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should have, would have, could have
how to set and reach goals
by maigen thomas (@Maigen)
pop culture

“Should have, Would have, Could have.”

It’s a phrase tossed out when your dad has nothing better to say and you’ve been whining at him about something in life not going your way. Your dad has the perspective of time and distance. Whatever you’re whining about is probably something he has already dealt with and moved on from. You, on the other hand, are frustrated and irritated because whatever it is you’re whining about is fresh, recent and intensely personal.

You would have bought stock in Apple long ago had you known it was going to go big. You should have finished your degree a decade ago, now you’re settled in a career where you can’t advance unless you have one. You could have invented that pasta pot with the draining lid, you thought of it way before that commercial was so prevalent on late-night infomercials.

Did you, though?

“Should have, Would have, Could have.” It’s such a flippantly negative phrase, summing up the fact that you’re essentially giving up. You should have, but you didn’t. You would have, but you didn’t. You could have, but you didn’t. Does that mean you would rather sigh and whine about what didn’t happen instead of doubling your efforts to making your next project a success?

It often seems, to me - and you can tell me if I’m wrong - that people give up on a lot of things. “I used to want to ____, but then I ____.” Fill in the blanks, I’m sure you can. I bet you’ve said the exact same thing. I know I have.

There are some outliers, yes: “I used to want to be a ballerina, but then I had three babies.” It’s one thing to be realistic and know your boundaries and limits. But being realistic about life doesn’t mean you can let life drag you down.

Get motivated and get started.

Motivation can only be sought and found in your own mind. It doesn’t matter how many sticks or carrots there are, if you’re a mule that is unwilling to move, you can’t be budged until you’re willing. Understand that success is a perspective. Spend less time projecting happiness everywhere but here and now. Don’t assume you’ll just accidentally succeed if you keep on keepin’ on. Find what motivates you and set that as your carrot. If you’re trying to lose weight and get healthy, you can put a gold star on the calendar for every day that you meet your water and calorie intake goals. Use blue stars for when you get to the gym or take a class. Green for when you just get outside and walk for twenty minutes. A month later the stickers on the calendar are sparkling, positive reinforcements; they are proof that you can do something and stick to it.

Stop reaching for the stars.

It’s so easy to set lofty goals and then get upset when we don’t reach them. But repeated failed efforts to achieve goals show a downward trend, a record that makes one feel frustrated and less motivated to even try. The more often we fail, the less likely we are to make another attempt. The lack of success sets a precedent and allows us to make excuses about how it wasn’t meant to be. Success is for everyone but you, or so it seems. New rock climbers have a higher rate of injury due to pushing too hard, too fast. You don’t get to strap on your first pair of shoes, grab the first rope you see and go climb El Capitan. It’s a great goal, but it’s something to work toward; climbing one of the most challenging rock faces in the world is not something that you can realistically do immediately. Find a closer goal and set your sights on that, just for the interim.

Set attainable goals.

One comedian said he likes to set his standards low and feel like he’s accomplished something by bedtime. “I will pee outside of my pants today.” I laugh every time I hear it, but it’s absolutely true. Setting small goals (no matter how ridiculous they feel or sound) - and completing them - sets the precedent for more success. It’s a mental game. A salesman starts his pitch by coaching you to say “yes” by starting with easy questions, in the hopes you’ll be psyched to say “yes” to committing to a big ticket item. In the same vein, you can coach yourself to success by setting and nailing the small items on a long checklist rather than having a short checklist full of difficult tasks. Maybe you’re not going to be able to retire at 40, but more attainable goals could be setting your 401k and Roth contributions to a sustainable level, or siphoning a certain amount per paycheck to an account you can’t easily plunder. Setting a smaller goal and being able to reach it allows you to feel positive about future attempts.

Take time to make time.

If something is important to you, you should take every opportunity to make that part of your daily life. Whatever your goal is, you need to be taking steps toward making that dream a reality, every single day. If you can’t commit a little bit of time every day to your goal, then it’s not important enough. It obviously doesn’t mean that much to you. How can you imagine you’ll have the guts and gumption to push through the hard times when it will be an uphill battle, if you can’t even get started on the easy stuff? Trying to accomplish a writing goal is daunting if you park yourself in front a computer for an hour, trying to bang out 1500 words. Settling down for four fifteen minute sessions with only 400 words as your goal, that’s doable. And after the first one feels easy, it sets a calm and positive expectation for the second. And the third. And so on.

You can do this. You should. You will.

It doesn’t matter whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right. How hard are you willing to work? How much does it have to hurt before you give up? How many “No”s do you need to hear before you’re too scared to try again to hear “Yes?” How can you succeed and feel successful if you’re constantly giving yourself negative reinforcement?

Success is a goal, a state of mind, a constantly evolving destination. But you’re not going to get there by sitting on your ass, whining about how you "should have, would have, could have."


Maigen is simple. is smart. is wholesome. is skeevy. is spicy. is delicate. is better. is purer. is 100% more awesome than yesterday. She';s traveling the world and writing about her experiences with life, love, yoga, food, travel and people. Mostly people. Because they';re funny. hear more of her random thoughts @maigen on twitter.

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