Stop Moving the Goalposts

Posted on July 18, 2012 by

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We have all done it

You lose 5 lbs successfully and then set a goal to lose 10 more.
You finish the half-marathon and then sign up for the marathon.
You stop drinking sugar drinks and then decide to quit all carbohydrates.

It seems like we are hard-wired to keep pushing and striving after any success.

Photo Credit: Matt McGee (Creative Commons)

Unfortunately, if you keep moving the goalposts based on your previous best performances you will eventually fail.  Everything has limits and while you can certainly work to become more productive, healthy, intelligent, or whatever your goal du jour is, you will eventually come up short.

My Story

Right now I am on a roll.  I have had almost 9 months in a row of meeting my goals.  Managing my weight, writing my words, practicing guitar.  I have never had such a great run of success and I am tempted to believe that this is the new “normal.”

As I continue to hit these goals the thought keeps creeping into my mind that I should raise the bar.  Increase my daily words.  Practice more minutes of guitar.  Get in better shape.  Maybe even learn a language.

If I follow this line of thought to its end I realize it will eventually sabotage my efforts.  I have limits.  There is only so much time in the day.  If I increase the amount of time I spend writing and practicing guitar then I will have to spend less time cooking meals or spending time with my family.  Something has to give.

If I tweak the formula I risk upsetting the balance I have achieved and failing.  I have done it so many times to myself that I have to keep reminding myself that it is OK to stick with the current plan.

Deming’s Story

W. Edwards Deming recognized this paradox in American management techniques and tried to explain it to the Detroit automotive executives.  They laughed him out of the room.  He ended up heading to Japan, which was still reeling and struggling to rebuild after World War II.  They wanted to compete and were willing to try anything.  Long story short, his ideas worked and explain much of Japan’s dominance in the Auto and Electronic markets over the last 4 decades.

Deming had many great ideas, but one was that you can’t manage to the extremes.  Just because your production line produced 10 cars today, setting a new record, doesn’t mean that you should change the goal to 10 cars a day.  10 cars was probably a statistical aberration.  An outlier.  Everything went perfect.  No mistakes.  No distractions.  No one called in sick.  They got lucky.

The key is to look at your average over time.  There are going to be high production days and low production days.  What is the average?  6.5 cars per day?  OK.  Now focus on increasing the average.  Look at your outliers and try to learn from them.  What is happening on the low production days?  How do we reduce those days.  What is going right on the high production days?  How do we increase those factors?

Whatever you do, don’t just take your best day and shift the goalposts based on that result.

Your Story

The same goes for your personal life.  The next time you are thinking about moving the goalposts due to a recent success you should ask yourself if the result you achieved is representative of an average day or an outlier.

We all have Great days and Horrible days.  What if after a Great day you set the expectation that every day after that will be just as Great?  You will  almost certainly fail.

Try a different approach.  Think about that Great day.  What happened that made it so great?  Maybe you got a good nights sleep.  Maybe you had a great conversation with your wife before heading out the door.  Maybe you were working with your favorite people at work or on a project that energizes you.  Maybe you ate healthy food all day and exercised.  Maybe all of these things happened.

What about the Horrible day.  What factors led to that day being so bad?  Did you not get enough sleep?  Did you fight with your wife?  Were you in a hurry?  Did you sit in meetings all day at work?  Did you eat junk food and run around all day so busy that you never got to exercise?

Is there a way that you can increase the factors that may have contributed to your Great day and reduce factors that lead to a Horrible day?

Remember, even if you focus on all of these factors and improvements you are still going to have Horrible days and Great days.  All we can hope to do is slowly shift the average in a positive direction.

*Photo Credit: Matt McGee (Creative Commons)

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