Reaching Goals: A Telling Tale of Two Teams

Forget arm patches and nicotine gum. When my friend Terry decided to quit smoking 10 years ago, the only device she needed was a preschooler. Terry told my son Davey, then 3, that she wanted to kick her habit. Davey confided that he had one to kick too: sucking his fingers.

“I said, ‘I’ll quit smoking if you’ll quit sucking your fingers,’ ” Terry recalls. “Well, I quit! I didn’t want to let him down.” A decade later, she hasn’t gone back. The pact paid off for Davey, too. Largely thanks to Terry, he beat his own addiction and remains, to this day, finger-sucking-free (a real plus in middle school). He still remembers how, to celebrate their success, Terry made him an awesome lemon pound cake.

Heartwarming but not too surprising, right? The idea that goals are easier to reach with a buddy—or lots of buddies—is as familiar as Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s as old, no doubt, as the first time one caveman said to another, “Oog, we not catching enough mammoth—time for project committee.”

Just because team goal-chasing has been around a while, though, doesn’t mean it’s foolproof. For every triumph like Terry’s and Davey’s, there’s a flop like mine and Lisa’s.

Lisa is a friend and fellow poet who lives several hundred miles from me. A few years back, when we were both struggling to fit poetry around our day jobs, we launched the Poem-of-the-Month Club. (Membership: us.) Our plan was that every month we’d each write at least one poem and then critique the other’s verse by email. This went well for a couple of rounds. Then we started begging for extensions. Before its first birthday the Poem-of-the-Month Club was as dead as Emily Dickinson.

What went wrong? After talking to researchers and plowing through articles, I have a pretty good idea. But first, here’s what I’m told we did right:

Lisa and I built regular feedback into our plan. We broke our aims into manageable chunks. (Instead of saying, “Let’s both write a new book,” we took it a poem at a time.) We kept our criticism friendly and constructive.

Too bad we also made so many mistakes.

One, it seems clear, was that we kept pushing back deadlines. This rarely leads anywhere good. Another boo-boo: Unlike Terry and Davey, we never gave ourselves a celebration to look forward to.

Then there’s the sad-but-true fact that neither of us was terribly gung-ho. Last year, a study in the journal Obesity looked at weight loss among nearly 1,000 teams in a Rhode Island fitness campaign. People with super-eager, pound-dropping teammates, the study found, tended to slim down faster than those on Team Couch Potato. Zeal and success, it appears, are contagious. (Related studies show that people are more apt to quit smoking and drinking if members of their social network quit, too.)

Yet another likely pitfall for our club: its cyber-nature. Although the Obesity study didn’t find out whether teams did better if they met in person, it’s true that “a lot of teams were based in people’s companies,” says Tricia Leahey, Ph.D., the Brown Medical School assistant professor who co-wrote the study. “When people have similar goals and are in regular contact, it can create this culture, this norm of expectation. For instance, in my office, we might all encourage each other to go for a walk at our lunch break.”

Lisa, too, has discovered the magic of sharing goals with people who live close by. Since our club fizzled, she has started writing a novel—and joined a writers’ group that meets near her house. “This has really motivated me to keep working on it and stay ahead,” she says. “I don’t want to show up empty-handed.”

Which brings us to one more key element that was mostly absent from the Poem-of-the-Month Club: fear of looking like a loser. Terry, the ex-smoker, saw its power back when she bargained with a 3-year-old: “I just would have been embarrassed if he had said, ‘Are you still smoking?’ and I’d said, ‘Yeah.’ ”

The specter of shame has helped me, too—especially when I joined a more public sort of goal-minded club: a Pilates class. Within months, I went from struggling to push myself off the floor, to doing one-armed, one-legged planks. Feeling stronger was a potent incentive to improve, of course. But just as potent was that I didn’t want my Pilates pals to see me collapsing like a Jenga tower. (I saved that for home.)

Recently, Lisa floated the idea of resurrecting our club. I’m hoping that if we repeat what we did right and repair what we did wrong, we just might make it work this time.

Maybe being more committed will do the trick. And meeting in person now and then. And adding a threat of serious disgrace (requiring, say, that if we miss a deadline, we have to post seventh-grade photos of ourselves on Facebook).

Above all, I think we need to promise each other some lemon pound cake.

Reach your goals and "Celebrate More Victories"

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