Updated on 09.22.10

Running in Place? 14 Ways to Break Free

Trent Hamm

When we set big, lofty goals for ourselves, it’s really easy to find ourselves at a plateau of sorts, where it feels like we’re spinning our wheels but not really heading upward towards our end target.

I’ll share two examples of this from my own life.

I’ve been working on a novel pretty consistently for the past three years. It’s basically the story of two married couples where the husband in one couple and the wife in another couple were in love much earlier in life but circumstances took them apart. It’s set in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I have been tossing around pieces of this for years in my mind and in Microsoft Word. I spend a lot of time doing background research to make sure the setting is right and so on. Some particular scenes from it are simply wonderful (I have an opening scene set on a rainy day that I just dearly love), but it is a very, very slow process figuring out how they all go together in a way that’s real to the characters. I’m simply at a plateau with this.

My wife and I are marching slowly towards paying off our home mortgage. We’re making our payments as big as we reasonably can, but it’s still painful to look at our account balances and see that the balance is falling ever so slowly. It’s a long, slow march without any strong sense of forward progress, no matter how hard we push.

It’s much like travelling toward a mountain far in the distance. We’re making progress, but the progress is so slow that we feel as though we’ve been running forever with nothing to show for it.

There are times when it’s tempting to just abandon the journey, to throw that novel-in-making in the trash, to stop focusing on paying off our mortgage and enjoy things now.

Here are fourteen things we do to keep going on our long journeys. Perhaps they’ll help you to keep going on your own journeys.

1. Take a breather.
If a long term goal is no longer a positive burden for you, take a step back from that goal for a short while and substitute it with a short term goal that can give you the taste of success fairly quickly. Then, return to your large goal with a fresh “I can do it” mindset.

I can put aside that novel for a few weeks to work on a short story. I can stop the overpayment of our mortgage for six months and save up for a future replacement car (which we may need in five or so years). These smaller goals are important, plus our focus on them gives us the ability to re-energize for that big goal that we’ve plateaued on.

2. Reaffirm the destination.
Once upon a time, you may have been supremely confident in your decision to chase a particular goal. Over time, though, our life priorities change, and a goal that seemed to hit the bullseye of where we thought we were going in life no longer hits that target. Spend some time asking yourself whether this big goal really takes you to a place that you want to go. If it does, visualize that destination that you want so much; if it doesn’t, rethink your directions.

Whenever I hit a writing block, I usually ask myself if I still know what I want the long piece I’m working on to be. If I feel like the destination is no longer in sight, I’m not afraid to put that work aside if I need to.

3. Set milestones.
Milestones are simply smaller goals that serve as intermediate steps between where you are now and your final destination. For example, if you have a $100,000 mortgage, you might have milestones at each $10,000 payoff level, giving you ten milestones to your overall goal.

A milestone of my book might be the drafting of a complete chapter or the connection of one significant element to another element. Setting such a milestone narrows my focus and keeps my eyes off of the large scope of the entire book.

4. Use a metric.
Fulfillment curveA big goal is awfully hard to reach if you don’t have a clear way of measuring your progress towards your goal. A good goal can be represented by a number by which you can track your progress towards that goal, reaffirming your forward progress.

I might use word count as a metric for a long piece of writing. I might simply use dollars and cents as a metric for paying off a debt or saving for a goal. Neither one is perfect (especially the word count), but it does enable me to constantly see that I am moving forward, even if it looks like the mountaintop is still very far off.

5. Mark progress only to your next milestone.
Combining the above two tips, focus yourself (and your metric) on only the race to the next milestone. This reduces an enormous goal to a manageable one, one that you can clearly track along that shortened journey.

For example, I might focus entirely on the completion of a single chapter of 6,000 words, or I might focus just on knocking $10,000 off of our mortgage. My goal is to reach that milestone, and that’s where I channel my energy.

6. Collaborate.
Seek out others who are shooting for the same goal – or similar goals – as you are. Twitter. Messageboards. Local meetings and groups. Facebook. Seek them out, listen to their advice and stories, and share your own concerns. It’s much easier to climb over a mountain when you’re not doing it all yourself.

This site is itself such a collaboration. Countless readers email me and comment with their ideas and thoughts, constantly encouraging good financial behavior and life choices.

7. Burst it.
Every goal can feel more real if you occasionally give it a “burst” instead of treating it like a never-ending slog. A “burst” simply means a short period of deeply concentrated effort towards a big goal, like a week focused on intense frugality and clearing out and selling of unwanted household items, with all proceeds going to a financial goal.

I use “bursts” all the time. About once a year, we have an ultra-frugal month where we buy nothing but the essentials, calculate how much we’ve saved because of it, and channel that extra money into some larger goal. I do the same thing with writing, having participated in events like National Novel Writing Month, which force me into “burst writing” scenarios.

8. Use visual reminders of your destination.
This is one technique I’ve used for personal finance and professional success for a long time. I simply clip and use pictures that personify the goal I have in mind – and I put them everywhere. They become a constant visual reminder of where I want to go. I change the pictures regularly so that they remain fresh and in my face.

For example, I keep a picture of my children wrapped around my credit cards. It keeps me focused on my family-oriented goals and reminds me that the money I spend needlessly takes away from those goals. For a long while, I kept the first paragraph of a novel I was working on taped to the bottom of my rear view mirror in my old truck, causing me to think about it whenever I drove.

9. Use a visualization of your metric.
If you have a numerical metric for your goal, you really have three numbers: where you started, where you want to go, and where you’re at now. Those three numbers can make up a really valuable visual reminder – a “thermometer” that fills up as you make more progress towards your goal.

I’ve long used one for my own writing purposes, mostly in an effort to mark my word count and motivate myself to try to contribute to the book regularly. We also have one that represents progress on our home mortgage.

10. Use microrewards.
Deep fried pineapple on a stickIf you’ve got a series of milestones, there’s no reason not to reward yourself in some reasonable way for reaching those milestones. Use those milestones as a pledge – if I accomplish X, I get to do Y.

For example, whenever we reach a big number on our mortgage countdown, we usually “celebrate” by replacing or updating something that needs replacing in our home. For example, our dishwasher really needs replacing (did you know that a three year old shouldn’t belly flop on the open door of your dishwasher?), so we’ve decided that we’ll replace it when we reach our next mortgage milestone. You can use any perk you like, as long as it’s reasonable and in line with your overall goal.

11. Make yourself publicly accountable – and share your successes.
I think Facebook can be a brilliant place for this. You have a group of people – your friends – that care about you and want to see you succeed. What better environment to put yourself out there, challenge yourself, and be able to celebrate your victories with people that matter?

Whenever I take on a new goal, I often share it on Facebook (and sometimes on Twitter, too). This way, the people I care about most are aware of my goals and my progress, too. Sometimes, they’ll ask about my progress and keep me moving forward, whether I want to or not.

12. Make it competitive.
Most of us have a competitive streak inside of us. We want to win. Use that to your advantage and challenge others around you in a competition that pushes you towards your big goal. Who can lose the most weight this month? Who can log the most miles walked? Who can have the most profitable yard sale? Who can make the largest multiple of a mortgage payment this month? There are lots of possibilities!

My wife and I love to compete with each other, so we’ll sometimes use that as a tool for individual success. Weight loss comes to mind, as does saving money. Our competitive natures and desire to “top” the other one can push us onward to great success.

13. Read inspirational stories.
Sometimes, simply reading the stories of others that have travelled down this road and have found success can be enough to keep you going. There are many inspirational stories out there for almost every journey a person takes, from debt recovery and athletic training to weight loss and cancer survival.

I often just read blogs of people who are going on the same path I am for inspiration. For me, simply knowing that other people are struggling with the same problems I am is a real boost, even if they don’t have the same conclusions or the same successes or the same setbacks that I do. We’re all in this together, after all.

14. Eliminate counterproductive temptations.
Homemade beerLife is full of temptation, and many of them are counterproductive to the things we want most. We want to lose weight, but there’s a pint of Guinness out there or a chocolate bar in the cupboard. We want to save money, but there’s a book we really, really want. Take steps to eliminate such temptations. Don’t read blogs, websites, books, or magazines that tempt you with such things. Clean out your cupboards and your fridge and don’t bring new temptations into your house. Turn off the television – or at least avoid advertising-laden programming.

The easier it is to give into your temptations, the easier it is to fall behind in your goals and make that slog seem even longer. My biggest temptation is the ease with which I can spend in certain situations. I solve that by often just leaving all of my credit cards at home and just keeping a small amount of cash in my wallet.

Good luck on your long-term goals!

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  1. Tara C says:

    This is a really great article and just what I needed right now. I’m in the last half of a very concentrated 5 year program to maximize savings and pay off debt to accomplish a big goal that I have wanted to achieve for most of my life. Lately I’ve gotten tired and gone off the rails a bit, this list will help me get back on track!

  2. Jessica says:

    Trent, I know once you payoff your mortgage, you will be relieved. The longer we wait for things the better the reward.

  3. Kestra says:

    One of your best posts in a while. Really a lot of good ways to get something accomplished. I can’t think of any other tips to add.

  4. valleycat1 says:

    Good advice. It’s key that the goals and metrics & interim steps are meaningful to & set by the person(s) working toward the goal.

    One of my kids had a persistent bedtime thumb-sucking habit he couldn’t seem to break. At age 6, after we parents & grandparents had worked through all our ideas on motivating an end to it, he came up with his own idea – alternating nights he’d allow himself to suck on his fingers at bedtime. We agreed on a reward for progress toward quitting. In no time at all, the nights off became the routine as the habit was broken.

  5. Kelli says:

    Thanks for this! I really enjoyed it.

    I have a few ideas to add. Speaking of a place to connect with others working on similar goals, I have been a longtime user of the site 43 Things, where you set goals and then have basically like a mini blog for each goal (you can make entries about each one) and you can see what others working on the same goal are posting and comment on their progress and also “cheer” them.

    SparkPeople is another one for health/weight loss. It also has a lot of tools for tracking which ties into Trent’s points about having metrics.

    That leads me into metrics :) When I was paying off my debt I did two different charts – one for just my credit card (before I believed I could actually pay off everything) and later, one for all my debt. At the time I felt kind of elementary school about doing it, but it was super effective. I wanted to be able to mark down even $20 or $50 or $100 extra dollars to my goal so badly that I actually DID apply all those little amounts – and later, big amounts – to the debt. And I did it! $30K in four years. Whew!

    Happy goal reaching, peeps!

  6. Trevor says:

    Regarding #1: Seriously, you can save up for a replacement vehicle in just 6 months of not making extra mortgage payments? You definitely have a luxury that most people don’t, even people like myself who are frugal almost to a fault. I guess this site is doing rather well for you. Congrats.

  7. Briana @ GBR says:

    My goal is to get out of debt, and I’m pretty confident I can do it. I’m setting goals on savings simultaneously. I know it’s going to be hard but I know I can do it. Not sure what kind of microrewards I can give myself. Any ideas?

  8. Alexandra says:

    I really like this post. It’s applicable to nearly any goal I can think of. For the most important one to me, I’m taking a breather. My second goal is advancing quite nicely, after stagnating for 2 years (I had to reaffirm it and focus on the next milestones to get where I am now) and my third goal is stagnating. The third goal is finishing my novel, and I’m in the process of reaffirming it.

    Thank you for this post.

  9. Richard Hurt says:

    Great article. Paying off debt can be a long road and it can be hard to maintain focus. You offer some good suggestions on how to keep refreshed and focused. Sometimes we can look so far down the road that we don’t stay in the right lane.

  10. AnneKD says:

    I’m interested in the ‘burst’ idea. I’ve been working at a hobby for the last couple-three years, taking classes when I can afford it at a local community art center, working on the hobby at home, and have been creating things that actually sell sometimes. Last year, I took the opportunity to do a major burst of activity in this craft for a show. I took two weeks to try and get everything together- the craft stuff, the displays, etc, and the burst turned into this major thing. After that, I didn’t do *anything* in that craft for a few months and have been slowly coming back to the previous activity level. This scenario is somewhat similar to my husband’s and my financial life. We did a ‘burst’ early last summer, paid off all the extra debt other than the mortgage that had crept up over some months, and now our financial life is going backwards a bit with a balance on the credit card. How can a burst turn into a sustainable process instead of a one shot deal?

  11. deRuiter says:

    For encouragement paying off your mortgage, POST THE AMORTIZATION PRINT OUT PROMINENTLY. Every time you prepay the principal for a month’s payment and send it to the mortgage company, CIRCLE THE AMOUNT OF INTEREST FOR THAT MONTH, FOR WHICH YOU ARE NO LONGER RESPONSIBLE, it is no longer owed! At the beginning of a mortgage, the tiny amount of principal per month is DWARFED by the amount of interest you have to pay. Seeing how much interest you save by prepaying the PRINCIPAL each month, for the next month, gives you a huge boost. This interest payment will never have to be paid, you do not owe it. It is financially imperative (in my mind) to prepay heavily at the beginning and middle of the mortgage. For the last third of the mortgage, it is not a good investment, because the amount of principal is huge and the interest is negligible. Being mortgage free gives you a feeling of security and comfort. It’s hard to live anywhere as cheaply as in a property you own on which you have no mortgage. Don’t concentrate on how slowly the principal goes down on your mortgage, revel in the massive interest payments which the bank or the mortgage company will never get each time you pay off a month’s principal.

  12. very good advice, thank you for sharing it.

  13. One the point of “bursting”.

    Sometimes we need to self-motivate. Those of us who always wait for external forces to provide needed motivation sometimes find themselves waiting for a long long time.

  14. CF says:

    Trent (and others), if you haven’t already, you should read the book “Mastery” by George Leonard. It’s a quick , but good read. He talks about the importance of learning to “love the plateau”. As someone who is over-consumed with goals, I found the book to be a nice reminder that most good things take time, and the process is just as valuable and rewarding as the end game.

  15. v says:

    thanks for the link to national novel writing month. i’ve signed up and hope to be a winner with a novel at the end of the month. just the kind of burst i need.

  16. Denise says:

    Fabulous post. So applicable in many areas of my life. I am looking forward to sharing it with my husband. Thanks!

  17. Milestones are so important! If I look at our whole debt number (including student loans, mortgage – the GRAND TOTAL), it’s ridiculously slow. So I celebrate every $1,000 we move toward debt-free, and I also have a chart. A visual representation is so helpful for me!

  18. Trent, so true on the need to re-evaluate. For yeas, I wanted to be a college professor. So sure, in fact, that I got a Master’s degree in order to pursue that dream when the time was right. Now I stay at home with my child and write freelance, and teach a grad school course. I should be happy. But the problem is, I’m finding I love the writing part, and dread the teaching job. I was tempted to “see it through” longer; that perhaps with more time, I would enjoy it. But instead, I’m going to stop spinning and reassess. It’s just no longer my dream. Onto better things!

  19. You have taken the theory and concepts of project management and applied some nice real world suggestions. Speaking as a certified Project Management Professional, I applaud your post.

    Defining your goal, figuring out all of the requirements related to it, defining the resources needed, estimating the time and money required, tracking progress towards milestones, rewarding your team along the way and using relationships to help you get there are fundamental in running a successful project.

    Currently, I am investigating and trying out ways to define and pass along (with my kids and grand kids) family culture, values and wealth. I have found that setting goals, breaking them down into action items and marking progress are all very helpful to us in finding our way through this.

  20. Christina Crowe ( @CashCampfire ) says:

    Great tips. Whenever I get stuck, I find that by simply walking away and coming back to the project later helps me to get my creative juices flowing again.

    I also have recently started keeping a record of my progress (or setting milestones as you call it). It does help and it keeps me focused on my goals when I want to just give up. By separating tasks into smaller chunks, I’m also less stressed to complete a specific task.

  21. guest says:

    Use a metric.

    did u mean matrix?

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