The mental toughness playbook on big, daunting objectives is to break them down to much smaller, achievable pieces – micro goals. Lately, even micro goals have been overwhelming my resolve so I’ve been experimenting with getting rid of my goals altogether.

Just recently I was talking to my son about micro goals. With children, or at least mine, it’s hard to know sometimes what is sinking in before the attention shifts to something much more interesting than what Dad has to say. Some days later, we were out for a bike ride and hit the last stretch heading home which is a steep uphill. I saw him dig in and push hard – making it up without stopping for the first time. As I caught my breath he excitedly and proudly remarked on his accomplishment and said he did it by focusing on micro goals – making it to one driveway without losing momentum and then further up the road to the next and so. Wow – something did stick!

There’s no doubt that an objective, a problem, a project is sensibly broken down in to manageable pieces and sequence – an actionable plan. And when it comes to an endurance event, it’s said the same thing applies – just focus on the next mile, the next obstacle, getting to that next tree. The process is a matter of focal points that you can get your head around – something you can envision and conquer rather than something so big that it’s unfathomable. On one level, I completely agree and it’s worked for me. I can’t stand at the start line and think about facing a 6-hour trail run. It’s soul-crushing. You psyche yourself out. Lately, though, I’ve been struggling to effectively apply this technique in my runs and now wonder about the most effective place and way to focus.

You see, I really don’t like to run. BUT I feel like it’s good for me, it’s a skill I need for the events I like, and sometimes I just do it precisely because I don’t like it. I even pick extra-boring runs like 12 miles around the same quarter mile loop.

For a while during each run, I find that it’s good thinking time as my brain starts to settle from overactive to productive conscious thought to even more productive subconscious pondering. Zoning out really does make the time fly – like running with a good podcast or playlist so the attention can be focused elsewhere.

By the way, last year Spartan Race banned headphones from the race course – presumably for safety and liability reasons. However, I’m highly suspect that Joe DeSena and team are very aware that the distraction of music made their courses just a little easier for us mere mortal runners and are pleased that the ban adds a little more “suck” factor.

At that point where my mind has chewed through whatever it had backlogged to work on and has quieted down a bit, I snap back to conscious thought and a realization of where I am in my run – or more specifically how much is left. I start thinking about the finish line, getting anxious to get it done and get on to who or what is next. I start thinking about what’s in between…distance, time, hills, that last lap, mile, 5 miles…It gets to be a real slog or sometimes I just want to hurry up and finish. It really is like time has slowed to a stop and the mind is moving infinitely fast. It’s the proverbial watched pot never boiling.

Then, as I recognize that I’m discouraging myself with those thoughts, I try to revert to the prescribed micro goal focus. I try collapsing from the macro goal of the finish line to goals for the next distance interval or some landmark that I can see some distance ahead. On some days, interval after interval of micro goal is working for me. On other days, it’s as if the specificity of that focus just aggravates the intensity of the pessimism or impatience.

What I’ve started trying instead – instead of checking my GPS for the next distance / time goal or focusing my eyes on a tree in the distance – is to stop focusing at all. I purposefully soften and broaden my gaze and I’m trying to concentrate on emptying my mind. As thoughts arise – including thoughts of micro goals – I try letting them pass through and right on by. Somewhat like quieting down for a meditation, I’m trying to narrow from macro goal to micro goal to having no goals at all and just letting the run happen.

This is a new approach for me. Any suggestions? Do you have any experience with it good or bad? Other recommendations instead? Please help me out and comment below with ideas.


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