We were in the middle of the emptiness of Siberia, in winter, on our bicycles. The icy road under our wheels was actually known as “the road of bones” because so many of Stalin’s prisoners had died building it back in the 1930s. It was only the second month of a 37-month expedition, and I was feeling run down, out of my depth, frightened, cold. I was trying to cycle home from Siberia to England. I could picture my home in my mind – my family, the dining table. In my imagination it was nighttime, but the lights were all on. But it was so very far away – over 50,000 km and over three years of riding, to be precise. Quite a depressing thought given how cold and exhausted we felt.
A more immediate place I wanted to get to was the Russian coastline – from where we could catch a ferry to Japan – a land I had never been, but which seemed to me, especially compared to Siberia, a place of great safety and comfort – hot springs, shopping malls and overly-polite people bowing at each other. Japan was about 2,000km and a month of riding away, so a lot nearer than home, and a lot easier to focus on reaching.
But we were behind schedule and even a month of riding seemed pretty tough. And on top of that, we realised that at our current rate, we would not make it before our visas ran out. So we worked out a daily goal – of the distance we would have to cover every day if we were going to make it on time. It was 106km a day – which on these icy roads was quite a long way. This meant long hours of riding, much of it in darkness. We would rise at 5am, pack away our tents, then ride through the dawn, through the day, and then into the night, refusing to stop until we hit our daily goal, whereupon we could throw up our tents and camp again. (If you’d like to read more on my trip, check out my book Cycling Home From Siberia, available on my website)
3 Types of Goals
I don’t think I would have analysed it in quite such terms at the time, but something I have seen now in hindsight, is that I was clear about three kinds of goals in my mind:
I had a long-term goal (for the next three years),
A medium-term goal (for the next month), and
A short-term goal (for today).
And the first two, at least, I had visualised. And they were very appealing. They were something I was wanting to move towards. The short-term goal, was something we could aim at daily. It was tough, but controllable.
And as we stuck to our daily goal, gradually our medium-term goal became closer, until we had gained sufficient morale and momentum from sticking to our short-term goal that we knew we would make it. When we did get to northern Japan, I had a new medium-term goal – to get to southern Japan and catch a ferry to South Korea. And so that is what I did, and over the next three years, by gradually moving from goal to goal, from Korea to China to Papua New Guinea to Australia to Singapore to Hanoi to Tibet to Delhi to Kabul to Samarkand to Istanbul to Rome to London… and so, after three years of sticking to my goals, I eventually made it. Home to London.
Goals have the power to help us achieve more than we would do otherwise. Visualising gives them more power. Breaking them up into long-, medium-, and short-term increases our chance of success.
Top Tips from the Experts
- Besides breaking the big goal into small steps, making yourself accountable is also key. See Gail Matthews’ research.
- Beginning with the end in mind is essential, and this includes visualising the end, not just writing it down, as per Stephen Covey’s second habit in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
- The concept of SMART (specific, measurable, accountable, realistic, time-bound) goals can be very helpful. My expedition goals were all of these things. However, in his latest book Better, Faster, Smarter, Dughill notes how, whilst SMART goals can be helpful, there is also a danger that we set them as a chore, and then just get fixated on ticking them off, rather than thinking big picture about what we are really trying to achieve. So he argues that we should also keep doing big picture brainstorming.
- Shawn Achor, meanwhile, in Before Happiness discusses the need to break things down. Research shows that the body starts to work better when it approaches a target – so when you run a marathon – rather than focusing on 26 miles, focus on each mile marker – and your brain and body will actually perform better – pushing harder to get to the tangible, nearer goal.
Caveat: Goal Setting can be Dangerous
I have no doubt that being clear on these goals was one of the key things that helped me to make it through my expeditions. However, there is also a danger in goal setting – whether on expeditions, or in careers, or in finances, or anything else in life.
The Everest climber Patrick Hollingsworth recently wrote a powerful article on Linkedin summarising the danger of goalodicy (a phrase coined by Christopher D Kayes, professor of management science at Washington University) – by which he meant, that we often set ourselves big goals because we are just so unnerved by the uncertainty of what lies ahead in our lives. We are encouraged (by Jim Collins, and others) to make these goals Big, Hairy and Audacious (BHAGs).
However, the problem then arises that we associate our own value and worth with then achieving these goals – no matter what the cost. In mountaineering terms, Patrick links this to the Everest climbers who make terrible decisions because they are so obsessed with reaching their goal. This is known as summit fever and, in the mountains, it can be deadly. In business terms, it can lead to a breakdown of ethics, or just forging ahead towards an unrealistic goal and consequently burn-out, and the implosion of one’s personal life, even as one’s professional life flourishes. Underlying this whole area, is our cognitive bias – which means we start interpreting things in a way that favours our deep desire to achieve the goal, but which in reality (and from an outsider’s perspective) do not make sense.
Thinking through Goals Holistically
Personally, I think a way forward, is to make sure when we come up with our BHAGs, we think through all areas of our lives – so not just work goals, or mountaineering goals, or whatever, but also goals for our relationships with our family, our friends, our financial goals, our fitness goals, our education goals, and then we have to look really honestly at how having an overly big BHAG in one area will certainly have a price to pay for another area. And then we have to honestly ask ourselves where we are prepared for the trade off (imagining our lives from the perspective of our death beds, or what we’d like said in our eulogy is always a helpful perspective).
And then we might hopefully see – yes, I might be able to achieve my work BHAG, but that will almost certainly have an impact on my family life, and so I need to rethink it all a bit further. This all takes quite a bit of time to come to clarity, but is very worthwhile, and also helps to avoid goalodicy.
Putting into Practice
So it is vital to find the right goals – which integrate across our whole lives. And then once we know what they are, we can come up with a plan for achieving them.
The question I ask myself of course, is how well do I practise this in my normal life. Sometimes okay, but often I lose focus. I have tried to spend time on whole life goal setting activities, but even when Christine and I have taken a day retreat to go through this, we have never quite finished.
I am currently on quite a tough expedition – definitely not one of those “looks and sounds harder than it is”, but rather a “I’m really, really not sure that I can pull this off, there are so many tricky aspects” type of trip. In my mind, it seems harder than the road of bones in winter.
But then, I break it down.
Can I just make it from the start to Point A? I ask myself.
Well, yes, if I really try.
What about A to B?
Yes, I think so.
B to C?
C to D to E?
That will be a hard stretch, but yes. And then E to F to G is quite easy, and then all that remains (though it is one of the potentially most challenging stretches), is G to the end, and I think I will be able to just push on and do that.
So yes, it is possible.
On an expedition, it is natural and intuitive to break our goals into long-, medium- and short-term objectives, and it is intuitive to evocatively imagine that destination towards which we are moving. I have found this to be extremely motivating, and it has given me strength to achieve things which, if you had told me a few years beforehand I would do, I never would have believed I could do them. We can take the same approach in life.
Research backs up this approach, and also gives some handy tips, especially about making oneself accountable.
At the same time, we must make ourselves consider our whole life goals, otherwise pursuing goals relentlessly in one area of our life, can potentially make us inadvertently miss out also pursuing other goals in our lives.