all. And I should have experienced even less.
Five-a-day. Calories. Mile splits. Body weight. Job title. Salary band. IQ. Marital status. League tables. Credit status. Sales targets. Educational achievements. Golf handicap. Scores on a scale of one to ten. Pension plan. Homeowner status. Bottom line. Industry awards trophies. Your children’s school grades. Air miles. Net worth. Read them for what they are and you are smart. Delude yourself that these abstract concepts are a reality worth chasing or even recognising beyond their kitsch neon nomenclatures and you move away from yourself. Out of touch. None of the above can ever be experienced. None of the above can affect your core state which is an assembly of authentic inner experiences.
I am not my name. I am not my stuff. I am not my successes. I am not my dreams. I am not my greatest achievements. I am not any of the things that I believe are or are not possible for me. Goals signpost me away from here, now. Achievements signpost me away from here, now. I am here, now.
For when we are neck-deep in league tables and goals and ostensible performance data, we are just drowning in noise. There are no signals here. It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes. We are playing at analysis from an egocentric standpoint. And boy, what a rush that can be. And boy what a waste of time. Performance indeed. Like a bawdy panto or a bad night at Edinburgh Fringe. A company of actors playing at being busy to justify their existance. Ladies and Gentleman… welcome to today’s matinee performance of Self-preservation.
Small wonder that stress and anxiety are on the up. I’d love to say that digital’s gotten us so we can’t see the wood for the trees. But it hasn’t. We are doing it to ourselves. Not just personal health. This is true of all facets of life. Education. Professional work. Nutrition. Relaxation. Family relations. Dating. Social interaction. Any project of worth and value that is important. Any cornerstone of what it means to be human that has been “taken” by the software. It’s all compromised. And at the same time as it is decompressing the very essence of what makes us human, it is putting us to sleep so we can’t even see the scam. Trance-like, we march slowly toward the bright light.
Beyond the digital space, the abstract short-term goal-bound way of life has spread from its birth place into the old world. In my company, friends refer to their gym experience in “calories burnt” and select food for their lunch from the cooler cabinets in Booths based on “calories contained”. I’ve given up pointing out that calories do not exist as an experience and that most people thinking this way have personal health issues.
Toxic goals are the zombie drug. Digital spice for all digital inmates. And if you’re not yet hooked you soon will be.
And so the ego reaches out for more data with which to engage the mind in a never ending quest for dialogue. For form over substance. For noise and colours and bell-curve lines. Most of it babble and most of it a tiresome background filler. And all the while the soul starves and aches to break free into the glorious emptiness – an end in itself – and to witness the profound and bottomless silence of purpose and peace.
But as you know, noise always shatters silence. Information relentlessly consumes the attention of its recipients.
Toxic goals versus authentic goals
A goal or a target, by definition, takes our attentional energy away from now and into a projected future. This is innately unhealthy and therefore goals should be incorporated into our life plans with great caution and then only when they are essential. They are not to be taken lightly.
Any goal that is a function of rejection is toxic. By this I mean that we are often running away from something or rejecting our present selves, and if the function of a goal is to conveniently disguise this behaviour by presenting it as a form of running toward something, it is toxic.
If you hate something about yourself and create a goal to get to a place away from that, it is not a goal it is an escape hatch and you are running away as opposed to growing. Such a goal is unlikely to succeed in its mission, even if you score it. But you are unlikely to do so.
Likewise, any goal that is a form of atonement is toxic. You know, reaching milestones on your personal step-counter whilst rifling down a Wendy’s or a Subway sandwich. Hitting the rowing machines in the afternoon so you feel less bad about blitzing a gallon bucket of popcorn at the movie theatre come nightfall. Cycling to work so you can enjoy a dessert with your dinner at the end of the day. Toxic goals lack authenticity. You’re trying to bend the rules.
Authenticity is essential.
Authenticity empowers any one of us to do the right thing even when nobody is looking and even when we do not want to do the right thing. For it instils in the very act of doing an innate value such that payback is contained in that act and delivered in the very execution of it.
Any goal that is concerned with the means to an end and not the end in itself is toxic. The poison is the innate implication, de facto – I mean by the very existence of the goal – that the means is an end of some kind. The poison, or toxicity, is contained in the logical fallacy that has us believing we have achieved something real when the truth is that we have achieved nothing more real than an abstract value. The implicit lie is that we have arrived at something. That we have grown.
I have friends who are obese. They run on the gym treadmills each day and they speak of their calorie-centred goal achievements generated by the exercise machines digital interface. Meanwhile, resting on their laurels in the warm glow of cardio satisfaction, they no longer feel the need to address the real problem that stares back at them all day long and that will cut their lives short in terrible ways and ruin the lives of their dependents. The toxic goal here is atonement and denial in disguise. Calories are not real. Strokes are. Cancer is. Diabetes is. I am but a helpless spectator through their miserable chapters of gout, cerebrovascular disease and cancer scans. I watch younger generations of my wider family and friends grow up with the consequences of perinatal metabolic imprinting from their parents having confused toxic goals for authentic goals. Chronic diabetes (Type1) and autism spectrum conditions. A grim legacy. Uncles, cousins and nieces. I accompany them on hospital visits and witness first-hand the inevitable deterioration.
Toxic goals prevent us from aiming at authentic goals. They mimic victory such that we rest on their pseudo-victory plinths. Sure enough and soon enough after, the realisation sets in that we are still troubled. Restless. Bored. Agitated. Dangerously ill. In other words, the hole within us that the goal promised and sought to complete is not filled in. Meanwhile, life has passed us by and we missed it. Too often, we grow complacent right at the point where we need to get awareness and act.
One step forward, two steps back.
Authentic goals, on the other hand, re-frame the journey as the destination, thereby making their own realisation that much more possible. In this way, authentic goals recover a wayward element of control and return it to the jurisdiction of the goal setter. The goal setter is always the goal chaser, by the way. Authenticity is allergic to outsourcing. Authentic goals support and embellish real world experiences. They are always part of something bigger. Something whole and in-camera.
How it feels to run the urban streets while the whole city sleeps and be a part of its transformation from a sleeping giant into a million separate lives. There’s just never gonna be an App for that.
I’ll say it again
When we follow our dreams and afterward we are still left feeling incomplete, that’s OK. The key message, though, is that we had the wrong dream.
Too many goals focus on our circumstances and seek to change them for the better. But we do not live in our circumstances. We live in our experiences. Therefore, authentic goals are those that are concerned with our experiences and not with our circumstances.
Poison locks onto circumstance
Here are some examples of common toxic goals;
- I want to start jogging so I can burn some calories
- I want to cook at home more and eat less so I can lose weight
- I want to look good on the beach or fit into that smaller dress at his wedding
- I want to have more money, either as income or as a savings account sum
- I want to be more popular in the office, in the pub, at the group, with the in-laws, at the party, at home
- I want to look younger and happier and more stylish and sophisticated
- I want to be the envy of others – either a local select group of close associates or on a wider spectrum and in general
- I want a pay rise and/or a job promotion. I want to further my education in order to enhance my career opportunities
- I want to create more positive impressions of me and I want to receive credit for my efforts so I know I am being taken seriously
- I want to increase my equity stake in the business and withdraw mortgage equity from my home, improve my golf handicap and I want to drive a more suitable car
All of the above toxic goals are centred on changes to circumstance, image and reputation. And they are all me-centred. Many of them are not even in my control. All stuff and no being.
Authenticity breathes the oxygen of being
Below are ten related authentic goals. Can you see the difference? Read each number alongside its counterpart above.
- I want to experience how it feels to be genuinely healthier. I aim to know, first hand, the endorphin rush of regular short and mid-distance runners.
- I want to travel the learning curve of the ancient craft of cooking and explore the satisfaction of that and witness if and how that changes my relationship with food and my own body. I want to go through hunger and see what is on the other side.
- My goal is to give him the wedding send off that he deserves by being mindful of him on his big day, and not have my head full of me-stuff and me-worries and me-concerns such that my negative energy field detracts from the collective joy
- I want to be able to truly listen to the incoming tide and the song of the birds at first light – without these incessant worries about money and career success and my insatiable desire for more of it – which has haunted me since my early teens from the moment I wake each day
- My goal is to be free of worrying about what other people think of me. I want to experience a sustained period of time where the question of my reputation doesn’t even enter my head. I want to experience whatever enters the gap which I will have created by doing this, if anything does.
- I want to feel more awake each day and feel more optimistic as a default and just more joyous – like I did when I was a young adult. I recall feeling happy just to be alive when I was younger. I remember feeling excited and often charged with a vague sense of anticipation without any reason whatsoever. My goal is to recover an essence of that.
- I aim to be proud of myself for working at and achieving at least to some level of detection, a palpable sense of some of the things on this list.
- My goal is to list the things that I would buy with more money and the things I would do if I had my dream job – and then to imagine how they would make me feel when I bought them and did them – and then to wholesomely go after those very same feelings and sensations and experiences anyway, using my current resources and my creative power. My goal is to cut out the middleman and break free. I intuit my thirst for knowledge as a natural curiosity, the satisfaction of which needs no justification beyond itself.
- I want to help others get to here once I have mastered some notion of it. Hopefully I’ll be freed up from thinking of myself and therefore more able to concentrate on the plight of others. This goal involves better, deeper, truer listening by me to the innermost plights of my peers. Here is the goal of heart.
- I aim to effortfully stop analysing the performance of things I do in a bid to more authentically intuit the essence of my relationship with the things I do. My goal is to stop trying to get what I want and reframe this To Do long-timer as getting better at wanting what I get. Eventually – I sense – my refrain from analysis will not require effort.
Notice how the authentic goals are all concerned with the experience of living life and how that feels. These goals are less in the thrall of childish and petty pursuits, are more focused on the betterment of those around me and are totally devoid of image, vanity, reputation or any form of circumstance. They are humble, contribution-centric and intentionally teleological. Best of all, each and every one of them is within my control so nobody and no thing can stop my achievement of them. I’m in the driving seat for real. Now there’s a goal scored in itself!
Substance is music. Appearance is an echo.
People ask me for advice in the gyms I use. Newcomers. And I can tell straight away if they’re here for the duration or not. They all think they are.
Authentic-goal keepers, like my Cuban friend Angel, said to me “I want to learn how to lose weight so if things go awry in future I can apply that learning process to get back on track.” Already, I knew this guy was gonna get to where he wanted. All this type of language and how it is structured is coming from an authentic jumping off point and carries all the hallmarks of a person in tune with themselves and committed to letting go of old identities.
Toxic-goal keepers come and go so fast I lose count and I don’t always catch their names. Two recent ones spring to mind: Bobbie was a lady about the same age as me who hit the gym out of the blue with such intensity that from a standing start of no prior gym work she was matching my daily attendance and easily outrunning and out-lifting me. This is like the kid at the London marathon who breaks free of the crowd at the two mile mark in Greenwich and goes pacing it out with the international front runners for two hundred yards. Yeah. Like that’s gonna last. You’re out running Paula Radcliffe. Who you kidding, buddy? Bobbie told me her goal was to use every machine in the building and sprint the treadmills for a half hour at least four times a week from here on in. Phew! You can smell the toxicity in that goal from here to Chorlton-cum-Hardy. I never saw her again after about a dozen sessions
Giddier still, a man who joined one of my gyms at the start of the year told me his goal was that he wanted to look defined. Ripped, even. Like me, even, he said. This happens a lot. Even at the viewing stage, eager couples being given the tour by sales staff will chat with members to get a feel for the vibe and they often talk about wanting to “look” either a certain way or like somebody. The trouble is that how you look is not something you can experience. It is only a circumstance and a very superficial one at that. You can never see how you look. You can never feel it. Even looking in the mirror doesn’t cut it. You wind up like the guy in the camping tent looking at the photograph that featured in the prologue at the start of this article. If the tent is your body, then leaving the tent is the event of your death and at this point, the tent is no more. Ergo sum – you will not be getting to see how you look from a third person perspective. Ever. So deal with it.
When you look in the mirror you will never see what other people see. Any goal that focuses on how you look rather than how you are is a goal seeking to exploit the deficit between the two. The perception deficit. This is a goal of intended deceit and as such is injected with a poison. Cosmetic goals are never authentic, for cosmetics are concerned with appearance over substance. If you see the gym as the equivalent of some Californian implant clinic, sure enough you will get what you asked for. A couple of years down the line and a couple of grand lighter, surrounded by all your core-state problems of anxiety, fear, insecurity and still searching for peace, love, joy and OK-ness, you’ll wonder exactly what it is that you bought with all that hard earned cash. Good question.
Set goals for the witness not the ego
Perhaps we could rename the lists. Rather than toxic goals, how about we call them Childish Goals for Overgrown Kids who don’t even know it. And instead of authentic goals, how about we name them Grown-up Goals for Adults with a sense of gratitude for being alive? Here’s another take; toxic goals are goals of ego and personal desire. Authentic goals are goals of the witness and of the super-ego.
The coat of now
So you’ve got your authentic goal at the ready and you’re wondering when to put things into motion.
Do you know what now is? Perhaps you use the word so freely and so often that you’ve never stopped to contemplate the ramifications of its essence. You’ve gone now-deaf. Like tone-deaf but in a multi-dimensional sense. You are no longer eternal. You have become finite.
Now is a coat you have to wear. Often in the form of a hideous trench coat. It weighs you down. It compels you. It can be pretty cumbersome when you’re not in the mood to put it on. However, when you are in the mood, it transforms into a British couture short-crop jacket with great lines and it just slips on and you don’t even notice its there. Jaeger. Burberry. McQueen.
You can never escape the now-ness of any action
That thing you don’t want to do – you know; see the in-laws; apologise to your close friend for last weeks awkward scene; prepare the pitch; deliver the pitch; decorate the spare room; meditate alone on your recent shortcomings; face the music; take the plunge; have that chat; commit to the deal; show your face; take a long look at yourself; go it alone; let go; say goodbye; let a loved one down; break a promise; cut your losses; readjust your expectations; clean up the mess; hand in your resignation; tell the truth; hide the truth.
To get it done and get it dealt with, you simply have to wear the trench coat of now. It’s just how it is. Call it a fundamental law of nature. That’s how it goes and there’s no getting out of it. No way around this.
So you take a moment and you consider that you’ll be in a better frame of mind to get the dirty deed done next Saturday. All sorts of good reasons for the deferral spring to mind. Time management. Circumstances. Situational efficacy. Environmental fluidity. Productivity. Inventory sequencing. Preparation windows.
I guess I never got the beige memo
Thing is, the real reason – not any of the above bullshit – the real reason is that you hate the thought and the feel of that damn coat. The turgid weight. The clinginess. The nausea beige. How it pulls you down with its drab fabric texture. The gravity of ill-fitting obligations.
And the other thing is – next Saturday – your new agreed time to clean out the closet – is never gonna be now-free. It is just as now, then as now, now. And the coat will be waiting and you’re gonna be putting it on. The only time to do anything is now and if you try and turn now into then it always just bounces straight back as now. But that bit heavier. And that little bit more beige. It will always be this way.
And all the smart excuses and any amount of strategic denial ain’t getting you away from the fact that you and that coat don’t hit it off.
But the coat fits. And you will be wearing it.
So who’s fooling who, mate? Because, from where I’m standing…..
The dream of a projected future in which a projected version of you is better equipped to handle all sticky situations than the you of now, is not a dream it is a fairy tale and it often leads to manifest real world nightmares.
Third time lucky
When we follow our dreams and afterward we are still left feeling incomplete, it’s OK. The key message, though, is that we had the wrong dream.
File the beige memo
So here’s a two-fold plan to lock down optimal dream content and unlock real, authentic living;
- Quit with the toxic goals
- As for living the life you want to live: just do it
Stop waiting for permission. Stop waiting for things to align. Stop waiting for the time to be right. You’re in the saddle and holding the reins. Time to show us what you got now, cowboy.
Thanks for reading.
We are one
- Clarity: Jamie Smart
- You Are Not So Smart: David McRaney
- How To Eat, Move and Be Healthy: Paul Chek
- The Power of Now: Eckhart Tolle
- The Four Noble Truths: Buddha