Updated: Jul 21, 2021
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During the 2020 Goal-Setting Webinar on Friday, I fumbled a question. I'm not proud of it, but that fumble has been on replay in my brain since the webinar ended and I wanted to give a better answer.
"How do you set goals without numbers?"
I said something that probably made sense but I was focusing on what NOT to say. There are few places where the full MK experience belongs, but a sales webinar with over 250 registrants is definitely NOT on the list.
This blog, however, is.
I don't like discussing data with...basically anyone. Disagreeing with a person on the data they hold dear rarely leads anywhere good. First, they say something condescending about numbers being scary and math being hard. I'm a former equities sales-trader from rural TN who has spent the past 7 years outside the traditional job market, which means I've been called stupid in every way possible. It's tiring. Math isn't hard. Discussing numbers with people whose egos are tied to their analysis, is hard.
So, please save any argument you are preparing about the importance of numbers. That isn't the point.
Numbers have value (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?!?!?!?!?). Numbers help you measure things. Numbers are tangible notions that can be attached to intangible notions, helping us visualize complex ideas like 'rates of change' or illustrate the relationship between two variables, like distance over time.
I LOVE numbers. I LOVE data. I'm also acutely aware that it is easily abused, because numbers in and of themselves, tell you absolutely nothing. Once you have cleaned, collated, organized, and weighed each variable appropriately, then and only then can a story appear. That story lies in between the data points. You don't look for the story, the story jumps out at you.
Numbers, I trust. Other people's interpretations of numbers, especially when they won't discuss their r-squared (the weight assigned each variable in an analysis), I will never, ever trust.
This is why I don't like discussing numbers with clients. I don't trust your interpretation of your numbers, I fundamentally disagree with the story you think your data tells about you. You went looking for that story, it didn't jump out at you.
I tell you that, to tell you this: Don't ask me how to set a goal without numbers. I look at it differently. If your goal cannot exist without numbers, then it's bullsh*t.
AAAAAAH. That feels better. If you want to call me stupid, go for it. I'm gonna sit here and sing, "You can feel bad (if it makes you feel better)" in my fullest possible twang. Everyone else, read on!
Not convinced? Think about your KPIs (key performance indicators), or your 360 assessment in your workplace. "Rate this person on a scale of 1 to 5". Have those numbers ever really captured you, or the effort you brought to the table? Did those numbers capture YOU, the obstacles you managed, the crap you dealt with, that you achieved IN SPITE OF things working against you? Have these assessments of you been robust much less fair? Mine haven't. Even the good ones were incomplete.
On a separate but related note, SO MUCH of our talk about goals is bullsh*t, systems designed for us to fail before we begin. "Reach for the stars! If you do, you may land on the moon!" Way to make a successful moon landing feel like a consolation prize, a total failure. I've never met anyone who reached for one thing, fell short, then was happy with what that other thing they got because they were able to objectively evaluate its coolness on its on merits.
Maybe I'm the wrong one to ask though, MOST motivational stuff fails to resonate with me for similar reasons.
Do we really need yet another bullsh*t system? Can't we come up with anything better?
Circling back to the original question: "How do you set goals without numbers?" Here are two modest proposals:
Find your numerical "WHY"- if your goal has numbers, write down where those numbers came from and why they matter. More often than not these benchmarks are as arbitrary as the KPIs we have to meet year after year. Remember, numbers don't have meaning in and of themselves. Talking about why the matter may get you closer to what you REALLY want, though....or it may reveal that you have no idea WHAT you want. "Finding my why" is a totally valid non-numerical goal that may fall out of this process. Run a Ragnar. Join a trail running group. Meet me at Three Days at the Fair. Do any of the really cool things you can't do when you are laser-focused on chasing a number in a training cycle. You don't HAVE to love running. Another totally valid non-numerical goal is to find a way to connect with this incredibly potent cardiovascular exercise that's more easily accessible than, say, Soulcycle or swimming. (Don't talk to me about finding joy though, that's quickly turning into something really sinister. "Not totally hating it" is much more realistic.)
turn your goal into a mission statement: all companies have a mission statement that defines the work they do. We can have those, too. In fact, they tend to be way more reasonable than the arbitrary numbers we try to chase, and infinitely more likely to end in satisfaction.
Real-Life Example: In January 2016, I had a 10-month old baby and wanted one more. My goal for the year was to see how fit I could get, run a marathon I was happy with, then go get pregnant with 4baby. I had an incredible year, I had a really great race, and went into 2017 determined to try one more time a faster marathon number then get pregnant again. Even though that pregnancy damn near killed me, I ended the year feeling like a success. #missionaccomplished
It is imperative to note, that BOTH years, I got what I needed. I may have missed the numbers I wanted to see, but my mission was accomplished both times. This is what made 2018 and 2019, two of the most difficult years of my life marked with by FAR the least movement much less running, bearable. Those years sucked. My sole focus throughout was to focus on what I COULD do while doing whatever it took to solve the mysterious health problems that plagued me.
My mission statement for 2020: "To Feel at Home in My Body Again." Right now, I feel weak. Running doesn't feel effortless the way it used to. I have no idea how long it's going to take to get there, but until I do, that's my mission statement; it defines my work. I'm still running but as you can see on Strava I'm doing more strength but no hard or fancy run workouts.
The name of the game is to keep going, and that's really hard to do when a goal feels really far away. I really really hate lifting heavy things. I do. It hurts. But it's my best next step towards strong, and THAT excites me. That makes me feel good. I'm going to keep my head down and keep doing that work, keep taking my best next step every day, looking backwards to see how far I've come rather than forwards to judge my progress, until the day comes I look up and realize I'm standing right in front of my goal.
I cannot wait to do the same with you.
If you have a goal and have no idea how to strip the numbers out of it, leave it in a comment below and I'll respond, or add it to #AskAway and I'll re-frame it for you in tomorrow night's livestream. #coachedandloved
Coach MK Fleming is the founder of Fitness Protection, LLCwhere she coaches all kinds of runners for $29 per month and gives marathon plans away for free. Click here to download her most popular training plan, Tenacious AF!