move (part 2): goal setting


Too often, we forget that achievement isn’t limited to completing a marathon, an Ironman, climbing Mount Everest, or qualifying for the Paralympics, though that’s what we tend to read about in news reports and see on TV. (And much the same way the covers of People and Us magazine distort our perception of how we “should” look, the Olympian heights reached by amputee athletes sometimes skew our perception of what we should” be able to do physically.)

When it comes to moving your body, your only frame of reference is you. And the only thing you should be focusing on is whether you can do more today than you did yesterday, not replicating the training regimens of world-class athletes.

Two weeks ago I wrote about how inactivity has immediate and potentially profound effects on your health. This week, I want to pick up on a theme I introduced in the penultimate paragraph of that post: doing something more – anything – can reverse the negative impact of a sedentary lifestyle. You just need to clearly define your next action/activity. In that first post, I implored everyone to move. In this one, I’ll give you my best advice on how to do it.

About two years ago, I adopted David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” method in an effort to get control over my professional life, which felt like it was spinning quickly beyond my ability to handle it because of simple information overload. GTD formalizes something I previously – and until I started writing this post, largely subconsciously – understood: you move forward by doing only the next actionable thing for a given task. While that came to me as somewhat of a revelation professionally, looking back I now realize that it was the primary defining characteristic of my post-amputation rehab regimen.

*   *   *

After being discharged from the hospital and before receiving my first prosthesis, I spent my time doing three things: (1) listening to too much sports talk radio; (2) reading lots of really lousy books; and (3) maniacally plotting my return to the Land of Two Shoes. This last item manifested itself in incredibly simple, actionable steps that I would burn into my brain and then immediately discard upon completion and replace with a new goal.

A single statement made to me by a physician while I was still in the hospital set me down this path. He rendered his “expert opinion” with clinical certitude: “I expect that with appropriate training and rehabilitation, you will be able to walk, perhaps without a cane, in 6 months.” As soon as the words left his mouth, I had something tangible to shoot for, a timeline I could beat.

Looking back, my first four months post-amputation are summarized by the following list:

  1. Identify prosthetists capable of treating a young, previously-active male;
  2. Interview said prosthetists;
  3. Decide which prosthetist to go to;
  4. Schedule appointment(s) with the selected prosthetist to get fit with a prosthesis;
  5. Learn how to put on prosthesis;
  6. Learn to walk with prosthesis between parallel bars;
  7. Get outside parallel bars with prosthesis ASAP;
  8. Lose the crutches when walking outside with prosthesis ASAP;
  9. Identify new athletic-centered goal upon losing crutches;
  10. Complete road race of a distance and at a time to be determined;
  11. Finish 10K road race in April;
  12. Learn to walk on treadmill to train for April 10k;
  13. Walk on treadmill for 1 mile continuously;
  14. Walk on treadmill for 2 miles continuously;
  15. Walk on treadmill for 3 miles continuously;
  16. Identify alternative ways to complete April 10k that are faster than walking;
  17. Learn “hop-skip” method of ambulation;
  18. Train using the hop-skip method on the treadmill;
  19. Hop skip 3 miles on the treadmill;
  20. Hop skip 4 miles on the treadmill;
  21. Hop skip 5 miles on the treadmill;
  22. Hop skip 6 miles on the treadmill;
  23. Complete road race;
  24. Return to work after completing road race.

If you want to know almost everything about me between December 23rd, 1996, when I returned home on crutches, and the first week in April, 2007, when I finished the 10k and returned to my professional life so that I could immerse myself in the enthralling world of CGL insurance policies’ “advertising injury” provision – don’t ask, I can’t make it sound any more interesting than that, even if I try – this list tells you.

I didn’t start by writing these 24 items on a piece of paper or entering them into my computer. Rather, I first set general targets and then worked towards achieving them by breaking them into manageable sub-goals. The broad goals were: (a) get a prosthesis (1-4, above); (b) learn how to use it (5-8); (c) do something “big” (9-24). The action steps naturally presented themselves once I had a general course in mind.

I’m not suggesting that this is rocket science – just that we generally fail to do it, despite the fact it’s so obvious. (If we did it instinctively, David Allen wouldn’t be running a multi-million dollar empire.)

If you’re completely sedentary today, setting a goal of running a 10k race isn’t the next thing you can reasonably do. Focus on doing one circuit around the rooms in the downstairs of your house or from one end of your apartment to the other. If you can’t, start even smaller: every 15 minutes, stand up and walk from where you’re sitting to the next room and back. If that’s too much, pare it down even further – get up out of your chair and stand for 3 out of every 15 minutes. The point is, doing something more than you’re doing today allows you to set slightly more ambitious goals tomorrow, each of which you’ll find yourself achieving once you get some momentum.

For all of us, the “Big Goal” should be living a happy, active life. We all want that (I hope). To get there, however, we need some marker buoys to guide us towards that port.

Set a simple goal that you can achieve. Then another one. Take one step, then two. Savor every one of those victories for a moment. Then refocus on your next goal. Move your way, one small step at a time, towards a healthier life.

5 thoughts on “move (part 2): goal setting

  1. Dave,

    You’ve really captured, in very real and human terms, the essence of “getting things done.” It’s not really about getting things done – it’s about appropriate engagement with whatever is meaningful to you. And, interestingly, the key seems to be to have identified the next visible, physical thing to do, toward your desired outcome. It’s the simplest, and riskiest, decision, on the planet.

    Thanks for sharing your spin on this. If I can help any further, let me know.

    David Allen

    • David:

      Your blindingly fast response suggests to me that your inbox is indeed at zero. That’s so cool.

      First, thanks for reading this post.

      Second, your statement that the “next visible, physical thing to do” is the “simplest, AND RISKIEST [emphasis mine], decision on the planet” is really important to acknowledge. Moving things forward involves risk, and most people aren’t predisposed towards it. But the rewards of doing that next visible, physical thing outweigh the risks – especially in the context of this post, which is focusing, ironically, on the risks of doing nothing (i.e., being sedentary).

      Lastly ,I find it fascinating (and depressing) that I could subconsciously utilize the GTD approach in relation to my physical rehabilitation at age 27, but not even realize it existed as a possibility in my professional life until I was 40. I’m sure many people wall off different aspects of their lives in this way – the brilliance of Getting Things Done is its recognition that it’s a comprehensive approach to living – not just something you do in 1 part of your life, and not another.

      For less is more readers who want to get their lives under control, check out the book Getting Things Done and follow David Allen at @gtdguy on Twitter. I thought the book was so great I bought it both in paperback AND on my Kindle. 🙂

  2. Dave, regarding your comment:

    “Lastly, I find it fascinating (and depressing) that I could subconsciously utilize the GTD approach in relation to my physical rehabilitation at age 27, but not even realize it existed as a possibility in my professional life until I was 40.”

    I hope to convince you to stop being depressed about adopting GTD in your professional life at 40, and here’s why:

    I found (and still find) some projects easier to plan than others, and they all tend to be physical in nature: eg. “Learn how to use a prothesis”. Your personal path to rehabilitation shows incredible fortitude. In some ways, though, the path is clearly laid out.

    However, there are a whole realm of projects (eg. “Improve my personal network”) that are incredibly difficult to plan. These are the projects that are normally labeled as “professional”. Where do you start? Where do you go? It can get very overwhelming, and that’s where GTD really shines. It gives us a practice that allows us to move forward on relatively intangible projects in very small steps.

    Don’t think of adopting GTD at 40 as a disappointment; instead, take heart that you were predisposed to recognize the value of the method when you discovered it.

    • Additionally, I just want to be clear that even if a project is easy to plan, it is not necessarily easy to execute.

      I’m concerned my previous post may have trivialized your injury. I apologize if that was the case, I meant no disrespect.

    • Ross – it has taken me a few weeks to get back to your comment because of my recent travel schedule, but (a) I really appreciate your input in your first comment to this post, and (b) you in no way trivialized my injury. Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts!

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