Several times in my career I found myself wondering why, despite putting in hard work and long hours, I wasn’t getting more out of it. The reason things weren’t moving as fast as I would like them to was usually related to my personal goals I set, or more appropriately, my consistency in sticking with them.
But when I set out to learn what others did to manage their goals, all I got was a bunch of corporate buzzwords that didn’t resonate with me. In this post I describe a useful analogy that helped me stay grounded.
Not long ago I started practicing triathlon. A typical race consists of three legs: first swim, then bike and finally run. I’m a pretty decent cyclist, and I can run if I have to, but swimming was a completely new discipline to me.
When I started training for my first race, I did laps on a pool practicing good technique, building up endurance and so on. But just a few days before the event, our coach took the whole team for a swim on the ocean in order to get the feeling for an open water race.
As it happened, the swimming leg of the race, in Santa Cruz, CA, took us around the pier for a total of 1500 meters (that’s almost a mile!), so everyone thought getting to know the course was a great idea.
And boy, was it ever! The experience was startling. Instead of nice, lukewarm water, we got freezing cold Pacific waters that made us shiver under our wetsuits. Instead of turning and pushing your legs with every lap, we endured a really grueling drill.
And most interestingly, instead of a straight, blue line on the floor, there were no obvious references to help you go straight.
Now, I have swum in the ocean before, just not during a race, so the conditions are very different. When you’re competing with a few hundred other people, going off course will literally put you behind the pack.
As I came off the water and listened to our coach give feedback on what went well and what didn’t, I realized that open water swimming is a powerful analogy for life’s challenges.
Most of the time, there is no straight blue line to follow and make sure you are going in the right direction. That is certainly true once we are done with our formal education. The decision of setting our goals and keeping them in the long term is one of the most important ones we can make.
Without long term, ambitious goals, we are adrift. Or worse, we might be swimming in the wrong direction.
Our coach proceeded to explain a simple technique to keep course and avoid wasting effort. Every 10 strokes or so, slow down, lift your head and try to locate a landmark on the horizon.
You might take a little extra time to look up and orient yourself, but it’s worth it if that prevents you from going off-route. In my case, I used the tip of the pier on one direction, and a tall building by the shore on the way back.
In order to put this analogy to practice, my personal advice is to create a routine by which you sit down at the beginning of the week to write down everything you plan to do. Then check whether those action items help you get closer to your stated goals, and decide if it’s worth your time working on them.
For bonus points, use a priority matrix to decide what really matters and delegate the rest. Think of each week as a swim stroke that will hopefully get you closer to the finish line.
Just like when swimming on the ocean, in life and careers it pays to regularly step back and check whether you are actively pursuing your goals, or just treading water fruitlessly.
Because if you are not careful to track your direction, you might one day wake up and realize you are nowhere close to the shore.
How do you set personal goals? Share with us in the comments!
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