Goal Orientation: Moving in the Direction of your Pole Star

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
7 min read

I used to set audacious goals and visualize my life once I successfully achieved my goals. Then I would sit back and wait for inspiration to impel me towards them. I waited a long time.

I still set audacious goal but now I chunk them down into bite size pieces. These chunks are doable and I can measure my progress. I don’t drift waiting for inspiration to strike.

Bite Size

It’s easier to schedule and complete a series of micro tasks than just make a big goal with now plan on how to achieve it. Every day is a series of cascading micro decisions.

Being mindful and conscious about our micro decisions is how we influence our behavior and develop habits that make behavior take less effort. Don’t wait for inspiration.

“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”

― Octavia Butler

This is the basis of behavior modification. This is actionable self-help.

Let me illustrate this concept with an example of how to hack weight loss by thinking about it as a series of tiny decisions.

The power of 1 M&M

Look after the ounces and the pounds will take care of themselves.

That is a phrase from backpacking. Backpackers need to be really careful about what they take along and how much it weighs because all the little extra things add up and pretty soon your lugging an impossibly heavy load.

You minimize the weight of your pack by scrutinizing every item and making disciplined decisions about everything you put into it. You need to be a ruthless Marie Kondo.

This is similar to the strategy of the great football coach Bill Walsh explained in his book The Score Takes Care of Itself. Focus on the process, which produces results, and not on results.

Look After The Ounces: LATO

I have found the same approach is helpful in controlling my body weight. Exercise is important to burn some calories and diet is important to get proper nutrition. But the most important aspect is simply the amount of calories ingested.

I have come to understand this as I get older and don’t bounce back as easily from undisciplined behavior. I end up paying a high price for what I convince myself in the moment are slight lapses. I binge, I pay.

Fitness coaches understand this. Six-pack abs are made in the kitchen not in the gym.

Exercising is not a way to lose weight. You can’t eat extra and rationalize it by working out harder. A thousand calorie workout takes an hour and a half of hard-ass work.

Eat a Big Mac with a medium order of fries and a medium soda and your total calorie intake is 1,080 calories. There are 510 calories in a Venti Starbucks Caramel Frappuccino.

You can’t do enough exercise to burn these things off. It’s much easier to just forgo them in the first place.

I find it interesting that some of the most beneficial behavior is in the not doing. And the not doing is often more difficult than doing. I find it easier to psych myself up and go for a run than to avoid that piece of cake. I would think I could tap my inherent laziness to help me not do stuff I know is bad for me. But alas, I am only lazy when it comes to doing things that are in my best interest.

Mindfulness Math

It’s the simple calculus of calories in and calories expended. Any additional calories that you don’t immediately metabolize get stored as fat. We humans are incredibly efficient fat storage machines. Its part of our evolutionary heritage and it served us well for survival back when a cave was considered luxury.

Now, we of the developed world, suffer from the high-class problem of having plenty to eat. But our brains still think we have to stock up for a trek across a barren desert.

We also must fend off the constant attack of sophisticated marketers seducing us with caloric bombs.

We have the tendency to indulge and over consume. This is not good behavior. It’s insidious, tempting and seductive. And we are weak. We need simple and direct cues to combat caloric creep and weight gain.

Giving into small urges add up. They are cumulative. They are the root cause of incremental weight gains. A pound a year is ten pounds in a decade. Two pounds a year is twenty pounds in a decade. It’s easy to find ourselves at age thirty or forty, ten or twenty pounds over our ideal weight.

And because it happens slowly over time, we adjust our self-image. We are like the proverbial frog slow boiled as the water temperature rises.

That happened to me and I ended up lugging around an extra forty pounds.


Here is a simple idea that has helped me to be more vigilant in the face of seemingly small temptations. I say seemingly small because they loom large in the moment and we need all the tools of vigilance to deny them.

This nudge technique is rational and based on the earlier mentioned math of calories in, and calories expended, and the calories not burned being stored as fat.

A pound is equal to 3500 calories. To make the math easy lets round a year to 350 days. That means that in order to gain a pound a year you only need to consume a surplus of ten calories a day. Ten. That is a very small amount of food. It is equivalent to 1 peanut M&M. One.

Its like the smallest bit of food you can think of and if you can forgo that one extra little thing, you can keep control of your weight. It’s totally doable and a great place to start. Practicing with these effective micro decisions helps build our decision making muscles for tackling more disciplined behavior.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

- Lao Tzu Chapter 64 of the Tao Te Ching

If you keep that in mind as you are eating or snacking and just discipline yourself to have one incremental piece less, you can adjust the equation and combat weight creep. This is not a big challenging decision to feel hungry and starving. It is just a small tweak, if you are mindful.

This is a behavior modification. Check out the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein for more on the subject.

Their research is part of a rapidly developing field called Behavioral Economics. Behavioral Economics is the study of why we do what we do when it comes to decision-making.

So now you know how to lose weight. It is much easier to stick to small changes by being mindful and aware than trying to stick with a strict diet or starve yourself.

Big challenges and audacious goals that seem daunting, overwhelming, and impossible can be accomplished gradually, by consistently taking on a little at a time.

Bishop Desmond Tutu commenting on the inertia surrounding change said,

“there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.”

Begin ASAP by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and soon you will be accomplishing what at first seemed impossible.

Lag Time

When doing this incremental approach you don’t see changes right away. They take time and you have to have patience and faith in the process. There is a lag time from when you initially start making the changes before you see significant results. But the results will come and they will be far more sustainable. Most people who go on a crash diet go right back to their former weight or actually put on more weight because they binge afterward. There is pent up desire that gets unleashed.

It’s the same with money management and personal finance. Like the old proverb says: “Take care of the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.”

There will be a lag time as your debts diminish and your savings build up. With a long-term plan in place you will know where you are going and if you are on track. Set up intermediate goals and milestones along the way to keep it meaningful and compelling. And make sure you celebrate each one that you accomplish.

Here is an interesting story about the richest man of his time, John D. Rockefeller, and his focus on detail for saving and cost cutting:

“Rockefeller was relentless in ferreting out ways to cut costs. During an inspection tour of a Standard Oil plant in New York City, for instance, he observed a machine that soldered the lids on five-gallon cans of kerosene destined for export. Upon learning that each lid was sealed with 40 drops of solder, he asked, “Have you ever tried 38?” It turned out that when 38 drops were applied, a small percentage of the cans leaked. None leaked with 39, though. “‘That one drop of solder’, said Rockefeller,…’ saved $2,500 the first year; but the export business kept on increasing after that and doubled, quadrupled–became immensely greater than it was then; and the saving has gone steadily along, one drop on each can, and has amounted since to many hundreds of thousands of dollars”‘

This story comes from Ron Chernow’s biography of Rockefeller 1998, pp. 180–81.

Take care of the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves. We should strive to adopt a similar mindset when scrutinizing our spending.

Focus on making small tweaks that are easy to adopt and repeat, instead of trying to make radical changes in our behavior that are doomed to fail. When they fail we berate ourselves and end up thinking we can’t do it.

We want to be conscious not to over-extend to a bridge too far. Its too important make it sustainable if our effort is in pursuit of a well-meaning goal. Especially if we are in pursuit of important goals we don’t want to risk doing too much too soon.

Little strokes fell great oaks.

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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