My take on goal setting is different from what most experts recommend. The start of a new year is a time when many of us reflect on the previous year, and what we’d like to improve going forward. Growing up, I did what most of us are taught: Make SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based) goals that I’d like to accomplish by the end of the year.
This usually involved me guessing at something I’d like to reach—like a certain GPA, run time, or weight to lift. At the end of the year, sometimes I would reach it and sometimes, despite how hard I worked, I wouldn’t. While my goal setting provided some motivation, I never found it as effective as I wanted it to be. When I entered the Air Force Academy and began competitive boxing, though, I learned a new way to think about goals.
One of the benefits of the Air Force Academy, is that it has a human performance lab that teaches athletes behavioral strategies to improve their performance. There I learned, among many things, the power of process and routine.
Boxing is a mentally tough sport: In the back of your mind, you know that there is someone training to knock you out in front of your friends and family. You also know—particularly at the amateur level—that there are better fighters out there than you. Despite your preparation and training, if you end up fighting the next Mike Tyson, you’re going to lose. On the other end of the spectrum, if you happen to be in an easy weight class, you may breeze through the season without much effort. What the performance lab taught me was that outcome is not what you should focus on.
The process–that is specific milestones that are under our control–are far more important to focus on than outcome. Boiled down even further, we can only control our time, effort, and technique. Because mental energy is a resource that we only have a limited amount of, instead of wasting it on things outside our control, we should instead focus on what we can get better at.
The true potential of this mindset is unlocked when combined with our routine. What we do each day—our autopilot—is responsible for nearly all our successes, and failures. Habits built into our routine are amplified over the course of a month, a year, a decade. Like compound investing, time multiplies the effect to such an extent that our progress is nearly unfathomable looking back.
This mindset helped me to do well in pilot training and has helped me as a fighter pilot. Although sports psychology wasn’t even talked about when I started flying, it’s now built into our syllabus for new F-35 pilots. Air Force bases across the country are standing up human performance centers, where sports psychologists work with fighter pilots to maximize their potential.
So, with the start of the new year, if you’re looking to improve something in your life, attack your daily routine. What are two or three small changes that you can do for the rest of your life? Don’t worry about quick progress, these small changes will have an exponentially bigger effect over time.
This article first appeared at Sandboxx.