The trouble with goals: From dissertations to dogs

Big goals freak me out. They give me stress. They seem impossible. They are paralyzing.

However, I want to make progress with Milo in the sport of Schutzhund and to do this I need some big goals. Eek.

I’ve encountered this dilemma before.

I spent six years in graduate school. Much of year five involved staring at my computer screen and freaking out because I was sure that I didn’t know enough and wasn’t good enough to jump over the last hurdle between me and my doctorate: writing my dissertation. A dissertation is a 200 or 300-page original research paper. Staring at the first paragraph I typed on what would be page one, made the last paragraph on page 200 seem impossibly far away.

I was a scholarship student, and I was broke. When my funding ran out, I would not be able to pay rent, I would lose my student visa, and I’d have to leave the country. So, you know, no pressure.

My dissertation supervisor gave me a gift. He said that the last word on page 200 was the last word he would read and so ‘it would behoove me to finish before then.’ This gave my task a concrete endpoint.

With nothing to do but think and write, and facing the looming specter of homelessness, I did some math. I knew I could write three pages in a day and I knew I was ‘only allowed’ to write 200 pages.

200 pages divided by 3 pages/ day meant that I could write my dissertation in 67 days. If I worked five days/ week, I could finish my dissertation in 14 weeks. My deadline was 16 weeks away. That was tight but doable. My plan included weekends off, which meant that if I got sick or hit a dead end, I had a bit of leeway.

Once I had a plan that I was confident was doable, my writing problems melted away. I just followed my plan.

On every weekday I drank coffee, went to the office, edited yesterday’s three pages and wrote that day’s three pages. Some days I was done by noon and some days it took me until midnight, but when my three pages were written, I could go home and relax, knowing that I was on target with my plan. Writing became fun because it no longer seemed like I was working on an impossible task.

From dissertations to dogs

Spring is here, and it is time to set summer training goals. This year I would like to earn tracking and obedience titles in Schutzhund. Here’s the trouble, those titles feel like my dissertation—so freakishly big and intimidating as to be paralyzing.

I need the equivalent of my three pages a day but for dog training. In short, I need a plan.

Here’s how the plan-making will work:

  1. Make a list what Milo and I need to do to have a good shot at these titles.
  2. See if that list is manageable as part of a happy life for both of us. My work is more demanding now than it has ever been before, and if all goes well, a puppy will be joining our pack in the late summer so I might need to back off a bit.
  3. If the list is not manageable then I’ll revise our desired outcomes.
  4. If the list is manageable, turn it into a plan.
  5. Execute the plan.

In addition to relieving performance pressure, there is another benefit arising from having a plan: Success means carrying out the plan, not getting the title. What if the day of the trial Milo gets up and eats a bee, or I get sick? Or we have a bad day? If the goal is following the plan rather than achieving the outcome, then success is something that I have more control over.

I always roll my eyes when I hear someone say, ‘it’s all about the journey.’ But, with Milo it is. He’s not interested in getting titles; he’s interested in what we do together every day. Focusing on the plan lets me concentrate on his happiness and well-being, and it makes the journey less stressful and more fun for us both.

Stay tuned for a draft plan.