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

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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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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