Strategic Thinking

Understanding why quitters win

It's Time to Put Your Goals on a Diet

Don't let gluttonous goal-setting hold you back this year.

http://www.partyofsin.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/gluttony.jpg
David Packard once famously quipped, “More companies die from overeating than starvation.” As it turns out, recent studies about dieting show that Packard’s clever metaphor can help us all more strategically and decisively become the people we want to be this year.  

Here are three of those lessons. Try them yourself. Try them with your family. Try them with your team at work.  

Limit your plate size. If you've ever said "I'd love to do this or do that, but I just have too much on my plate,” you might consider using a smaller plate. Cornell psychologists led by Brian Wansink have found that plate size is one of the biggest predictors of overeating. Simply using smaller plates does wonders for limiting your calorie intake while requiring almost no self-discipline at meal time.

See All Stories In

The Job Lot

The long and anxious march of unemployment.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

You can shrink your plate size by setting limits on the number of goals you are pursuing this year. There is no magic number, but I recommend shooting for four. Then every quarter this year can have no more than one top priority or “decision pulse.” You might still end up serving a five-course meal every month, but it will always be crystal clear which one course is the main dish.

Let them eat cake…tomorrow. So what to do with all the other inspiring goals and big dreams that didn’t fit on your small plate? Those would-be priorities go on your non-action plan — your list of value-added initiatives that you are consciously putting on the back burner until next quarter or next year.

Here’s why it works: Psychologist Nicole Mead found that dieters were more successful when they didn’t swear off chocolate cake forever, but instead told themselves, “I’ll have cake tomorrow.” Self-deprivation is hard. Promising to banish a coveted treat from the menu forever and ever is like one of those promises we know we’re going to break the second we make it. It feels much more doable and reasonable to say “I will let myself eat sweets again, but just not tonight.” Similarly, you can “eat” those other desirable goals on your non-action plan again… just not today.

Avoid the “What-the-Hell-Effect.” Ever tried committing to eating only celery or drinking only water at happy hour, only to be persuaded to have just one little martini or salsa chip (baked not fried, of course), which sets off a chain of events ending with pints of beer and buffalo wings? Psychologists call this the “What-The-Hell-Effect.”  Once we get a little off course, it’s too easy to rationalize that the day is lost anyway so “what the hell,” may as well dig in and enjoy.

A small plate and a non-action plan can be overpowered by the hullabaloo of the average day. Invariably, urgencies arise, kids get sick, fires need to be extinguished, and colleagues or friends will need your expert counsel. By 10 a.m. every day can turn into a “what the Hell” day, in which your priorities lay untouched next to the empty bag of spicy Doritos and cheese dip.

The solution is scheduling “priori-time” every morning. Carve out as little as 10-15 minutes on your calendar very first thing every morning that you will devote to your top priority — and only your top priority. Don’t check email. Don’t listen to voicemail. Don’t chat with your colleagues. Even if it’s just staring blankly at your written priority for 15 minutes, you’ll be amazed at your progress by the end of one week, let alone a quarter or a year.

Steve Jobs once said that "we make progress by eliminating things." If that is true, then applying these “dieting” strategies to your life could make this a truly transformational year. At the very least, they will spare you some indigestion.

Nick Tasler has a background in organizational psychology. He is the author of Why Quitters Win: Decide to Be Excellent.

more...

Subscribe to Strategic Thinking

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?