At this point in January, resolution makers usually fall into one of four categories:
- I’m crushing it!
- I’m keeping up.
- I’m on the struggle bus…
- What resolution?
You’ll likely recognize yourself in one of those categories, and if you’re like most of us, this will not come as a surprise. You may set the same goal year after year with the same result. You may even set different goals every year with the same result. And if you routinely fall into category 3 or 4, you may be wondering if resolutions are even worth it.
Resolution makers come from all different walks of life, but one common factor that seems to separate the 1s and 2s from the 3s and 4s and that’s the SIZE of their resolutions or goals. People who are able to consistently meet or exceed their goals know how to start small enough to be sustainable for longer periods of time. They know that habit and consistency are more important than size.
As I researched this week’s topic, somehow the idea of “Goldilocks Goals” came to me. It started with “right size” goals, then “just right goals”, which led me to Goldilocks Goals, which is more fun to say!
The funny thing is that my recollection of the moral of the Goldilocks story was that the middle ground was typically “just right”. But when I went back and reread the fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in every example, the smaller option was the best option:
- The smallest bowl of porridge was neither too hot nor too cold.
- The smallest chair was neither too hard nor too soft.
- The smallest bed was neither too high nor too low.
Somehow, over time, I had confused this lesson to mean choosing something in the middle was always the best option. Not too big, not too small, not too hard, not too easy. The middle must be just right…right?
But in reality (well at least fairy tale reality), choosing something smaller was a better fit. Now that I’ve been intentionally setting goals for a dozen plus years, I’m realizing the wisdom in thinking smaller.
Most of us have been raised in a culture that believes mottos such as “bigger is better” and “go big or go home” and “there is no such thing as enough” and “more, more, more”.
Goldilocks may have thought that too as she naturally gravitated first to the biggest bowl of porridge, chair and bed. It must have come as quite a surprise, especially when she sized down to the midsize bowl, chair and bed, only to find the smaller options were perfect for her.
In a world where bigger and more are portrayed as better, why would we ever choose the smaller option?
As I pondered this question, I picked up my much-loved and highlighted copy of James Clear’s Atomic Habits. One of the chapters was titled “The Goldilocks Rule”, so of course, I flipped right to it. Clear writes, “The Goldilocks rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.”
In essence, setting goals is optimized when we attempt to do slightly more than our current abilities. And I’m not even sure I like the word “abilities” in this example. Maybe attempting something slightly more than our current “habits” would be a better description, regardless of abilities.
Habit > Ability
Why is this distinction important? Just because we have the ability to do something, doesn’t mean we are currently and consistently doing it at that level. Many people will read the Goldilocks Rule and think, “Well, I am capable of X, so my starting point should be a bit more than X. Unfortunately, this has the strong potential of setting themselves up for discouragement and failure.
Setting our ability as our starting point can make the process unduly difficult and places us immediately into an all or nothing situation. I’d like to offer a different perspective on the Goldilocks Rule. where regardless of our current ability, our starting point will always be our current habit. Let’s call this The Goldilocks Goals Formula:
Current Habit + Just a Little Bit More = Goldilocks Goal
Example: I have a goal of walking more in 2024. My current ability is walking 3 miles without difficulty, but I am not doing that on a regular basis. Once a week at most. My current habit is two dog walks per day for a total of 1.2 miles.
As I make a plan to increase my walking, it would be very easy to choose 3 miles as my starting point, since I CAN do it. Imagine if I set a new goal from my ability vs. my habit. – walking at least 3 miles per day, every single day. 1.2 miles to 3 miles every day is a big leap!
Spoiler Alert: When I set my current ability as my baseline, my brain will automatically want to make this feel very hard. When we up the ante to a level that is far greater than our habit range, our brains begin sending up alarm signals: “Whoa! What is happening? This is out of my habit range! I am not able to perform this on autopilot! I have to stay aware, focus, think new thoughts! This is hard! I don’t want to keep doing this!”
The Formula in Action
Our brains love habit and when we do things that are within range of our habit, our brains just hum along seeing everything as normal. You can see how it could be very easy to give up in the previous scenario where we suddenly thrust ourselves completely out of our habit range.
Increasing our max ability without first increasing our habit will almost always feel dreadfully hard and out of reach. All work and no reward. So, our first goal is to increase the current habit, then work toward increasing the ability goal, not the other way around.
Adding just a little bit to our current habit moves the needle forward, provides instant rewards and decreases the hard factor to no more than a blip on the radar. And if your idea of “just a little bit more” still feels hard, reduce it even more until you find your “just a little bit more” sweet spot.
Let’s plug in The Goldilocks Goal Formula to work toward my goal of “walking more in 2024”?
- Current Habit + Just a Little Bit More = Goldilocks Goal
- 1.2 miles/day + .2 miles/day = 1.4 miles per day
Sounds simple, right? So, how could I approach this? I could add .1 mile to each of my dog walks. I could easily do that by walking .05 miles further in my route before turning around. Or walking a slightly longer loop in my neighborhood. Maybe I’ll keep the two dog walks the same but walk .1 miles up the street after lunch each day. Whatever option is simplest and requires the least deviation from my current habit. Habit + just a little bit more. It doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective.
Eventually 1.4 miles becomes my new habit and when I’m ready, I will follow the process again and add just a little bit more. Rinse, repeat. It’s the perfect example of how we can make extraordinary progress without having extraordinary goals. Moving the needle forward bit by bit.
What is a goal you have right now? What is your current habit? Start there and do just a little bit more. If your current habit is zero, that’s not a problem. Make your goal ridiculously easy to start and watch it develop into a habit with time and consistency. You’ll build your habit muscle and set yourself up to learning what just right feels like to you. And when you do, it might be time to add just a little bit more.
Betsy is a certified life coach, running coach and blogger who helps midlife women find satisfaction where they are now and inspiration to go after their big goals.
To learn more about working with Betsy, click here.