Goal Setting and the Case against Optimism

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I am an optimist.  It is one of my biggest faults.  Oh, I know that sounds like one of those clever answers you concoct for a job interview, so that one of your greatest strengths sounds like a defect, but I am serious.  Being optimistic can be fatal to my goals.  I constantly under-estimate the difficulty of tasks and how long they will take me to complete.  By now, I expected to have lost 40 pounds, to be sitting on a fat bank account, to have completed a couple of flips and have an IRA set up.  I expected I would have completed my ministerial degree for A Course in Miracles.  I expected I’d have written a book by now.  None of these things have happened.  I have been a victim of my own optimism. I am not alone.  Most of us are overly optimistic about things we shouldn’t be.  It’s why the contractor I fired was so unrealistic in his time-frame estimates.  It’s why the tenant I have who is supposed to purchase the trailer she’s living in hasn’t completed the requirements for the contract to be converted to a sale from a rental.  They aren’t bad people, they are just like me: overly optimistic.

I am reading a book called The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. and I am realizing that it’s a universal problem.  Somehow by intending to reach a goal, most of us pat ourselves on the back prematurely and behave as if we’d already completed it.  McGonigal says, “We wrongly but persistently expect to make different decisions tomorrow than we do today.”  We fool ourselves.  “Sometimes the mind gets so excited about the opportunity to act on a goal, it mistakes that opportunity with the satisfaction of having actually accomplished the goal.”

Or, we make a bit of progress and feel so good about it that we then give ourselves license to backslide.  Psychologists have a term for this: Goal liberation. I used to witness my contractor falling into this trap almost every day he worked.  He lives a good 40 minutes from town and it was such as effort just to make it in that he would then act as if he’d accomplished much more than he had.

McGonigal says, “We look into the future and fail to see the challenges of today. This convinces us that we will have more time and energy to do in the future what we don’t want to do today. We feel justified in putting it off, confident that our future behavior will more than make up for it.”

This also seems to apply to money, at least for me.  I always seem to think that, in the future, I will manage my money better and earn more than I do now.  Again, I am not alone.  This is why so many of us have credit card debt – we erroneously believe that we will behave better next month.  We will pay off the balance in full, quit charging things, and behave much more responsibly than history would indicate we are capable of.

The answer is not self-incrimination, but rather self-forgiveness.  McGonigal says, “Surprisingly it’s forgiveness, not guilt, that increases accountability.”  That’s because when we make ourselves feel bad, when we experience shame, we are more likely to indulge in the very behavior that caused the guilt and shame in the first place.  Our de-stressors do a piss poor job of actually helping, but we will justify the behavior because we need a break from dealing with it.

In Course in Miracle terms, we hide because we listen to the lies of the ego.

So, I need to be more pessimistic, or at the very least, realistic.  Optimism “should” be my clue that I may be fooling myself into thinking I am more industrious than I have proven myself to be.

Because seriously, I am tired of throwing out food that we aren’t going to eat because I was overly optimistic about what we would consume.  I’m tired of giving myself more than I can handle, be it the amount of food I’ve put on my plate or the number of houses I can flip at once, or the number of credit cards I can juggle.

I am tired of fooling myself, but I also refuse to beat myself up over it.   I believe that the Universe is conspiring in my favor, so even the seeming setbacks are opportunities to step into a greater version of myself.

In another book that I recently finished reading, The Tools: 5 Tools to Help You Find Courage, Creativity, and Willpower – and Inspire You to Live Life in Forward Motion, author Barry Michels asks, “What if every bad thing that’s ever happened to you – including every problem you’ve ever had – was there, in your life, to get you in touch with abilities you never knew you had?”

It’s an optimistic perspective, for sure, but it may also be the exact viewpoint needed to muster the willingness to face what needs to be faced.  The thing that triggers unrealistic optimism (for me anyway) is my tendency to use it to make myself feel better without actually doing the work.  McGonigal says, “There is a fine line between the motivation we need to make a change, and the kind of unrealistic optimism that can sabotage our goals.” She suggest that rather than asking ourselves how much progress we’ve made – a trap where we are likely to give ourselves credit for work we haven’t done yet – that we instead ask how committed we are to our goals.  And rather than reach for our time-honored stress relievers of addiction (booze, drugs, food, game-playing, shopping, gambling, etc.) that we reach for prayer or exercise.

And self-forgiveness.  She says, “When it comes to increasing self-control, self-compassion is a far better strategy than beating ourselves up.”

So while I may need to temper my optimism, there is no point is making myself feel bad about it.  I believe I am being pulled towards a better version of myself, but to do that, I must be willing to look at the false promises I make to myself: like thinking I will finish my writing by a decent hour, or make it into work much earlier than will realistically happen.  I am, after all, very human.

And to become the best human I can be requires a lot of gentleness and self-forgiveness.

Namaste, my friends, Namaste.




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