Running in place? Here are 14 ways to break free.

It's important to set big goals and keep moving towards them, but sometimes those goals are so far away that we can't see noticeable progress towards them. How can you break out of that 'running in place' feeling?

Illustration / John Roberge / Tallahassee Democrat / Newscom / File
Ever feel like you're running on a treadmill instead of making progress towards your destination? Try making shorter-term goals ('milestones'), talking to peers, visualizing your success, and 11 other ideas to help you get past that point.

When we set big, lofty goals for ourselves, it’s really easy to find ourselves at a plateau of sorts, where it feels like we’re spinning our wheels but not really heading upward towards our end target.

I’ll share two examples of this from my own life.

I’ve been working on a novel pretty consistently for the past three years. It’s basically the story of two married couples where the husband in one couple and the wife in another couple were in love much earlier in life but circumstances took them apart. It’s set in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I have been tossing around pieces of this for years in my mind and in Microsoft Word. I spend a lot of time doing background research to make sure the setting is right and so on. Some particular scenes from it are simply wonderful (I have an opening scene set on a rainy day that I just dearly love), but it is a very, very slow process figuring out how they all go together in a way that’s real to the characters. I’m simply at a plateau with this.

My wife and I are marching slowly towards paying off our home mortgage. We’re making our payments as big as we reasonably can, but it’s still painful to look at our account balances and see that the balance is falling ever so slowly. It’s a long, slow march without any strong sense of forward progress, no matter how hard we push.

It’s much like travelling toward a mountain far in the distance. We’re making progress, but the progress is so slow that we feel as though we’ve been running forever with nothing to show for it.

There are times when it’s tempting to just abandon the journey, to throw that novel-in-making in the trash, to stop focusing on paying off our mortgage and enjoy things now.

Here are fourteen things we do to keep going on our long journeys. Perhaps they’ll help you to keep going on your own journeys.

1. Take a breather.
If a long term goal is no longer a positive burden for you, take a step back from that goal for a short while and substitute it with a short term goal that can give you the taste of success fairly quickly. Then, return to your large goal with a fresh “I can do it” mindset.

I can put aside that novel for a few weeks to work on a short story. I can stop the overpayment of our mortgage for six months and save up for a future replacement car (which we may need in five or so years). These smaller goals are important, plus our focus on them gives us the ability to re-energize for that big goal that we’ve plateaued on.

2. Reaffirm the destination.
Once upon a time, you may have been supremely confident in your decision to chase a particular goal. Over time, though, our life priorities change, and a goal that seemed to hit the bullseye of where we thought we were going in life no longer hits that target. Spend some time asking yourself whether this big goal really takes you to a place that you want to go. If it does, visualize that destination that you want so much; if it doesn’t, rethink your directions.

Whenever I hit a writing block, I usually ask myself if I still know what I want the long piece I’m working on to be. If I feel like the destination is no longer in sight, I’m not afraid to put that work aside if I need to.

3. Set milestones.
Milestones are simply smaller goals that serve as intermediate steps between where you are now and your final destination. For example, if you have a $100,000 mortgage, you might have milestones at each $10,000 payoff level, giving you ten milestones to your overall goal.

A milestone of my book might be the drafting of a complete chapter or the connection of one significant element to another element. Setting such a milestone narrows my focus and keeps my eyes off of the large scope of the entire book.

4. Use a metric.
A big goal is awfully hard to reach if you don’t have a clear way of measuring your progress towards your goal. A good goal can be represented by a number by which you can track your progress towards that goal, reaffirming your forward progress.

I might use word count as a metric for a long piece of writing. I might simply use dollars and cents as a metric for paying off a debt or saving for a goal. Neither one is perfect (especially the word count), but it does enable me to constantly see that I am moving forward, even if it looks like the mountaintop is still very far off.

5. Mark progress only to your next milestone.
Combining the above two tips, focus yourself (and your metric) on only the race to the next milestone. This reduces an enormous goal to a manageable one, one that you can clearly track along that shortened journey.

For example, I might focus entirely on the completion of a single chapter of 6,000 words, or I might focus just on knocking $10,000 off of our mortgage. My goal is to reach that milestone, and that’s where I channel my energy.

6. Collaborate.
Seek out others who are shooting for the same goal – or similar goals – as you are. Twitter. Messageboards. Local meetings and groups. Facebook. Seek them out, listen to their advice and stories, and share your own concerns. It’s much easier to climb over a mountain when you’re not doing it all yourself.

This site is itself such a collaboration. Countless readers email me and comment with their ideas and thoughts, constantly encouraging good financial behavior and life choices.

7. Burst it.
Every goal can feel more real if you occasionally give it a “burst” instead of treating it like a never-ending slog. A “burst” simply means a short period of deeply concentrated effort towards a big goal, like a week focused on intense frugality and clearing out and selling of unwanted household items, with all proceeds going to a financial goal.

I use “bursts” all the time. About once a year, we have an ultra-frugal month where we buy nothing but the essentials, calculate how much we’ve saved because of it, and channel that extra money into some larger goal. I do the same thing with writing, having participated in events like National Novel Writing Month, which force me into “burst writing” scenarios.

8. Use visual reminders of your destination.
This is one technique I’ve used for personal finance and professional success for a long time. I simply clip and use pictures that personify the goal I have in mind – and I put them everywhere. They become a constant visual reminder of where I want to go. I change the pictures regularly so that they remain fresh and in my face.

For example, I keep a picture of my children wrapped around my credit cards. It keeps me focused on my family-oriented goals and reminds me that the money I spend needlessly takes away from those goals. For a long while, I kept the first paragraph of a novel I was working on taped to the bottom of my rear view mirror in my old truck, causing me to think about it whenever I drove.

9. Use a visualization of your metric.
If you have a numerical metric for your goal, you really have three numbers: where you started, where you want to go, and where you’re at now. Those three numbers can make up a really valuable visual reminder – a “thermometer” that fills up as you make more progress towards your goal.

I’ve long used one for my own writing purposes, mostly in an effort to mark my word count and motivate myself to try to contribute to the book regularly. We also have one that represents progress on our home mortgage.

10. Use microrewards.
If you’ve got a series of milestones, there’s no reason not to reward yourself in some reasonable way for reaching those milestones. Use those milestones as a pledge – if I accomplish X, I get to do Y.

For example, whenever we reach a big number on our mortgage countdown, we usually “celebrate” by replacing or updating something that needs replacing in our home. For example, our dishwasher really needs replacing (did you know that a three year old shouldn’t belly flop on the open door of your dishwasher?), so we’ve decided that we’ll replace it when we reach our next mortgage milestone. You can use any perk you like, as long as it’s reasonable and in line with your overall goal.

11. Make yourself publicly accountable – and share your successes.
I think Facebook can be a brilliant place for this. You have a group of people – your friends – that care about you and want to see you succeed. What better environment to put yourself out there, challenge yourself, and be able to celebrate your victories with people that matter?

Whenever I take on a new goal, I often share it on Facebook (and sometimes on Twitter, too). This way, the people I care about most are aware of my goals and my progress, too. Sometimes, they’ll ask about my progress and keep me moving forward, whether I want to or not.

12. Make it competitive.
Most of us have a competitive streak inside of us. We want to win. Use that to your advantage and challenge others around you in a competition that pushes you towards your big goal. Who can lose the most weight this month? Who can log the most miles walked? Who can have the most profitable yard sale? Who can make the largest multiple of a mortgage payment this month? There are lots of possibilities!

My wife and I love to compete with each other, so we’ll sometimes use that as a tool for individual success. Weight loss comes to mind, as does saving money. Our competitive natures and desire to “top” the other one can push us onward to great success.

13. Read inspirational stories.
Sometimes, simply reading the stories of others that have travelled down this road and have found success can be enough to keep you going. There are many inspirational stories out there for almost every journey a person takes, from debt recovery and athletic training to weight loss and cancer survival.

I often just read blogs of people who are going on the same path I am for inspiration. For me, simply knowing that other people are struggling with the same problems I am is a real boost, even if they don’t have the same conclusions or the same successes or the same setbacks that I do. We’re all in this together, after all.

14. Eliminate counterproductive temptations.
Life is full of temptation, and many of them are counterproductive to the things we want most. We want to lose weight, but there’s a pint of Guinness out there or a chocolate bar in the cupboard. We want to save money, but there’s a book we really, really want. Take steps to eliminate such temptations. Don’t read blogs, websites, books, or magazines that tempt you with such things. Clean out your cupboards and your fridge and don’t bring new temptations into your house. Turn off the television – or at least avoid advertising-laden programming.

The easier it is to give into your temptations, the easier it is to fall behind in your goals and make that slog seem even longer. My biggest temptation is the ease with which I can spend in certain situations. I solve that by often just leaving all of my credit cards at home and just keeping a small amount of cash in my wallet.

Good luck on your long-term goals!

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