by Gilbert Keith

We make goals for ourselves to meet deadlines, to motivate ourselves into action, to test what we can achieve (of course, list is not completely exclusive.) It’s great to make goals; goal-setting has helped me accomplish a bunch of things which I never thought I was capable of doing. Before April of last year, I couldn’t have imagined running more than 4 miles in a session, but I decided to set a goal of running a half-marathon by the end of 2010; by October 2010 I had achieved that goal. When I started freshman year of college, I didn’t think I could possibly become decent as a quizbowl player and editor… but setting a goal of working on a couple of tournaments every year (my repeated statements about quitting quizbowl notwithstanding) I am happy about how I evolved over those four years.

Of course, goal setting is not a guaranteed means of achieving success. Sometimes the target may stop being relevant; on other occasions, someone else who has been working on the same goal may end up achieving it before you, basically nullifying all your hard work. However, there is one particular reason which is worse than any of the ones above – the devolution of the goal into increasingly myopic sub-goals and the associated  loss of awareness of big-picture thinking that motivates the goal setting. What follows is an illustration:

In June I signed up to run the Western Wisconsin Half Marathon. I reasoned that since I was able to run a halfie in 2:02 last year, that I should be able to finish it under 2:00 this year. I tried running at a faster pace in June and July, but it wasn’t working out well. On a couple of days I could tell my knees were hurting, but I figured I could overcome the pain with more running or something. For a while I ran with the hope of achieving that 2:00 mark.

In retrospect, had I pushed myself to run at the ~9 minute mile pace today, I would certainly have had a detrimental experience. I’d probably have started cramping at mile 10 and just cried my way through the remainder of the run. None of that happened, though. I think I kept a pretty constant ~11 min mile pace throughout the first 8-9 miles, slowed down a bit (probably 12 min miles) for the remainder, and ran the last .2 miles much faster in accordance with the “strong finish” school of running. Over the last couple of days, as I was mentally preparing myself for this run, I knew that the adrenaline (and the glycogen reserves) would compensate for the lack of extensive training, but it became increasingly clear to me that I wouldn’t ever enjoy running if I hurt myself trying to make that 2:00 mark. Furthermore, it was abundantly clear that the two runs were not the same (trail run vs. road run, 100 people vs. 400 people) and that it would be foolish to try and set a goal time due to the lack of familiarity with such conditions.

The mere passage of such an endurance test was what I wanted, and I think I did it well. I finished the run in 2:31 ish, somewhat exhausted, but with a happy feeling of accomplishment.

So, moral of the story, I guess – don’t forget the big picture in what you want to accomplish and don’t let your sub-goals get you carried away.