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From the Lab to Life: Setting Goals and Plans to Achieve Them
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Volume 15, Issue 2 (February 2017)

Harini S. Aiyer


Being the Type-A personality that I am, I have always been all about setting goals. I split my goals into four categories (physical, personal, professional, and spiritual). At the beginning of each year, I write down at least one goal for each category—and look at how I did in the previous year. Across all four categories, I achieved about 15 percent of my goals for 2016. One could think that, given this relatively low success rate, I should not set goals for 2017. However, I believe that being a scientist means taking a closer look at your failure, learning, and doing better next time.



2016 Goals Achieved? (Why not?) 2017 Goals
Physical Two Marathons Yes (with excellent improvements in pace per mile) Boston qualifying marathon
Half-Ironman Triathlon No (uncertainty in job situation and life condition made me feel unready to commit to money and time) Half-Ironman (signed up)
  Climb 5.12s No (could not get physically strong despite enough time spent climbing) Work on improving strength (core/muscle)
Personal Host parents in the United States No (Neither were fully ready; my own life uncertainty made me unable to convince them otherwise) Host parents (They have finally agreed, now I need to get my ducks in a row)
  Publish novel No (Got it reviewed by one reviewer; never worked on editing/finishing/approaching marketplace)  

Better time management

Professional Take startup company to second round funding No (Optimization of techniques took much longer than expected) Take startup company to second round funding
      Get side project into a tech-incubator
Spiritual Practice humility and empathy ??

Talk less, listen more


Shankar Vedantam breaks down why only envisioning the achievement of a goal doesn’t translate into reaching that goal. Vedantam goes on to discuss another strategy called WOOP—Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. I found that I had been applying a similar approach to WOOP in setting and achieving my own goals.


Acknowledge Legitimate Obstacles


Any goal comes with its own internal and external challenges. In 2016, I was unable to take my current company to second round funding, because optimization took longer than expected. This was an external obstacle. On the other hand, hosting my parents was a combination of external and internal. They didn’t really want to commit, and I didn’t push them too much, because I was feeling insecure about whether my startup job would last and if I would be able to take on the financial responsibility of hosting them. I finished my novel and got it reviewed by at least one person, but never spent more time editing it afterward. This was purely my fault. Then there are some goals that are more nebulous. Did I practice empathy and humility? I sure tried. Was I successful at it? Who can tell? Isn’t bragging about being good at humility the ultimate irony? Once I acknowledge the nature of the obstacle, I can move on to the next step.


Identify What Is Within You


When you fail to achieve a set objective, it is easy to beat yourself down. I have spent many years doing it. That never stopped me from setting goals, but these days I have changed the script. First, I identify traits that allow me to excel. For example, I cut my marathon time from five hours to four in the last year. I shaved off one minute per mile for each consecutive marathon, and I did this simply by showing up at 6 a.m. community runs. Because I did it with friends, waking up at 5:30 and heading out the door wasn’t hard. Conversely, I couldn’t climb stronger even though I spent a lot of time climbing, because I would not take the time to do regular strength training and core work. Recognizing that I am both my best friend and worst enemy allows me to better assess what is holding me back and how I can overcome it.


Address Challenges with a Plan


The internet is full of suggestions for addressing goals and challenges. Each person’s plan will likely be different. I make plans A, B, and C, depending on the type of challenges I perceive. However, I have acquired new wisdom about timelines for the plans. I used to be very rigid about when and how each plan goes into effect. While this is a good approach for operational plans with deadlines, for life plans, building in a bit of flexibility helps. Because we are not able to always control everything that happens to us, having a softer timeframe on certain plans can reduce anxiety and improve adherence, thereby favoring a good outcome.


Understanding why I missed certain goals and reached others helps me set goals for the future and plan how I can achieve them. Next month, I will share thoughts about following through and adjusting the plan.


Harini Aiyer, PhD, spearheads product development for the biotech startup HDL Diagnostics. You can find her practicing science, community organizing, and working toward other goals in the Greater Milwaukee Area.


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