Recently I told a friend that I was training for a marathon.

The first thing he said was, “Great! Do you have a target in mind?”

I didn’t, but I did estimate it would take 5-6 hours given my current pace of the run-and-walk training I was doing.

“You should aim for 5 hours,” he said, “Otherwise there’s no point doing it. Oh, and make sure you don’t walk.”

I didn’t think too much about the conversation after that because I hadn’t thought that far, but I began to wonder if maybe I wasn’t training hard enough.

It’s not what we think

But while reading The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer, I realised that the things my friend said were examples of the kind of unproductive expectations we create for ourselves when we do something new.

In fact the book made it clear in the first few pages that:

  1. Your goal is to finish, nothing else.
  2. Do not set a target time.
  3. It is OK to walk.

Wow. I love it when experienced people who have done what we want to do (and taught others!) point out how to actually do things, usually with ideas that run counter to what we would naturally think.

The authors’ reasoning was this: finishing a marathon is an achievement in itself, and something we should enjoy.

If we get over-enthusiastic and pile on too many goals we run the risk of:

    1. pushing too hard initially and not finishing at all because of injury/pain, or
    2. feeling like we failed because we walked, or because we didn’t meet our target time.

Isn’t that ridiculous?

Everyone deserves to celebrate the first time they finish a marathon!

Having standards and doing new things

I get why my friend said what he did, because I’ve thought like that countless times about other goals.

If you’re the kind of person who has standards, you don’t just want to do something, you want to do it well, or awesome even. Yup, I’ve been called “perfectionist” more than once.

But that only gets in the way of achieving the original goal in the first place.

It’s like wanting to play like a concert pianist when we barely dare to play for our family.

The most damaging part is that it destroys us psychologically.

It’s “all or nothing” thinking that only creates more fear and a higher barrier to taking action; and even if we do get started, trying to reach so far ahead only makes the process so painful that we increase the chance that we’ll quit.

In fact I used to want to push so hard when running that I got pains and stitches all the time, and I got so tense before a run that the anxiety would actually cause discomfort right from the start!

It’s good to have intentions of doing things well, but don’t let that get in the way of doing things one step at a time.

Charlie Brown does one push-up

How to start something.

Baby steps

The alternative? Take the smallest step possible first, then work from there.

I might have set out wanting to do a marathon, but in my mind that’s far, far away. I only aim to finish the next run in my training plan. If I can do that, then I get to do the next run, then the next, then the one after that. Hopefully I string together enough runs to get there.

The same is true for anything else we want to do.

Want to change your diet? See if you can follow it for a week, or change one meal every day for a few days.

Want to start writing? Don’t worry about having the most awesome blog in the world with the best writing and best design. Start writing something – anything – every day. Then start writing more of what you want to write eventually, and then try to post something.

I realised that when I stopped trying to do everything at once it was easier for me to make progress.

So have a look at your goals, and see if you’re making it more difficult than it has to be. You might just be.