Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Finally reaching that stubborn goal

The date is January 27, 2008, and the topic is manna, from Exodus 16.

It's the last entry.

For several years now, I've had it as a goal to read the entire Bible in a year. I've lost track of the number of times I made it my New Year's resolution. Despite my best intentions, I've never succeeded.

I've purchased multiple copies of a one-year daily Bible, thinking that would do the trick. No such luck.

In 2008, I even started a blog to chart my progress. The evidence of my failure that year is recounted above.

But this time around I've taken a slightly different approach, and I'm happy to report I'm already nearing the 70 percent mark, with less than a month left before I'm scheduled to finish.

So what changed?

First and foremost, I'm benefiting from the learning experience gained through several years of failure. I've become keenly aware of my hangups, what doesn't work for me, and what additional support I need to keep myself on track.

The other changes I stumbled onto by accident, but they seem obvious in hindsight.

Below are five things that have made a difference for me this year. Each of these things could be applied to the pursuit of a variety of different goals:

1. Make a plan. This year a friend introduced me to a 90-day Bible reading plan. It seemed like a huge time commitment, and I wasn't sure if it would work, but I knew I hadn't been successful with my 365-day plan. I decided to stop being stubborn and to try something different. After the first day, I didn't think it was going to work, but I'm so glad I kept at it. The 90-day plan has been perfect for my schedule and my lifestyle. It's a plan that makes sense for me. I like to see progress, and with the short time-frame, it's easy to see how far I've come. I can already see light at the end of the tunnel.

2. Commit to the plan. Casually making a New Year's resolution is one thing. Making a firm commitment is another. This year, I decided I didn't want it to end in another failure. I wanted to actually achieve my goal. I promised myself I would succeed, and that I would take whatever actions were necessary to be successful. I wrote down the goal and spent time during the holiday contemplating and considering it, thinking about what it would mean to achieve the goal and how good it would feel. I love New Year's resolutions (at what other time during the year do people decide, in mass, to start forming good habits?), but this year I decided to put some real resolve behind it.

3. Schedule time to work the plan. This was possibly the most radical change I made in my approach this year. I decided if I was going to have a plan, and if I was going to commit to the plan, I needed to map out a typical day and see when, where and how I would actually go about achieving the goal. I listed every hour in the day and gave each hour a task, even if the task was sleeping. I created a separate schedule for the weekend. An hour each day would be devoted to reading the Bible, with a second optional hour that could be used if the first hour wasn't convenient. I'll admit I haven't stuck to the schedule as much as I would like. I was a little bit unrealistic in some areas, and I didn't account for special events and other factors that took me off task. I've had to alter the schedule some. Still, without a realistic look at my daily life, I never could have implemented the plan.

4. Adopt accountability safeguards. The friend who introduced me to the 90-day reading plan said he would be following the program too. Just knowing I wasn't alone was a huge mental asset. I'm not even sure if he continued after a certain point, but thinking he could email me a comment or question related to the reading on any given day was an added incentive for me to stay on schedule. My wife also knows I'm on the plan, and she's been very supportive, giving me reminders and understanding when I've needed to be alone for a while to catch up on my reading. It has also helped to be part of a faith community where daily Bible study is routinely encouraged and modeled.

5. Be creative and flexible. There were days I don't think I could have done it without some variety. I've altered not only the hour of day devoted to reading, but also the medium and the place. Over the last 60-plus days, I've read from two different printed Bibles, a Kindle Fire app, and a desktop computer. I've also read along to an audio version, when I needed help tuning out everything else. I've read on the couch, in bed, at the kitchen table, at work during lunch, in the car... anywhere I could find a few quiet minutes to concentrate. It doesn't matter how it gets done, as long as the task is completed. The more I switch things up, the easier it is to keep going.

BONUS TIP #1: Don't tell anybody what you're doing. At least not at first. You could end up sabotaging the goal by tricking yourself into feeling good for having the plan rather than for working it. Don't seek approval or feedback until you're sure it won't prevent you from finishing the job. There were a number of times early on when I was excited about my progress and felt like sharing the good news with friends. To release some of that tension, I allowed myself to comment on or quote interesting verses from time to time, without divulging the secret.

BONUS TIP #2: Never underestimate the value of a checkmark. When I'm in hot pursuit of a goal, nothing encourages me like the progress of checkmarks multiplying across a page or whiteboard. I practically live to make little x marks these days. Checkmarks are your friends. Put them to work!

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