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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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January 10, 2017

Alternative Goal Setting: How Free Spirits and Slow-Burners Can Achieve Their Health Visions

By Mark Sisson
37 Comments

Inline_Alternative_Goal_SettingI’m a type A personality, so setting and attaining goals comes naturally to me. I desire a thing, determine the steps necessary to attain it, and follow through. It’s how I work best. Thanks to some timely comments from my decidedly un-type-A wife, Carrie, I’ve realized something: much of my advice is unwittingly geared toward people with similar inclinations.

But that doesn’t describe everyone. What about the rest of you? What about the slow burners and dreamers? The free spirits? When it comes to achieving a vision, what characterizes and organizes your process from desire to attainment?

Conventional wisdom tells us significant changes require that we establish and adhere to a list of preset action items—all in a concrete trajectory toward success. The problem is, this falls flat with some people. They might adhere for a while but lose interest because being hemmed in doesn’t fit their lifestyle or their personality. They don’t lack motivation. Some of us are simply more exploratory and squirrel-ly by nature.

Chalk it up to the “perceiving” (or an intuitive perceiving) on the Myers-Briggs or whatever you will, but it’s different strokes for different folks. Aside from the basic physiological nuts and bolts, hominids can be frustratingly (and beautifully) variable that way. While some people just don’t want to get on the stick with their goals, others are motivated but operate without the stick entirely. Clearly, we’re not dealing in productivity metaphors in quite the same way.

Most people’s answer would be to get more disciplined, more specific, more nailed down—to tame those free spirit instincts and stop all the nonsense, to push along those ambling slow burners already.

That doesn’t always work. The regular advice—do this, make a list, map your future, aim for a goal off in the distance—doesn’t work for a large subset of the population. Yet, by and large, that’s what’s available.

As a coach, husband, business owner, and father, I’ve learned how futile it is to expect someone to work against their own instincts. You can ask them to journal, to write their 5-year plan, to adhere to this or that daily regimen. They might even acknowledge your method’s validity on an intellectual level—but if it doesn’t resonate with their nature, it’s not going to stick. And that’s when an outside party is cajoling them. Imagine the futility when the dreamers are trying to cajole themselves into action. It’s hard to engage someone when you expect them to work entirely outside that person’s dominant instincts.

Interestingly, I’ve found that the malleability of the Primal Blueprint tends to attract a lot of folks with this disposition: big picture people, highly independent thinkers, intuitive types, abstract dreamers—people for whom other health approaches never felt right.

And while their path might not look like the most efficient, they’re just as capable of reaching their health goals—likely with a little extra time and creativity. The ultimate purpose for any of us isn’t perfection after all, but claiming our most enjoyable and energetic lives. There’s more than one way to arrive at that vision.

But what does the actual process end up looking like? How does a slow burner get enough momentum to keep going? How does a free spirit put positive changes into place? How do they progress without a tight plan?

Well, it looks looser, more organic. It’s slower. Maybe it meanders a bit along the way. And maybe it looks freer and even a little more fun. There’s more space most days, more choice. This means there’s more room for “error,” but errors we can learn from.

As I’ve observed in the freest spirit I know—my wife, Carrie—these folks are often more comfortable “being” with a chosen intention than “doing” a set action.

Maybe running five kilometers doesn’t appeal as an objective today, but asking yourself “How do I feel like moving today?” does. They might draw on an informal list of options for the day, rather than a single action item that absolutely must be completed or else. When there’s an intent and a general window(s) of time to do it in, those spirited types might be just as likely to run the duration as anyone—or hit a yoga class, or swim at the Y, or ask a friend to go on a bike ride.

Some of us prefer to be with an intent. Others of us need to be with a directive. As long as we approach either with integrity, the end result will be essentially the same.

To a type A like me, “being” in an intention sounds like standing in the midst of absolute nothingness. But for others, it feels spacious, inviting, and empowering. “How do I want to be with my physical strength today?” For the free in spirit, this can be the most inspiring question ever.

To be sure, the clarity of the intention matters. Bringing a solid intention but leaving a certain margin of choice for the inclination of the moment maintains an all-important sense of freedom. As a result, for these folks, it feels more rooted and doable in the moment.

The ongoing question becomes then, “Where do my intent and interest connect right now?” 

Let me take a stab at offering some suggestions for those who identify as free spirits, slow burners (and any other variety of naturally hard-to-nail-down). These are my observations, informed by life and a little coaching strategy. And let me know what you think.

Don’t make specific goals at all. Build systems instead.

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame popularized this concept. When he started blogging, he didn’t have a goal in mind. There was no end in sight. He was simply blogging to practice his writing because better writing is a helpful skill. As it turns out, he’s since published successful books, and continues to use blogging as a system for honing his craft, generating new ideas, and experimenting with different narrative voices.

A systems approach to weight loss would mean that instead of focusing on a goal like losing however many pounds/inches/belt notches, you’d design the system of appealing choices that all naturally support a healthier body composition. (Hmm…sounds a little familiar.)

Apply selective structure.

Free spirits obviously exist in the world, raise families, hold jobs, pay their bills. Life gets done. And it likely involves a certain amount of scheduling and routine. No one get through life without some structure.

Consider what areas or choices related to your health vision you most want freedom in and where you’d be willing to design some degree of regimen. Maybe you do better deciding on meals in the moment but see the need to routinize a block of time for fitness. There’s still space for choice, but you’re not needing to corral everything as a moving part each day.

Let your body decide.

Your conscious appraisal of reality is delayed by a few milliseconds. We’re always reacting to events that transpire. So when, say, you open up the fridge and decide what to eat for breakfast, your brain is already leaning toward a choice. That’s why you “know” you’re better off eating eggs and bacon instead of the gluten-free cereal. Your first impetus is to do the right thing—”I should…”. Simply opt to listen to it.

In the fitness world, they call this autoregulation training. You don’t hit a pre-meditated number of reps or sets. You go by feel. You lift, then stop when you hit a level of effort you don’t want to maintain. This also applies to sprinting and endurance training.

Of course, there is one small hurdle: It takes a premeditated decision and a committed mindfulness to listen to your body for this to work.

Pay attention to how you respond to certain behaviors/foods.

If running sprints in the morning made you feel great right after and led to a productive, good-natured day at work and a good night’s sleep, do it again.

If caving and eating a half slice of cheesecake (“Hey, I avoided the graham cracker crust!”) at night makes you feel bad afterwards, don’t do it again.

If watching four hours of TV after work makes you ashamed, take it as information and stop doing it.

If you lose yourself in an activity—if you reach “flow” while doing CrossFit WODs—that’s probably an activity you want to do more regularly.

Heed the way you instinctively respond to various actions and foods. Your mood, your shame, your elation, your sense of rightness or wrongness with the world—these are physiological feedback streams for what you should and should not be doing. When you see yourself in conversation with your environment, you are in a perfect position to heed the supportive cues it’s offering to you.

Don’t turn into a layabout.

Being a “free spirit” isn’t a free pass to do nothing. I mean, sure, you don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to, but you’re here. You’re reading. You’re interested in changing something. So, that’s not you.

If you’re a free spirit, don’t use your disposition as an excuse to chronically delay or dismiss your health vision. Even though you’re maybe not gunning after it with iron will and to-do lists in hand, live into it each day. Bring the lens of your intention to each choice. Commit to congruence.

And if you’re a type A personality, don’t tune out and think you’ve got it in the bag. You can reap the rewards of casual and free exploration. You can learn something from your intuition. And you should let your thoughts wander, too. Not all the time—it’s not in your nature—but the occasional injection of undisciplined exploration will lead to some really cool developments. Think of it as a short vacation for your mind, the kind where you come back refreshed with new ideas and insights. I’m a big fan of self-experimentation, and those are times when I do better stepping out of my type A approach.

In truth, all of us can likely find some sense and wisdom here—especially for days or moods when the usual routine won’t fit in the schedule or when we need a mental break from an otherwise established program.

The world is a finicky place. You cannot foresee all that will befall you. You can’t predict everything, nor will your plans all come to pass as intended. Being open to organic developments is simply good policy, especially as our world grows more complex and interconnected.

In the end, our health endeavors are less about the goals themselves than about how congruent we feel our lives are with our visions for them. Directed by purpose, we find many entry points that lead to the same end.

But more important than the end is the moment. This one right now. Apply your intention to it, and be well.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Let me know your thoughts here, and have a great week.

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37 Comments on "Alternative Goal Setting: How Free Spirits and Slow-Burners Can Achieve Their Health Visions"

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Shary
Shary
7 months 12 days ago
The exercise part of being Primal doesn’t work well for me because I detest exercise programs. Sprints, Cross Fit, or anything involving reps leaves me cold, and it takes about two seconds for me to decide I’d rather be doing something else. If I weave motion/movement into my daily living, however, (i.e. taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking to the grocery store instead of driving, gardening, skiing, etc.), then I’m fine with it. On the other hand, a Primal/Paleo diet is a natural for me. It feels absolutely right, possibly because I grew up eating, and liking, real,… Read more »
Alfred
Alfred
7 months 12 days ago

That’s me too, my exercise has too double as play.
Bowling, roller skating, water skiing, canoeing, etc.

Boregard
Boregard
7 months 11 days ago

Come on…bowling…? Is that ever Exercise? Lol.

Zach rusk
7 months 9 days ago

Do you even realize how swole his right thumb, middle, and ring finger are, bro?

Elizabeth Resnick
7 months 12 days ago
Love this. The term Selective Structure really resonated with me. I’m not sure exactly how to classify myself…I’m driven and energetic, but also creative and off in my own little world. While I love to set goals for myself, I don’t fit a typical type A description. I have no problem sticking to health goals…I know how to eat in a way that makes me feel great…why would I do anything different? But I also don’t want too many rules. That’s why Primal is such a great fit..it is so simple and adaptable. I don’t have any huge fitness goals…I… Read more »
Suji
7 months 12 days ago
I, like you Mark, am incredibly Type-A however, I find myself more and more opening up toward living with intent more than ever. Tie type-A with perfectionism and you can easily burn out fast! I’ve learned for myself that as long as the deeper part of you is happy, learning, and growing it will result in something more sustainable and much more enriching. Again, I appreciate your perspective and voice in this community; a quote I particularly loved from today’s article: “The ultimate purpose for any of us isn’t perfection after all, but claiming our most enjoyable and energetic lives.”… Read more »
Barbarian
Barbarian
7 months 10 days ago
I used to be type A – in martial arts, you could liken the “type A” as a Tiger – aggressive and reactive, where as the “type B” is a higher plane of existence, i.e. “The Dragon”, the dragon has the power, and aggression when needed, but has the wisdom and control to act, not react. This is why the Dragon will usually beat the Tiger. I have trained myself continually to progress from the so called type A to the type B, and have found it translates over into other aspects of life – you can use a Type… Read more »
JennyC
JennyC
7 months 12 days ago

Thanks for this post, which feels expansive and kind to me! I love the sentiment to listen to my intuition and best intentions, adjusting as I go.

paleofam321
paleofam321
7 months 12 days ago
With a 1 year old and another child on the way, I find that if I don’t add a lot of structure to my day, I never feel like I got anything done. Before I am in my day, which might be five minutes that I spend in bed before I get up, I make a plan for my day in my head and do my best to stick to it. I am not a type A person, but for this busy time in my life I’m turning into one a little bit so that I can do what I… Read more »
Susan B.
Susan B.
7 months 12 days ago
I have definitely noticed that a lot of the authors/bloggers/podcasters I like are type A’s! (For Primal Blueprint/MDA, that includes Mark, Brad and Elle.) And I have often felt like the advice given is more geared to type A’s – so I appreciate this post, Mark. Possibly I would use your term “slow burner” to apply to me. Among my challenges is that I don’t want my life to seem too regimented, yet I know I need a certain amount of structure. Otherwise, say, I won’t get enough exercise in every day – which I often don’t. And I don’t… Read more »
Andrew
Andrew
7 months 12 days ago

As I was reading this, I thought, “This is totally my wife. In fact, I’m a lot like how Mark describes himself and she is a lot like how he describes Carrie. Maybe we will be like this phenomenal couple some day!”
Then I started outlining this article and putting it into actionable steps for her… then I realized, “No, this is what this article is pointing out… my type A-ness is not necessarily what she needs to succeed.”
I think I’ll just give this to her to read.

Rozska
Rozska
7 months 12 days ago
Very free spirit here. Things that work for me: –Carrot, not stick. I’m so much more likely to go take that long walk if I know that I have good coffee waiting for me when I get home. Being on a schedule will not get me to go walk. That reward will. –Realizing that I’m event driven, not time driven. I don’t do yoga every morning at 7 AM. I get up, shower, stretch, then do yoga. If that’s at 5:30 AM or at 8:30 AM, it doesn’t matter. It’s the line up of events, one after another, that builds… Read more »
Kathy
Kathy
7 months 12 days ago
I’m goal driven but not in a good way. I like to set a goal and meet it, do that huge set of pushups, lose that weight, eat like I mean it for X weeks, and then I did it! Hooray me! I’m done! Where are the Twinkies? I can be laser focused for awhile but only for so long. So I have to approach this as process instead. I aim not to win or lose because that says “game over” to me. I’m working hard on building easy on-ramp methods so that when I fall off I just get… Read more »
Leo Tat
7 months 12 days ago
Hey Mark, I have different types of goals. Goals for health, for business etc. When it comes to health, I’m a type A personality. I would look at a the food and routine I need to follow for it, and I’ll have no problems in sticking with it. When it comes to business, I could be a type B. I can set a goal, but I start analysing to figure out the best way to implement something. In the end I go through analysis paralysis. What I find helps in these cases is to just take action. Does not need… Read more »
Linda Sand
Linda Sand
7 months 12 days ago

I tried walking every day for a short period of time but with no destination in mind that got boring very quickly. So I joined a square dance club and went walking to music at least once week for a couple of hours each time. Since there are lots of dances available in my area I could even choose which days to go based on who was calling and how far away the dance was. Freedom within structure.

wildgrok
wildgrok
7 months 12 days ago

Method and not-etched-in-stone schedules work well for me. And my secret weapon is the habit-creation. When my daughter read The Power of Habit she said it described me 🙂
Habit not working? that is ok, change it for another one

Cathy Ruckman
7 months 12 days ago
Ah you are definitely speaking to me, here! I’ve been delightedly paleo/primal for almost 5 years, and the word “regimen” makes me go “yeah, right, that’ll happen.” I just have zero interest in that kind of regimentation. My goal is feeling better, as good as I possibly can at 74. Most days, I’ve met that goal, such as it is. Not a set number of reps, not a schedule I have to keep, not some boring set of rules… It works for me and has for a long time. And you’re right the Primal Blueprint FITS me, as in INFP,… Read more »
Sherry Pratt
7 months 11 days ago

I’m a type A, but still found this article super interesting. I love the last part – I want to write it out and post it on my wall.

“In the end, our health endeavors are less about the goals themselves than about how congruent we feel our lives are with our visions for them. Directed by purpose, we find many entry points that lead to the same end.

But more important than the end is the moment. This one right now. Apply your intention to it, and be well.”

Suzanne
Suzanne
7 months 11 days ago
To me, perfection would be claiming my most enjoyable life! I deliberately omitted “energetic” because, to me, “energetic” carries negative connotations. That doesn’t make me unmotivated or underachieving. I’m generally regarded as a high achiever, even an overachiever, and I have awards to prove it. Plus, I’m not physical and I don’t like exercise. I don’t want to move for the sake of movement. I’ll move for hour after hour doing something I enjoy – I’ll spend 8 hours digging on an archaeological site, using a pick, shovel,and trowel, or poking around in tide pools, or preparing a compost pile… Read more »
Splutz
7 months 11 days ago
Thank you Mark for this article, finally I understand why I can’t get excited about exercise like my little energizer, cross-fit, sports med major daughter in Malibu. I’m def. a free spirit type. While I recognize I need to stay in good shape at my age (60), I have been spoiled most of my life with excellent health, boundless energy and I look ‘good in clothes’! However, I see the aging signs and have attempted over last two years to work on exercise, pieces of equipment in the house sit idle after a couple of weeks and gym memberships are… Read more »
Richard F
Richard F
7 months 11 days ago
Interesting this area if personality types. I don’t do the goals thing and see most things in life as a form if meditation. I find I am well motivated most of the time physically and mentally and feel satisfied with my life most of the time. I don’t have eating goals but have a pretty strong set of eating patterns that incorporate some primal concepts. I don’t visit this websiye ti change but to add to my knowledge of nutritian, fitness and health so that I can tweak and freshen up my patterns. Ironically… this approach seems to provide better… Read more »
Ruth
Ruth
7 months 11 days ago

I never knew that this was me until I read this article. I mean, some of these things I kind of knew about myself, but I didn’t have the larger view of what that all means about my personality type and now it all makes so much sense. Thank you, Mark! (And Carrie!)

Rose
Rose
7 months 11 days ago
I am definitely not the type-A personality, so setting goals and having any kind of remotely structured approach to achieving them has always been nigh impossible for me. I have found two things that work most of the time for me. One is taking a class. Like when good-intentioned bedtime me makes all the plans for disorganized morning me, if I sign up for a class I can’t bring myself not to go (this is my plan today, sign up for a flexibility class!). The other thing that works really well is to enmesh myself in an active culture, like… Read more »
Mark N.
Mark N.
7 months 11 days ago

Boy, this post really hit the nail on the head for me. I really like it when things are organic, and natural, (pun intended). My workouts may end up being hitting a mt.bike trail, splitting wood, or taking a brisk hike. I do include more conventional exercise like push-ups, planks, etc.
As I was growing up, my teachers would say I was a dreamer. This was seen as a bad thing. I call it, stress management. This post let’s me see that it’s OK to Be more organic. Cool, thanks.

Boregard
Boregard
7 months 11 days ago

Excellent take. Type A’s make me crazy when they go all A’y about everything.

As one of the “Others”, there are some things I have to force into a regimen. Meals, usually prepped, made ready to cook before hand. Sticking to certain same food choices most of the time, usually for breakfast. Can’t leave breakfast to chance – relieves the anxiety. Exercise times, if I’m loosey-goosey about it I get distracted and miss it.

But my workouts do tend to be more free form, determined by my body, both physical and psychological.

Barbarian
Barbarian
7 months 10 days ago

I see Type A and Type B’s as extremes on both sides of the point, almost like Left and Right wing politics.

Extreme in either direction is never a good thing, and balance requires a mix of both, people should not “box” themselves into a Type A or Type B – the brain, and attitudes can be trained and changed – the ultimate goal is to achieve harmony.

Saga
Saga
7 months 11 days ago

I love this post. It is so useful for me.
I already do this with my dinner meal plan: I make a weekly list, where I list a few main ingredients for each day (e.g. Tuesday: Chicken breast, green beans. Wednesday: Salmon, parsnips). Then I semi-improvise a dish with those.
I hadn’t thought of applying it to other areas too. Thank you for the inspiration.

Laura
Laura
7 months 11 days ago
I had to laugh after reading this article, as I am doing the 21 Day Challenge and after I did today’s Lift Heavy Things exercise, I burst into tears and said things to myself like “Only a triathlon-competing jock would think that doing exercise to the point of pain and muscle failure is fun!”. It bored the socks off me, even while I was struggling to finish my set. It was everything I have hated about exercise in the past. Having said that, I am not sure what I can sub in to achieve the same goals, so I will… Read more »
Mims
Mims
7 months 10 days ago

Hang in there, it gets better! When you see progress it reinforces your efforts…and this is from someone who hates formal exercise. I find if I can turn it into work done….shovelling, compost turning, wood splitting I don’t mind it all, rather I look forward to it.

Barbarian
Barbarian
7 months 10 days ago

Yes, keep in there, the payoff will be that maybe you can’t do a single chin up now – but a few months from now you will look back and find them easy. You could also be in a situation where you need strength (i.e., you help your friend move house or something, suddenly, such activity doesn’t phase you, and you feel strong and healthy. Walking up a hill for a mile in the hot sun – no problem, you are no longer a “prisoner” of your health and weakness.

Ronnie
Ronnie
7 months 11 days ago
If type A can carry on with his goal all the way and achieve it then I’m type Z… Can’t do goals, no matter how hard I worked at it. There would be so many distractions, so many new ideas in the process. The only goals I can mark as done, need to be done in the next half an hour, like washing dishes – done, like 50 wall pushups (cause’ there is a wall here and I don’t have anything better to do at this moment) – done, and in the process I will have new ideas… I’m raising… Read more »
Casey
Casey
7 months 10 days ago
I am very much a free flowing kind of person. I think it drives my husband crazy. I’ve always been this way with movement. One season, all I want to do is yoga. The next, HIIT training, and then cycling. I do well with a rigid set of rules of what to eat and what not to eat, but I can’t adhere to a meal plan to save my life. Even when I buy the groceries for the meal plan I created, I end up making different things with those foods. I homeschool this way too. I know there are… Read more »
David
David
7 months 10 days ago
I’m all about putting a “system” in place, instead of goals. In real life, you will naturally fall behind on some goals, and suddenly be ahead on others, but if you follow a “system”, you don’t obsess on the goal outcomes – you let the universe work that out instead. One key point though – you need goals, but use those goals to create the system needed to attain them. An example of such a system is the good old priorities matrix from the 7 habits of highly successful people – i.e., the “system” is a set of simple rules… Read more »
Tomo
Tomo
7 months 10 days ago
Well Carrie, amazing comment! And well done Mark for following up with an insightful post. I have never come across this subject being tackled or even acknowledged by any other Health / fitness / wellness website; All the advice published comes from type A’s, because anyone else would not presume to offer it, even if they had the expertise. Therefore their recommendations are all geared to what works for a deranged type A brain! Pretty un-inspiring for the rest of us! I mean writing journals and meeting self impose deadlines (self imposed stress) what’s that all about? P.S. Barbarian, loved… Read more »
Clairelou
Clairelou
7 months 10 days ago
So true & insightful! I’m a professional musician & a definite ‘B’ -always felt i was failing somehow, continually trying to fit square peg in round hole- as society often dictates! Despite success with exams etc, time-based goal-setting never works for me- i FEEL i’m failing miserably. My own journey to losing 60lbs hasn’t been linear, but the congruence necessary has come from this site- (and also a little detail on fasting from Dr Jason Fung). It appeals as intellectually rigourous AND intuitive. Interestingly I’ve never found MDA information to be geared for type ‘A’s. Maybe this is the genius… Read more »
Sara Stopek
Sara Stopek
7 months 10 days ago
Fabulous post, Mark – it illuminates (yet more) ways I’m not exactly like everyone else, and what works for them hasn’t always worked for me. And also about communicating this with others. I’m in the free-spirit zone, and I have a friend who was looking for “just the rules, ma’am.” Good point for me to underline right at the start of my Primal Health Coach learning process. I’ve always been baffled by the rigidity (as I see it) of some structures that others genuinely adore. I can imagine this perspective helping me to help someone choose the right approach for… Read more »
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