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January 03, 2018

The Art of Goal Setting with Lauren Fleshman

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Life's better with a goal.

Not just because they stick up like a telephone pole on the horizon, but also because they help us envision our lives as part of something bigger... the bigger picture of who we are, who we want to become.

Enter the Believe Journal. First published by you and Ro (Roisin McGettigan-Dumas) about five years ago, it provides one of the best frameworks I've found - for both inspiring running goals, and tracking them along the way.

In celebration of its role in so many of our lives, I wanted to check in with Lauren, and ask her some deeper questions on each point from one of my favorite pages, "Supercharge Your Chance of Success" - p. 20


1. Set process goals, not outcome goals. "This keeps your goals in a realm where you can dictate the commitment you make and the effort you put in. Goals focused on a particular outcome will potentially put you up against other athletes, weather conditions, or other details that are out of your hands.”

Sally: This seems like a tough one! How does one follow this and also chase something like a Boston, or an Olympic Trials qualifier? Any tips for runners who have those very concrete goals -- to seek those outcomes without making it all about a number or time?

Lauren: Quantitative goals are awesome! Chasing times can be super motivating and rewarding, and it’s the way many people get hooked on the sport! And best of all, chasing times is something that falls pretty firmly in the category of “mostly in your control.” However, “qualify for Boston” is an outcome goal closely associated with time, and as we’ve all seen, people can “hit the time” but not get in due to the goalposts getting moved based on qualifier volume. If “Qualify for Boston” is your goal, accompany it with a time goal so that you are anchored to something in your control. You can then break that time goal down into digestible parts such as pace you need to be able to sustain, etc. Now you are anchored in the present.

Having chased a lot of times in my career, I can also speak from experience that the best way to screw yourself is to be thinking about the end time too much. Going for a stretch goal requires focus all the way from A to B. The end time should feel exciting to you (if it doesn’t, it’s probably too easy or unrealistic), but assuming it is exciting, once you’ve made eye contact with it, dig into the now: the pace per mile; the mindset you set out for yourself for key parts of the race. Those are the process goals that will set you up for success.

My final hack for any goal comes from my college coach, Vin “Put Yourself in the Position to” Lananna. In college, points matter, so we all had outcome goals. We had the goal to be NCAA Champions as a team in Cross Country. I had the goal to be top 10. But all of these goals depend on the cooperation of my competitors. To be top 10, I have to run to my potential (I have control over that), AND no more than 9 people are allowed to have better days than me or be more talented than me (something I have no control over). So Coach Lananna taught us to simply change the goal of “finish top 10” to “put myself in a position to finish top 10.” He always said, “Put yourself in a position to ______, so that if the window of opportunity opens you can jump through it.” This helped us focus on the controllables, and understand that any outcome goal is a mixture of grit and good fortune. Athletes that didn’t embrace this tended to underperform. Overly attached to their outcome goal, they were likely to prematurely judge their performance, to project failure, to get in a negative headspace and wither if too many strong athletes were still in the hunt for their coveted place. They would often fall apart and finish far worse than their capacity. They were likely to finish thinking “Damn, I got so attached to that one goal that I failed at the simple task of doing my best with what I’ve got on the day.” Not only is that a crappy feeling, but it is a squandered opportunity.

2. You can have it all, but not all at the same time! "Decide what goals are most important to you. Choose which goals you will focus on and when. Leaning in one direction means pulling away from something else, even for a little while. Saying yes to your goals could also mean saying no to other plans. Drop the should and the guilt.”

Sally: I have always found this to be a tough one, especially for women. We're often raised to be helpers, connectors, home-makers... not just in the sense of domestic duties, but being the emotional glue in families. What are your tips for setting boundaries, or saying no, without feeling like a jerk?

Lauren: First it starts with having a realistic grip on your human responsibilities while goal setting. The goals have to be congruent with your lifestyle and responsibilities. OR you have to change the lifestyle and responsibilities to accommodate the goals. Those are your choices. If there is a goal that is really exciting and invigorating for you that isn’t feasible given the current division of home and/or child related tasks in your home, it’s time to renegotiate the division of labor with your partner for a period of time, or enlist outside help. When it comes to the emotional labor in families, research shows women take on the vast majority of this. Going after a personal goal is going to require a little more emotional space for yourself to avoid getting tapped out. It’s not fair for mom’s goals to be the first to get overrun by imminent family needs all the time. Having a personal goal can be a great catalyst to reclaim some of your time and space by opening the door for a conversation with your family. Tell your family what your goal is, why it is important to you, and what it will require. Tell them you need their help to achieve it. Work with them to figure out what changes are needed and for how long. Have some ideas for what they can do specifically, for example, “kids, your dad/mom/caregiver is going to be managing the morning routine the next three months while I use the mornings to train for my half marathon goal. You can help me by being good listeners for them and leaving the house clean when you leave for school so I can make it to work on time with my compressed schedule.” Having a partner on board is everything. Do not be afraid to negotiate for more space in your life to chase goals. You deserve to have something for yourself. And the research is clear that kids benefit from seeing their parents go after a goal, especially when it models resilience building. Seeing you get up and get the job done, even when you don’t want to…seeing you deal with disappointment and overcome setbacks…it doesn’t have to be good for your kids or your partnership to be permissible, but if knowing that helps you take the leap and prioritize your needs, there you have it!

3. Embrace the power of negative thoughts. "Research shows that people who anticipate obstacles and proactively think of ways around them are more likely to achieve a goal than those who skip this step. Better to look ahead and prepare than to look back and regret.”

Sally: This one is interesting. I like to think of a trial lawyer preparing for their argument in court... working hard to anticipate the tough questions. Throughout your years of competing, can you tell us about an obstacle that came up - that you weren't expecting - and how you were able to overcome it? Also, how does one know when thinking about obstacles has gone too far, and might be contributing to anxiety?

Lauren: These are good questions! Even though I did my best to prepare for the typical problems that could arise, obstacles I wasn’t expecting happened now and then. The obstacles themselves aren’t usually what upends us, it’s our reaction to them. So what is important is to learn to prevent the body from going into a fight or flight response in the presence of the unexpected. I had a blanket mantra of “I can handle anything that is thrown at me. I am calm in a storm.” Did I believe that at first? Nope! But I told it to myself anyway, at practice, in life, at races. I knew that having that belief would benefit me greatly. I looked for evidence that it was true in my past, and in my present. I created a narrative around it. And then when the unexpected would happen, I could call on that mantra and drill right into it, not leaving space in my brain for anything else for 15-30 seconds while adjusting to the presence of the obstacle.

The first time I successfully employed this mantra in a race was at NCAA Cross Country sophomore year. We showed up to the course on race morning and it was -17 degrees with the windchill. I had been told it would be “cold” but as a Southern California native raised in the desert, I was incapable of imagining this kind of cold. I didn’t even know it was possible for cold to feel like a fire burning your skin, or for vomit to freeze to your face. In the starting corral, all I had under my warmup was my tank top and shorts. It was time to strip down. I watched as women from east coast schools began stripping down their sweats to show layers under their uniforms. It was too late to get anything from outside the corral. I looked around and saw other women like me who were severely under-dressed, bracing against the freezing wind, slathering vaseline on their legs. “Well, fuck it,” I remember thinking as I took off my sweats. “I can handle anything that is thrown at me. I am calm in a storm.” I refused to let it spike my heart rate and flood my bloodstream with excess adrenaline. I wanted to improve on my 5th place finish from the year before, but it was going to be tough in these conditions. I’d need to maintain every advantage I had left, and the most important one was my mental fortitude. I ran with calm resolve, so much so that I can’t even remember the way the cold felt during the race, but 17 years later I can still feel the way my skin burned and my eyes stung and my cheeks transformed into hardened clay both before the gun and after the finish. I ended up with a very strong 11th place finish out of 250 or so, which was outside my goal, but right up to my personal potential on the day. I felt like a badass bitch.

As for the last question about how to prevent obstacle identification from becoming anxiety producing…they are only anxiety producing if you’re identifying too many, dwelling on them, or if your goal is so aggressive and specific that literally everything has to go PERFECTLY for it to happen. An appropriate goal stretches you but still assumes some shit will go down in pursuit of it. You’ve got to leave room for it. Obstacles are coming along for the ride whether you want them to or not. Identify the most likely, make a quick plan for what you’ll do if they happen, and then move on. If you have a tendency to overthink things, the blanket mantra I described in my story is yours for the taking.

4. Keep goals visible. "Anything that keeps your goal at the forefront of your mind will help it remain a priority. Believe in yourself. Studies show that successful people have a vision and go for it!”

Sally: I know visual cues are something you believe in, and how they can ready the mind and body. What's been the most powerful visual cue you've used over the years? And when used, was it before or during competition? Is it a picture? Or a picture with words? A person? Do tell!

Lauren: My most powerful visual cue has been a lion. Specifically, a male adult lion with a flowing mane, powerful legs, and a silent pursuit of prey. I summon this image when the going is toughest about 2/3 into a race, when my body is on the verge of being overwhelmed by discomfort, when my mind starts looking for ways out, when I’m about to hit the fuck it switch and let the race run away from me. The image of this lion chasing prey is primal, organic, simple, and in the moment. It helps me be where my feet are.

5. Watch your words. "Declare what you want not what you don't want. "I want to feel fit and fast" is better than "I don't want to be fat and out of shape."

Sally: Yes and yes! Your quote "don't talk shit about your body" is such a powerful statement. So simple but so hard. Do you have any tips for self-love or self-affirmations that really stick? Do you have an example of one you've used on yourself? How do you stop the negativity train once it gets rolling?

Lauren: Yes! Unfollow that account! Unsubscribe to that magazine! Make a hard stop on ingesting any media of any kind that ties inherent value and worth to any kind of physical trait. Do a major housecleaning of what you consume, and have no mercy. And then make an effort to follow some accounts and read stories of people living boldly, bravely, and in full color with qualities we’ve been brainwashed to fear or feel shame around: addiction, larger bodies, chronic illness, scars, disabilities…you don’t have to share the experience personally in order for it to help transform the way you think. Doing that will lower the stakes for your negative self-talk, and make it easier to override. 

Any time I catch myself with negative self-talk, I don’t feel guilty about it, it’s normal, but I flip it around as fast as possible. It’s helpful for me to compare negative self-talk to running while looking over my shoulder. Sure, I can still run that way. I can still make forward progress, maybe even win. But it is so much more invigorating to run towards what I want, rather than away from what I don’t.

6. Share your goals. "Tell someone -- your coach, sister in sport, spouse -- anyone who will help keep you accountable!”

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Sally: This is so important. I also like to think of it as a barometer for relationships. If, when articulating a goal, the people around you dismiss it, that should be a red flag, right? Newly stated goals are fragile, in large part because they represent an idea of a future self. Not who we are today, but where we want to go. If that gets shot down, it's hard to take that next step. Have you ever had someone tell you they didn't believe, and if so, how did you overcome it?

Lauren: When you share your goal with someone, as far as I’m concerned there are only three acceptable responses. 1. Positive affirmation. 2. Helping point out the evidence for why it’s possible. 3. Awesome! How can I help?

The only exception to this are the people I go to in my life for honest feedback on the feasibility of a goal when I’m unsure and need calibrating. I don’t do this very often, because if you ask, you’re going to get an answer, and it might not be the answer you want! I’ve asked for feedback when what I really wanted was affirmation and that was a mistake! So now I only ask for opinions when I really genuinely need them. 

7. Reward yourself. "You might think this is frivolous, that the intrinsic reward by itself is enough, but your emotional brain wants you to feel good. A reward (or punishment, as preferred by some people) will keep you motivated to continuously raise your game.”

Sally: Hello. #flystyle. Lol, in seriousness, what's your favorite post-goal reward? Name one you did in the past, and also one you'd like to do in the future. 

Lauren: A deeply satisfying burger and a beer with friends, dancing, getting into a little trouble in the city of the race. That has always been my go-to. In the future, I don’t know! This whole racing without being a professional racer thing is going to be new and I haven’t had a chance to dig into my new running goals yet. But Friending, and spoiling myself a little is always on the menu. 

8. Make the time. "Carve out time in your day to work on your goal. By scheduling it, you'll be less likely to forget about it.”

Sally: I love this one. How many times have we seen that the run makes us better friends, family members, humans? The training makes us smarter, livelier, happier, and better able to contribute to all areas of life. And yet, so often we hang on to the notion that running is a selfish act. Help us with some of your beautiful language. What's a way we can talk about training and running that elevates it beyond the self?

Lauren: Running is a story that lives within the beautiful storm of a life, and each run is a chance to spend quality time with its heroine. Who wouldn’t want to do that?  


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