Many motivational books will tell you that goal-setting is the key to success. Your goal must be clear – the clearer, the better – so picture it in your mind’s eye and focus on it. Write your dream down and put it in your wallet or post it where you will see it every day. Keep an eye on where you want to go, work hard, and eventually, you will get there.
This advice made perfect sense to me. So, whenever I got fed up with the pathetic state of my life, I would buy a new planner and initiate yet another goal-setting session. Following the experts, I would set big, hairy, audacious goals. In accordance with my Christian faith, I would set godly goals. Then, after constructing a ladder of achievable objectives, I would start climbing.
This approach never actually worked for me. Oh, I might reach a few of my early objectives, a modest milestone or two, but I could never stick to the whole grand plan for very long. Fatigue would set in, my focus would begin to drift, and before long, I would find myself back in the same old rut, following the same routines and getting the same results.
Nowhere was this truer than in my battle against porn. I knew that my daily porn habit was consuming tons of my time and energy. Porn certainly was not improving the quality of my marriage or family life. It wasn’t making me any happier or more productive, and it was forever making a mockery of my morality. Even though every porn session left me drowning in disgust, and every goal-setting session included giving up porn for good, the habit would not leave. It kept coming back, as persistent and obnoxious as a drunk uncle at a family reunion.
Meanwhile, the books I vowed to write remained unwritten, the trips I planned to take remained untaken, my debts continued to deepen, and I never learned to play the guitar.
What I did not realize was that I was failing because I was focusing in the wrong direction. My goal-driven, self-improvement efforts were misguided. I was being sabotaged by my own strategy.
To begin with, the idea that goal-setting is the key to success is ludicrous. Yes, it is true that successful people set goals and reach them. But it is also true that unsuccessful people set goals and fail to reach them. Both groups set goals, so goals cannot be the factor that separates them.
Nor is it true that commitment makes the crucial difference. A certain amount of commitment is necessary, to be sure, but full commitment to a flawed strategy can be worse than no commitment at all. When it comes to flawed strategy, investing all your hope for happiness in some future goal is a recipe for disappointment.
Let’s say, for example, that I catch my profile in a mirror one day and realize, to my horror, that I have become a fat guy. This is not exactly news, since I have been buying bigger pants for the last few years, but never before have I seriously considered myself to be obese. My first reaction is to get depressed. Another look in the mirror only makes matters worse: now, all I can see is a muffin-top with a double chin, a physically repulsive semi-hominid doomed to abandonment and early death. Only one thing will save me. I must lose weight.
Fortunately, dozens of magazines at the supermarket are offering foolproof plans for weight loss. A height-and-weight chart in one magazine tells me I am now 30 pounds above my ideal weight. That settles it. I commit myself to the goal of losing 30 pounds, firm in the knowledge that life will become wonderful when I succeed. I know I can do this. After all, I dropped 15 pounds a few years ago on the grapefruit diet, only to gain them back. I visualize my new physique, trim and athletic, and feel a surge of inspiration. This is going to be great!
The first few days are difficult, but I stick to my new diet and am rewarded by a downward trend on the bathroom scale. I lose one pound, two pounds, three pounds, four. Encouraged, I increase my efforts, restricting my calorie intake even further. I lose five pounds, six pounds, seven pounds … and stall.
On my next trip to the drugstore, I purchase a metabolism-boosting supplement, a guaranteed fat-burner. Two days later, I am down a couple more pounds, but I am starting to get really hungry and bored. At a party the following weekend, I furtively eat an entire pizza, feeling both guilty and defiant. The next morning, I am up two pounds. By evening I am raiding the refrigerator and rummaging through the pantry for snacks. My goal, which seemed within reach only days ago, is now starting to recede. I am starting to feel like a failure.
In his book The Practicing Mind, Thomas M. Sterner invites us to imagine two swimmers racing across a lake, both of them aiming for a tree on the opposite shore. The first one swims with his head out of the water, laser-focused on the tree, paddling his hardest. The second points himself toward the tree, then puts his head down and concentrates on regulating his breathing and smoothing his stroke. The second swimmer does raise his head from time to time to locate the tree, but he stays focused on the process of propulsion, steadily improving the length of each stroke and the strength of each kick. He is fully awake throughout the entire experience, alive to the physical sensations of water moving against his skin, absorbed in the sheer pleasure of swimming. Which swimmer is likely to win? Which one is more likely to give up, exhausted, while the other arrives on the far shore invigorated, ready to take on another challenge?
When I finally sought help for my porn addiction, seasoned guides told me that recovery is about progress, not perfection and, if I really wanted to experience sexual sobriety, I would need to shift my attention from desired outcomes to daily disciplines. They said that if I stayed fully engaged with others in the process of recovery, open to coaching and satisfied with small gains, I would be able to taste success every day.
They were right. Recovery has been the greatest adventure of my life. Twenty years into the process, I am happily married and pleased with my progress.
And I am finally learning to play the guitar.