As a new year begins many of us will be setting goals for the new year and making a list of things we want to do, or to stop doing. Related to this is the common joke about how long the average new year's resolution lasts, which is used ad nauseam to the point of no longer being funny.
Today during Elder's Quorum we had a lesson about goals and setting realistic goals. As I was sitting there I remembered what I had learned about setting goals on my mission. One of the things that we did every week was to sit down as a companionship and set goals for the coming week. At that time our mission president asked us to keep track of all the work and teaching that we did. This meant keeping track of the the number of charlas (discussions) taught, the number of hours we worked, the number of baptismal commitments that we extended, the number of baptismal commitments accepted, the number of people progressing towards baptism subdivided into potential priesthood holders and everyone else and the number of people baptized and confirmed. Although we were not required to have a minimum number of any of those things (except for the total hours worked) we were frequently encouraged to increase the number of charlas taught, and the number of people we were teaching. So while there was not a minimum standard set by the mission president we were all encouraged as a companionship to look at what we were doing and try to find ways to increase the number of charlas, commitments and people taught. That is, it was left up to us to set a goal and to obtain it.
With my first companion we had a great time and I loved working with him, but every week when we set our goals for the coming week it went something like this:
Comp: "We have 10 appointments this week, but some of them will fadge on us, so I expect us to have 5 appointments actually work." [The word "fadge" is not a typo. It is a transliteration of a slang word used only by Castilian speaking Mormon missionaries. Technically it should be spelled "fall-ed" but it is pronounced "fadged" or "fashed" or "fadshed". It comes from the Spanish word "fallar" which literally means "to fail" or "to mess up" and when we had an appointment that didn't work out (i.e. the person wasn't home) we would say that the person "nos falló" or they fell through on us, or they failed us. In Argentina the double L is pronounced with a strong "sh" sound, thus the common phrase "nos falló" when used by native English speakers would become slang "they fadged us". Anyway back to the story...]
Comp: "We have 10 appointments this week, but some of them will fadge on us, so I expect us to have 5 appointments actually work."
Me: "OK, we'll put our goal down as 5 charla unos (first discussions)."
Comp: "Well we have to try to keep our goals up and if we don't then we will never have something to aim for. So let's put down 10 charlas as our goal for the week."
Me: "Well we only taught 4 charlas this week. A lot of people fadged us this week. Our goal was to get 10."
Comp: "Well let's try harder this week. We have 10 appointments, so let's put our goal as 12 charlas."
Me: "We we only taught 3 charlas this week. Perhaps we should lower our goal."
Comp: "Well you heard what Prez [The mission President] said in the last conference, and the AP's [Assistant to the President] said that we need to focus on increasing the number of charlas that we teach and what better way than to set a high goal."
Comp: "Well this week was really bad, everyone fadged us, we only got 2 charlas..."
Me: "Three actually."
Comp: "That one doesn't count....Well what should our goal be for the next week?"
And thus it went on for most of my mission. It was not just my first companion that this happened with. It happened with most of my companions. We would have our weekly companionship meetings and we would set our goals for the coming week, but invariably we would set goals that we would never achieve. For most of my companions this was OK because for them the point of a goal was to set something impossibly high because, as their reasoning went, the purpose was not to achieve the goal, but to set it high enough that it would drive us to do better than we normally would have. But for some of my other companions, the only reason why the goal was set so high was because it was expected of us to set a high goal, and then we would do whatever we saw fit and completely ignore our goals that we had set. But the practical effect was that our goals would be treated as meaningless. There was no point because our goals moved up and down independent of how much work we actually expected to do.
Part of the problem was that we did not want to admit defeat on some points and concede that most of our appointments would fall through on us. We wanted to maintain at least the appearance of an optimistic outlook. We wanted most of the people to actually want to listen to us. But we didn't want to be honest and admit that it just wasn't true.
As I thought about this throughout my mission I slowly came to the conclusion that the only way I could make our companionship goals useful was to be honest about it and to lower my expectations. I reasoned that it is better to set an impossibly low goal and actually achieve it than it was to set a high "motivational" goal and not achieve it. The reason for this was the over time if our goals were never achieved then no matter how high (or moderately) they were set they became meaningless and were promptly ignored. It did not matter how motivated we were when we set the goal, if we consistently failed to achieve it then we consistently ignored it as irrelevant. But because of the seriousness of what we were doing we felt that it was not possible to treat our goal setting lightly or humorously, even with my companions who also saw the futility of the goal setting, we still took the setting of the impossible goals as seriously as we could.
So at some point during my mission I decided to try a new tactic, I would set low, achievable goals. Rather than using the standard method of calculating what should be our goal for charlas (which was generally to take the number of appointments set for the week and then add a random number of between 1 and 5, sometimes more, to the number of appointments we already had set and that set the goal for the next week). Instead I would take the number of charlas we had already set up and then divide that number by two to account for those that would fadge us and then subtract an additional one or two from that number to get my goal for the week. When I first proposed this idea, my companion, who was a big believer in setting impossible goals in order to motive us, said I was crazy and said that I was just trying to be lazy. I tried to explain to him my reasoning and he still insisted that I was trying to justify being lazy, so he went ahead and set his own goal of somewhere between 12-15 charlas for the coming week. I set a goal of 4.
The next week we looked back at what we had actually accomplished, and through no fault of our own we had managed to have a total of 4 charlas that week. It was the first time in my mission that I had managed to achieve the goal that I had set. I pointed this out to my companion when we were talking about our goals for the coming week, and he still insisted that I was just trying to be lazy. So again he set a goal of 14 or 15 charlas for the week. I set a goal of 5. We got 3.
After that I really stopped using the goals and focused more on the number of people I was teaching rather than the number of people I thought I should be teaching. The total number of charlas, and I must say the quality of the charlas, I was teaching went up after that. Things got better after that. While I had some companions who insisted that we go through the whole charade of making up an impossible goal that we would never keep, I learned to ignore the impossible and to focus on the possible. I learned how to make more realistic goals that weren't self-defeating and detrimental to my motivation.
While there is something to be said for setting high standards and for using goals to stretch us, I found that in order for that to work we must achieve some minimum level first because otherwise the goals that are meant to stretch and motivate us end up demotivating us and preventing us from being challenged to achieve at a higher level. It's a delicate balancing act, but we must keep in mind that when we set goals we should set them so that they can be achieved every now and then rather than always chasing The Impossible Dream.