Saturday, November 17, 2007

Goals and Motivations

The other day a friend and I were bemoaning our regular office smorgasbord and the effort it requires to go to the gym every day. She said, hesitantly, that at the moment she was focused in on one goal that sounded--she knew--kind of silly: to fit into a particular shirt by New Year's. It was silly, she reiterated, but it did keep her going to the gym day in and day out.

I don't think this sounds silly at all. I do it too: I motivate myself to exercise by setting concrete, short-term goals, like being able to wear a favorite skirt without feeling all squished in the middle.

The reason we think this might sound silly is that we feel that we really should be motivated to go the gym because of some grand, bigger reason, like staving off heart disease so we can live to see our grandkids. But thinking of that while in my twentieth minute on the elliptical just doesn't keep my pace up. Trying to figure out what to wear later that day will. This says less about the relative importance of these goals (grandkids vs. clothes), I think, than about the immediacy of the question.

So are things like Health and Grandkids useless as motivation? I don't think so. But because they're more abstract, more intangible, more far off, they motivate us in a different way. We encourage ourselves to make those "silly" mini-goals precisely because we know that they're a way of heading us in the direction of the major goal in smaller, more digestable chunks. If it weren't for this major motivation behind it all, we'd call our mini-goals "excuses" and not "goals."

When we were talking this over at lunch today, Tim asked me whether I thought gym-related mini-goaling differed by gender. Did men do the same thing? Yes, we concluded, and their mini-goals might be strinkingly similar: fitting into clothes, impressing the opposite sex at a particular event, and so forth. They might speak about them differently, however, making more public their goal to impress a girl with their biceps than their worry about how their waistband was getting tighter.

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