Break Goals into 3 Categories of Completion for Greater Success

“Happiness grows less from the passive experience of desirable circumstances than from involvement in valued activities and progress towards one’s goals.” -David Myers and Ed Diener

Nothing beats the surge of energy that comes from accomplishing a major goal or outcome in life. There are countless research studies that support this experience too.

But how do you know when you’ve simply checked off a goal versus knocked it out of the park? I derive the greatest source of energy from the goals where I stretch beyond what I previously knew to be true and challenge myself to grow, learn, develop, and achieve at new levels I never imagined.

Described below is a practice that I have emulated from various organizational approaches in my own life with great success. In short, break your goals or objectives into three separate categories: entry, target, and stretch. Let me give you an example.

For the last quarter of 2011, I wanted to make sure I stayed motivated to be fit and feeling great leading into the holidays. Like many others out there, my activity level wanes with the colder weather. The abundance of sugary treats during the holidays doesn’t help either. Earlier in the year I had successfully accomplished my weight loss and fitness goals; now I wanted to finish the year strong and in great shape without relapsing.

To facilitate this, I set some fitness and exercise goals for the final three months of the year. I figured that if I stayed active with these, I would stay on target for the year and not trash all the hard work I put in during the first nine months to get trim and fit for the year.

Using this three-pronged approach, this is what that goal looks like:

  • Entry: Average 2 total workout days/week prior 1/1 with a weight of 169.9 or less
  • Target: Average 3 workout days/week prior to 1/1 with a weight of 169.9 or less and a waist circumference of 36 or less
  • Stretch: Average 4 total workout days/week including 2 total weight days at the gym prior to 1/1 (including 10 weight days overall) with a weight of 168 or less, a belly circumference of 36 or less; complete a 5K race

Each week I update my progress and create an average to measure and track my success. To date, I’m coming in right at my stretch goal for the quarter despite battling a cold and some lower back soreness as a result of the weight training. I’m also excited about running my first 5K this New Year’s Day with my wife in Phoenix during our visit with family for the holidays.

In addition to the three categories, there are a few other success strategies embedded here worth mentioning. The first is that this is a measurable goal. I know exactly what success looks like at the various levels because of the metrics. Second, there is an end date. My goal ends on 1/1 and doesn’t have some ambiguous date with which I can later renegotiate. Lastly, I interact with the goal each week by updating my progress and tracking my results. All together, these three strategies have led to greater overall success and completion, especially on those days when I just want to get back in bed and nurse my cold or sore back.

I can think of a number of applications for this approach in other areas too. Examples include weight loss goals, smoking cessation, skill building, learning and development, race training, healthier eating, financial planning, and relationship improvement. I’d love to hear from you regarding your strategies for goal completion and whether or not you find this approach useful.

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Summer Reading Update (or How I Learned to Renegotiate My Commitments to Books)

Photo courtesy of phantomswife

Summer has long since come and gone and I wanted to write a quick update on my summer reading list and let you know how I did.

I started off pretty close to my list, knocking out the first four books with relative ease. I thoroughly enjoyed all four, especially Stacy Schiff’s great retelling of Cleopatra’s life. It reminded me of Erik Larsons’ books, all of which I thoroughly enjoy. Freedom was also extremely enjoyable with its towering and heady themes. Not an easy read, but a rewarding one doubt. In between those two I caught Tina Fey’s Bossypants, which was a perfect book to read after Freedom. As a new parent, I found it very timely if not utterly hilarious. It prompted a number of laugh out loud moments. Casino Royale too was enjoyable for different reasons of course. I was a bit turned off by the misogyny despite my love of the movies.

After this it was tough to find another book to latch on to. I started Room by Emma Donahue and found the story interesting, but ultimately hit the pause button because the narrator shift was too dramatic. Same for In the Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson, which I also found fascinating but too dark for my interest at the time. Both are ones I’d love to come back to and do plan on at some point including the others on my list.

Here is where I found myself renegotiating my commitment to the list and finding other books instead to finish. This is the beauty of the 50 page rule, which I’ve adhered to ever since I read Steve Leveen’s essential book for readers, The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life. In the past, I would have held steadfast to list, and a great one it was, and would therefore have become quickly disinterested in reading out of the pressure to keep my commitment. Instead, by giving myself the freedom to quit on books (or pause them as I like to say), I got into other books I wouldn’t have normally gotten started.

This is also where the beauty of a reading management tool like Shelfari comes in too. By keeping a current and up to date list of reading candidates, I can easily toggle between books and not rely on the books themselves as reminders for what to read. I highly recommend using a site like this to manage your list of candidates. You can see my shelf online and can even view the books I started and plan to finish someday neatly organized and managed within Shelfari.

Instead of the other books on the list, I completed State of Wonder by Anne Patchett, The Long Run by Matt Long, and The Judgement of Paris by Ross King; all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. I didn’t quite make it to 10, but 7 ain’t bad either, especially for a kid who dreaded summer reading growing up.

I’d love to hear your summer reading stories and strategies in the comments below and whether or not you’ve found any value in hitting the pause button on books.

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10 Books on My Summer Reading List

Whether it is the ritual of summer reading as a kid or trips to the beach as an adult, I love the abundance of down time in the summer and eagerly look to fill it with great reads. Working in higher education, the pace of time literally slows down, allowing for the addition of many adventurous and challenging books that would otherwise be difficult to get to. For me, summer is also a great time for me to depart from my traditional list of candidates and read some contemporary fiction and timely best-sellers.

To that end, here is my ambitious list of candidates for summer. I’d love to hear about yours in the comments below and as always, please share your suggestions!


Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
I’m starting summer off with a big one that’s been on my list for the last year. This towering work of fiction from Jonathan Franzen for me epitomizes the unique reading opportunity that summer presents: to get deep into a great American novel that explores heady themes of freedom, happiness, and the nature of life.


Bossypants by Tina Fey
I know I’m going to need a break after Freedom and I can’t think of a better change of pace than Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants. I’m a fan of improv comedy, SNL, and Fey’s 30 Rock and can’t wait to learn more about her dramatic rise to the upper echelon of the comedy ranks. A good laugh never hurts either.


Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
Ever since reading Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, I’ve fallen in love with historical fiction as a vehicle for history and biography books. I’m also a huge fan of Egyptology, which makes Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life a perfect fit. Although I’ve never seen Elizabeth Taylor’s 1963 interpretation of the iconic figure, I know enough to assume that we’ve gotten her wrong over the years, which is why I’m looking forward to Schiff’s extensive research and powerful storytelling to help dispel some of the propaganda and present Cleopatra in her true light.

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
For as much as I love spy movies (James Bond, Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan), I’ve never read one of the original paperbacks. I’m starting off with Ian Fleming’s original Bond story, Casino Royale. It’s one of my favorite Bond movies and I love Daniel Craig’s portrayal of the iconic spy.


The Greater Journey by David McCullough
Two of my favorites in life (Paris & David McCullough) collide with McCullough’s latest book about the American artists and scientists who studied in Paris in the 19th century. I devoured 1776 and The Path Between the Seas and can’t wait to get to this one. What a fun way to travel through the historic streets of Paris as well as some of history’s best scientists and artists.


A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
I turned 30 this week and I’m already learning that getting older and growing up isn’t as easy as it I thought it would be. Egan’s newest novel uses some creative storytelling and multiple narratives to drive this message home in what I think will be a timely and engaging read for me.


In the Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson
Speaking of Larson, he’s at it again, this time with the story of  William Dodd, the first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany. Dodd and his family bear witness to Hitler’s dramatic rise to power in the 1930s in what will no doubt be an intriguing read.



Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern
Oh why not. After that much Hitler, you’d need a break too.



The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Rebecca Skloot’s latest is being distributed to all incoming Tulane freshman this year and I thought I would join in on the fun. I first heard about Henrietta Lacks, a poor African-American woman with cervical cancer whose cells were used without her knowledge for research on NPR last month. The book explores some great themes that I know will interest our students and I’m excited to participate in the discussions that will be happening on campus this upcoming fall semester.

Room by Emma Donoghue
This one was recently recommended to me by a friend and based on what I’ve read about it, I’m looking forward to it. As you can see by now, I like to bounce between fiction and non-fiction in the summer. It keeps things fresh and keeps me reading.


The Social Animal by David Brooks
As I have mentioned throughout this blog, I love the exploration of ideas. While I don’t often agree with Brooks, I find his writing inviting and intriguing at times. As a fellow lover of ideas, I’m looking forward to finishing the summer off with this engaging read (if I have the staying power to get through all of this!).

Posted in Higher Education, Learning, Reading | 1 Comment

What a Student Taught Me About Visualization and Inspiration

DU License Plate

In my last job advising working professional students, I met with an adult student who was completing his bachelors degree at the University of Denver’s college of professional and continuing studies (University College) after a 15 year hiatus. He wanted to  continue his education at the graduate level and was in the process of applying to our masters program in leadership.

Right off the bat, I noticed he had a real thirst for learning and education. After exploring his interest in the program, he shared with me the obstacles he had overcome to be where he is today. He started his undergraduate education in the mid-1990s only to be lured away to a lucrative career like so many of his peers at the time. During the time he spent away from the University, he experienced many successes and failures in his personal and professional life. Now, some 15 years later, he was confronting his fears around his schooling and was overcoming his resistance to education to follow through on a major life goal.

After all this adversity, I wanted to know how he did it all. How, I wondered, did he stay motivated to continue learning after all these years? He responded that from an early age, he dreamed of driving around town sporting the university-sponsored license plate reserved for alumni. Growing up in Denver, there was something very special in his mind about what this symbol represented.

I was immediately fascinated by this. It reminded me of the importance of inspiration and visualization in my own life and the role it’s had in my successes. When I set out to plan and capture goals and outcomes for myself and my work for the year, I often focus solely on information gathering at the cost of the emotional process, which involves both seeing and feeling how to do a particular task or function that you can’t do today.

As an example, one of my 3-5 year visions is to complete a sprint triathlon. Gathering the necessary information for this would involve researching the best bikes to purchase, training programs to join, coaches to hire, races to participate in, and so on. It would also involve seeing myself going through the motions on race day: showing up early, getting my gear adjusted, interacting with other racers, etc. This important phase gets me moving forward and helps me see how to do something, but by looking at my boldest accomplishments I know it isn’t enough. To follow through on the truly elevating goals and visions in my life, I need the important emotional quality that inspiration provides.

If I were to embrace the emotional side of the equation with this particular vision, I would ask myself what conditions need to be in place so that I cannot stand not accomplishing this goal or outcome? Currently I’m working on a related smaller goal of increasing my runs up to a 5K distance. To help me get out the door in the intense heat and humidity of the New Orleans summer afternoons, I have set a standard for myself where I can’t stand not being sore. If I don’t have some soreness in my body, then I know I need to be out exercising or training. The soreness reminds me that I’m making progress and is a tangible feeling I can experience on a regular basis.

For this particular student, his vision of success involved him driving around town proudly displaying his DU license plate. After our conversation, I knew that he would stop at no cost to make this a reality. This mental image embodied the very essence of success for him and kept him moving forward despite the obstacles life had thrown at him.

Next time you put a stake in the ground and set out to accomplish something truly remarkable in your life, don’t forget to feel yourself doing it. And while you’re at it, think of a particular image that personifies the joy of successful completion for you, whether it’s fitting into that particular pair of jeans, taking that trip you’ve always dreamed of, doing the meaningful work you’ve always wanted to do, and on. The more specific the image the better. This little bit of inspiration can powerfully fuel our performance and can even be the difference between wild success and failure.

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Don’t Forget to Smile

Recently I watched the fascinating and inspiring documentary Man on Wire, the story of Philippe Petit, a tightrope walker, and his amazing high-wire routine performed in 1974 between the World Trade Center’s twin towers.

The story of Petit and his colleagues pulling off the ambitious routine is almost too good to be true and keeps you on the edge of your seat despite the fact that you know what happens. This is no doubt in large part why it was awarded the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2009.

There is a particular scene that I think is a beautiful metaphor for goals and visioning. Petit set out from a young age to dazzle the world with his high-wire routines and scaled monuments such as Notre Dame and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Petit was however unsettled with theses accomplishments. When word came of the building of the twin towers in New York City, Petit set the ambitious and elevating goal to walk between them before ground had ever been broken on the buildings. Director James Marsh delightfully chronicles Petit and his friends’ journey to secretly plan and scale the two towers.

When Petit finally gets up there in spite of all the obstacles, he does something truly remarkable that is worthy of our attention: he smiles. There are police on either side of him waiting to arrest him, throngs of onlookers witnessing from down below, a stiff wind that could easily knock Petit one or two inches off; and yet despite all of this, Petit knows that he is accomplishing a major life goal. He even takes his time and makes eight crossings between the towers that lasted nearly an hour!

It’s a beautiful reminder for us all to literally stop and smell the roses; to enjoy ourselves when we follow through on the intentions we set for ourselves. As someone who constantly aims to grow and learn, it’s a good reminder for me to mark occasions when I complete a goal or task and pause before I continue setting more goals and outcomes. This can have the positive effect of building up a well of positive emotions and memories, which can provide more inspiration for scaling taller towers and more ambitious visions in the future.

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