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An Unremarkable Achievement: Accomplishing Goals Through Steady Progress

September 29, 2019

Yesterday I accomplished a goal I’d been working toward for close to three months: I swam an uninterrupted 200m freestyle. It wasn’t special. There was no celebration. And I didn’t even notice it in the moment. In that respect, it wasn’t remarkable. It just happened.

Some context: When I set the goal in early July, I could barely swim 20m continuously. I was two weeks out from my first class in “Learn To Swim” which would mark the beginning for my fourth(?) attempt to learn how to swim. I set a goal of swimming an uninterrupted 200m freestyle because I wanted something that felt achievable in my time frame without being something that I could just “muscle through.”

This goal is the headline goal for my summer in my “leisure plan” (a concept I’ve taken from Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism). My thinking was that if I swam 200m it would demonstrate that I had learned the fundamentals and I wouldn’t have to learn to swim for a fifth time. It would also be a great workout, something, it turns out, I value much more highly than I used to.

My first class was July 17th. While I had already built a habit of making it to the gym five or more days a week, I hadn’t been swimming. So, I just shifted the way I spent my time there - instead of rowing, I would go swimming.

By August, I had “graduated” to Intermediate Swimming. In the ~10 weeks since my first class, I swam 26 times. Quick math suggests that in addition to the lesson each week, I would get in the pool on my own one to two additional times (and when you consider I lost a week during which I was on vacation, it was closer to two than one extra sessions).

Not all of them were exceptional workouts. Sometimes I’d go for only 10 minutes and swim barely 200m total. It wasn’t great. I wasn’t setting any records. But I’d gotten in the pool. I’d focused on my form. And when I came back the next day, it wasn’t a big deal. It was just swimming. I had shown up and made progress. Imagine that.

When I think about the way in which I made progress: creating a routine, showing up consistently, tracking my progress, and setting mini-milestones, I am reminded of Scott Adam’s classic post, Goals vs Systems (which I’m saddened to see is no longer hosted on his site, but fortunately, I’ve saved a copy so that I can refer back to it as needed!):

…Going to the gym 3-4 times a week is a goal. And it can be a hard one to accomplish for people who don’t enjoy exercise. Exercising 3-4 times a week can feel like punishment - especially if you overdo it because you’re impatient to get results. When you associate discomfort with exercise you inadvertently train yourself to stop doing it. Eventually you will find yourself “too busy” to keep up your 3-4 days of exercise. The real reason will be because it just hurts and you don’t want to do it anymore. And if you do manage to stay with your goal, you use up your limited supply of willpower.

Compare the goal of exercising 3-4 times a week with a system of being active every day at a level that feels good, while continuously learning about the best methods of exercise. Before long your body will be trained, like Pavlov’s dogs, to crave the psychological lift you get from being active every day. It will soon become easier to exercise than to skip it - no willpower required. And your natural inclination for challenge and variety will gently nudge you toward higher levels of daily activity while at the same time you are learning in your spare time how to exercise in the most effective way. That’s a system.

While accomplishing what I set out to do feels good, I’m struck most by how unremarkable it was. It felt routine. It was simply more of the same — a steady progression of going just a little farther, feeling a little stronger, being a little more confident with each stroke. Achieving the goal was just a consequence of working within the system I’d built. And that is pretty remarkable.


Stephen Weiss

Thanks for reading! My name's Stephen Weiss. I live in Chicago with my wife, Kate, and dog, Finn.
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