Integrity and Your Goals

Have you ever noticed that, when you’re trying a new diet or a new exercise routine or new spending habits or some other significant restrictive change in your life, it often only takes one mis-step for the entire program to fall apart? Once you’ve skipped an exercise session or eaten an entire Sara Lee poundcake in one sitting, it’s really hard to convince yourself to go back to your earlier restrictive choices. You just give up and walk away.

The reason for this is that when you “cheat,” your plan loses its integrity. Integrity basically means consistency – once you’ve set up a method for achieving a goal, the act of sticking to that method is integrity. When you break the standards of that method, the entire system loses integrity. Your goal falls apart like a balloon receiving a pinprick.

I see this time and time again in my own life. I’ll set up an ambitious goal with an ambitious plan to reach it. For a while, everything goes along swimmingly. Then, at some point, it becomes hard. I’m faced with a difficult choice between continuing toward that goal and something else. Eventually, I make the wrong choice and, just like that, the progress toward that goal seems to fall apart. I stop taking the right steps and the goal just crumbles to dust before me.

How can you avoid this? There are a few great principles you can follow, no matter what your goal happens to be.

Avoid a large number of goals
This is a personal problem that I often run into. I try hard to jam too many goals and plans to achieve them into my life and, eventually, I find that I fall short on many of them. There are only so many hours in a day, and time set aside to practice the piano, time to exercise, time to work on my novel, and so on all eat away from that time. When you pack your day too tightly with things to do, eventually you face an unexpected event and, suddenly, you’re unable to complete one leg of your plan. Your integrity fails, you feel like a failure, and you stop working.

Instead of trying to tackle seven goals at once, focus instead on the most important one. What do you most want to achieve? Toss the others overboard and don’t add new ones to the plate until you’ve achieved what you want to achieve. Not only does this clear the path for the single goal you desire, you’ll also find that the more you want a specific goal, the easier it is to achieve it.

Avoid a path to success that’s too strict
A challenging path to success is certainly a good way to achieve it, but challenging doesn’t have to mean strict.

For example, a challenging exercise regimen means that you’re committing to a certain amount of exercise each day – say, 30 minutes. A strict regimen defines exactly what each type of exercise must be on each specific day.

Now, let’s say I’m traveling, but some of those exercise types are very difficult to achieve while traveling. The simple nature of a summer vacation causes me to fail in my plans. There are countless different situations like this, where the nature of a day can keep me from following the exact tenets of a strict plan.

Instead, I try to keep the plan simple. Exercise for 30 minutes each day. I try to mix it up if I can, but if I’m traveling, a long walk is a perfect fit.

Don’t go it alone
Most personal goals are solitary activties and, on some level, you do have to go it alone.

At the same time, though, no matter your goal, there are (almost) always others out there attempting to achieve the same goal. Seeking them out, talking to them, sharing your goals and your progress, and even practicing with them can make a tremendous difference.

Seek out people in your own social network who are attempting similar goals and use them as a springboard and a motivator for your own progress (and you for them). If that doesn’t work, seek out online groups of people who are attempting the same goal as you, using Google.

Use the power of “the chain”
Often, my route to success for a goal involves doing a simple thing each and every day to improve myself. Eat certain foods. Take my vitamins. Exercise. Practice the piano. Avoid spending money frivolously.

One effective way to keep yourself moving forward with such goals is to start a “chain,” something I’ve mentioned in the past. The technique is simple. Just print yourself off a calendar page and mark a big X on each day that you manage to accomplish your daily task. Leave that page up somewhere where you can see it.

Over time, you’ll start to have a long row of Xs with no interruption – and you won’t want to break it. That “chain” of Xs will itself motivate you, as you don’t want today to be the day that breaks that chain. It’s a subtle push, but it’s often strong enough to get me going out the door.

It’s all about maintaining the integrity of your goals. Goals are like a stack of children’s blocks that you achieve only through careful stacking. If one of them is removed, the stack is likely to fall down. Keep the stack from falling and you’ll find success.

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  1. lurker carl says:

    Exercise, diet, frugality, debt repayment – a slip up in the new routine should not be defined as failure. Use it as a learning experience where you identify the cause of the “indescretion” and how to avoid it in the future. Allow for the possibility of such deviations and use them to your advantage rather than as an excuse to abandon your goals.

  2. Katie says:

    I actually disagree entirely. I think the key is to not hinge success or failure on perfection. If your goal is dependent on always doing every action right every single time, or never missing a single planned incidence of anything, eventually you are going to fail. Life will get in the way. But if you realize that missing one workout or practice session doesn’t undo all the good of all the other workouts or practice sessions that came before it, it’s easy to keep going.

    Similarly, it’s a lot easier if you find the process of reaching your goal intrinsically worthwhile and valuable in and of itself. I.e., you find each individual workout and practice session valuable for it’s own sake and not just for what you’re hoping it’s going to get you.

  3. Kathryn Fenner says:

    I was reflecting on just this as I was practicing the piano this afternoon (thanks, Trent, for inspiring me to get back into it–I was very serious as a high school student back in the 70s, and I’m really enjoying playing now). When I set a goal, all I can do is lose–I meet the goal or I fail to meet it. The positive part is the setting the goal.

    Instead, I set an intention. I intend to play the piano daily. Somehow, if I miss, I don’t feel like I “blew” it….

    I have also lost almost 50 pounds this way (I follow the new Atkins plan). I have no “goal”–I just follow the plan as best I can (which is pretty easy because I’m not terribly hungry and I eat foods I like). Whatever weight comes off, comes off. I hope to lose another 20, or even 40, but since I am now three sizes smaller, I’m happy.

  4. Gretchen says:

    100% disagree. You can be a healthy weight novelist who plays piano.

    I think the key is to have a slip up plan. Well, I ate an entire cake. Next time I won’t buy a whole cake.
    I’ll eat a single slice then take a brisk 30 minute walk.

  5. Johanna says:

    I agree with Katie, as usual. When anything less than “always” (or more than “never”) is defined as failure, then you are going to fail eventually. Giving yourself room to be not quite perfect can help you keep going.

    It can also help you get started. If you find yourself faced with saying “From now on, I will never (eat meat, visit the coffee shop, whatever) again” it’s so easy to add “…starting tomorrow!”

  6. Gretchen says:

    Also, integrity relates to your morals and ethics and honesty.

    Not consistancy.

  7. Johanna says:

    As for “setting aside time” to work toward a goal, something that worked really well for me when I was first learning the guitar was: I would make an effort to sit down with the instrument every day, but not for any predetermined amount of time – I’d just play until I got bored and felt like doing something else. Sometimes I’d play for ten minutes, and sometimes for two hours. Sometimes I’d consciously work on something that challenged me, and sometimes I’d just strum the chords to songs that I already knew well.

    I think there are two reasons why this worked well for me: (1) I can schedule my time with pretty much only myself to please (no kids, for example), and (2) playing the guitar was enjoyable for me pretty much from the beginning. I wasn’t thinking “if only I can push myself through this unpleasantness, eventually this will be fun” – it was fun from the very beginning, almost. (I suspect, however, that if I’d tried to force myself to practice for an hour every day, it would have quickly become a lot less fun.)

  8. valleycat1 says:

    You’ll make progress even if its two steps forward, one step back. I also agree with Katie -recognize that you’re not going to make perfect progress or adhere perfectly to the plan, but get back on track as soon as you realize you’re not where you intended to be.

  9. Tyson says:

    Timely post. I posted a story on goal setting on my blog today, and feel that the information here is helpful and wise.
    When I set a difficult or a goal that will take some time to achieve, I used to be a “one mess up and it’s over” type of guy. Now, learning from why you binged, or fell short and put up proper and appropriate shields in your life to help reduce that from occuring again. Continual growth and learning, especially from mistakes, will make you successful. Goals are usually a marathon, not a sprint. If you take 2 steps forward but 1 back, you are still up 1 step…

  10. Steve says:

    “All or nothing” thinking is more likely to lead to nothing.

  11. Evangeline says:

    My outlook is completely different. Eating an entire Sarah Lee cake will not throw me off my exercise plan. Why? To me, they are not connected in any way. Poor food choices in no way flow into poor exercise habits. This sort of ‘disconnect’ allows me to skip the guilt and move forward.

  12. krantcents says:

    Personally, I can only handle 3 or 4 goals at a time. I use lists and reminders to keep me on track. I keep myself accountable by constantly monitoring my progress.

  13. It’s easy to set goals. To follow and work for it have failed most folks.

  14. kristine says:

    Ditto on Katie-encouraging a point of view that pit perfection vs. loss if integrity/ failure, is setting yourself up to fail. No one is perfect. I find that as people get older and wiser- they do not see the world in such black and white terms- they are more accepting of the human condition.

    This reminds me of people in business who base outcomes on best case scenario. Actual mistakes, not just opportunity for mistakes, have to be factored into an any endeavor, and learned from. Coming up with ways to avoid mistakes is great, but self-flagellation over it is negative reinforcement. That alone is a turn off to continue.

    And ditto Gretchen on integrity. It is used in marketing and business to mean “purity of process”, but I find that usage cheapens the word. It’s like teens today use the word “sexy” to mean anything slick, glamorous or appealing.

    True integrity does not flinch if you eat too much cake. It is not a synonym for consistency. However, people with integrity are consistently honest with themselves and others, and act according to their beliefs. Applying it here is a stretch, and downgrades the word. Goals do not have integrity, people do. Good goals have incentives, contingency re-tracking plans, and a success rate. Motivational hyperbole is to ra-ra for me.

    Let’s not use up our most powerful and meaningful verbiage on things like breaking a fitness regime. I sound like an old biddy, but words become cheaper everyday. My husband has integrity, and when I say that- I want it to mean all that it should, and the word to have the impact of the sterling character that goes with it.

  15. Snowy Heron says:

    Kristine – you are so right about people with integrity being unflinchingly honest with themselves. Given mankind’s incredible ability to deceive themselves, it is tough to find individuals with that quality.

  16. Gretchen says:

    I actually had no idea that it was a slang usage of the word.

    Let’s keep it that way! :)

  17. Johanna says:

    As long as we’re talking about words that are misused in business-speak, can we do something about “concerted effort”? A concerted effort is a mutual or cooperative effort, not just a really intense effort. You and someone else can make a concerted effort when you work together to do something. You can’t really make a concerted effort by yourself.

    (Well, I guess you could call it a “concerted effort” if you’re trying in more than one way to achieve a single goal, like balancing your budget by cutting spending and earning more money at the same time. But 99% of the time, when someone says “I made a concerted effort,” they’re misusing the term.)

  18. Toni S says:

    I am on an extremely restricted diet designed to cleanse and heal my body. Part of the diet includes a cheat day, which allows you to eat anything you want for 2 hours a week. At first I looked forward to my 2 hour cheat once a week, but I noticed that my cheats made me feel bad physically. I then modified my cheats so that they would not make me feel so bad and as my health has improved, many times I don’t need to cheat. I prefer not to cheat on this diet, but I like the “cheat clause” that enables me to stick with it and still improve my health.

  19. Justin says:

    I think one of my biggest products has been going it alone.

    I have learned over the last year or so that I need to include my wife in my side business. Even if it’s just telling her “Im going to earn X amount this month to pay off debt”, that will help me stay accountable and on track.

  20. Justin says:

    Oops- I meant problems, not products :-p

  21. David says:

    The OED gives “concert (v) Of a single person: To plan, devise, arrange.” You actually can make a concerted effort by yourself, but cases of the kind are rare.

  22. Johanna says:

    @David: Isn’t that exactly what I said? What the heck?

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