Goal Setting in the Now

In the Winter of 1999, my friend Tim asked if I wanted to ride the STP (Seattle to Portland). I had not ridden a bicycle since 1979 when I lived in Switzerland. In the seconds between the invitation to ride 206 miles in one day on a taco shell that masked as a bicycle seat, and my answer, I visualized a warm, sunny day in June, holding deep, enjoyable conversations with Tim, and riding flat terrain for many hours on a Saturday. I saw myself crossing the finish line as part of only a small percentage of total riders with hands raised, celebrating an amazing feat.

At this moment, I visualized the end result, the goal. After seeing my glory and feeling the dopamine rush of completing one of the best-known regional cycling events, I responded with a firm, “that sounds fun.” In the same moment, Tim saw similar visions; talking to his bud for hours on end, having his friend’s undivided attention, telling stories, and relishing in the bonding experience. The words, “that sounds fun” were filtered into, “yes I will.”

What both parties actually did, was goal setting in the future based on a result. In three separate studies involving 262 students, psychologists observed the impact of visualization on taking exams. The students were divided into Group A and Group B. Group A students were told to visualize the outcome (getting an A on the exam) and Group B was asked to visualize the process needed to achieve the outcome of getting an A on the exam.

The researchers discovered that the students who visualized the process of getting an A on their exam performed better across the board. They studied earlier, more frequently, and earned higher grades than those who only visualized on the outcome.

People tend to be overly optimistic about what they can accomplish and therefore fail to think through the processes. This is called “planning fallacy.” Visualizing the process is breaking down a big goal, riding the STP, into component steps needed to achieve it. By breaking down each step along the process, I probably would have answered Tim differently. In my mind’s eye, I saw the glory of starting in the early morning somewhere in Seattle and finishing later that afternoon in downtown Portland. The in-between time was pictured as pleasant conversations, on a sunny day with mild temperatures, beautiful scenery, and flat terrain. 

I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t even own a bike. The only accurate visualizations about riding the STP were starting and finishing. I wasn’t out of shape in December 1999, but I wasn’t in cycling shape. My tush had no idea of what was about to happen.

The reality of the experience was dramatic and the process was arduous. Both Tim and I took the ride and the process lightly until we spoke with experienced riders and the sheer weight of the experience scared us into what is called, “Goal Setting to the Now.”

After spending, what felt like an exorbitant amount of money on the cheapest bike in the shop and gearing up (helmet, shoes, hand gloves, pedals, aero bars, Lycra pants, speed and cadence computer, butt butter, tire repair kits, mini tool bag, sunglasses, and the requisite 3rd eye), Tim and I commenced our training regimen. The first step was to get our legs and tushes into shape. 

On our maiden voyage, we climbed what seemed like a monstrous hill not far from Tim’s house. Partway up, we both starting walking, gassed, and virtually out of breath. On our final training ride before the big event, we raced up that hill. We named the hill, Widow Maker because we both felt like we were going to die halfway up on our first ride.

Looking back at our first of 15 cycling seasons together, we implemented three important steps.

Step 1: we had ONE Thing (priority) that we planned on. We developed the identity that we were cyclists and cyclists ride 3 or more times per week. We rode rain or shine. Cold or hot.

Step 2: We set goals. Each ride was a distance or time goal. Each Saturday was a longer distance/time goal. 

Step 3: we wrote down and measured our training process, which allowed us to see our growth. In order to ride 206 miles in one day, we had to have at least one century under our belts (100 miler). We failed on our first attempt (another story). After we finally rode 100 miles in a day, our confidence was sky-high. We were ready.

Learning to visualize the process puts the advantage of seeing the system play itself out. A well-designed system always produces what it’s designed to produce. Always trust the system over seeking results. 

The actual results did not resemble our initial imagined thoughts. On our final training ride, Tim crashed and broke his collar bone. I had a swollen knee and ended up riding with a novice without any partner support. The terrain was not flat, it was in the 90s and the sun sucked the energy out of my body like an industrial shop vac. The pleasant mid-Summer ride was a grueling 16-hour, gut-wrenching ride of mind over matter.

I didn’t cross the finish line with arms raised to the cheers of hundreds of onlookers. There were hundreds cheering the finishers, but I crossed the finish line on my last piece of energy, my head down, one leg barely working, and fell to the ground nauseated and unable to pedal another mile. I had no appetite and didn’t feel like socializing. 

Then why did I ride another dozen or so STP’s? Because of the process. Training for an STP is the reward. Measuring my progress, sharing it with my friends, introducing cycling to young skulls full of mush, and riding thousands of miles over mountains and across the countryside of Washington was amazing. Once I rode over the Blue Mountains in Idaho on my way down to a conference in Utah, just because.

Too often we glory in the end result, like getting a college degree. However, when it all comes down to it, I’ve learned that the process of learning, growing, and practicing is the real reward.

Dr H