by François Beausoleil
(adapted from the upcoming book: The Performance State)

goalsFor NVC leaders, the art of goal-setting is essential as it often holds the key to either a satisfying or difficult journey as a leader. It is not rare to hear of an NVC trainer being overwhelmed, not having time for self-care, touching burn-out and falling from grace in terms of the vision they had about what they could do to contribute to a better world.  I firmly believe that a big part of our ability to be able to attend to our key needs lies in the fine art of goal-setting.

While many of us recognize the importance of goals, few of us have the training to learn how to be effective in setting and achieving our goals. In fact, the difficulty of effective goal setting is immortalized each year in the annual cycle of enthusiastically setting New Year’s Resolutions that are rarely achieved. Writing in Forbes, author Dan Diamond (Jan 1, 2013) notes that only 8% of people who set New Year’s resolutions actually keep them. How then, do we break the cycle of setting goals with good intentions that are doomed to fail?

The Minimums System

In 2008, I met Joshua Seldman through BayNVC’s Leadership Program.  He just finished co-writing a book called “Executive Stamina.”  He introduced me to one section of the book focused on the Minimums System. When we engage with this system we not only get the benefits of starting to do (or doing more of) the things that are meaningful to us, we also activate a powerful motion.  This motion can mean a world of difference in your life and in the lives of people around you.forkinroad

Imagine this: you have a vision, a goal for your life, and, as you start moving to get there, you arrive at a fork on the road and you have to make a choice.  You can take one of two walkways. One is leading you towards your goal, and the other one is leading you in the other direction, away from your goal. You don’t know which is which and there is no other option. You’ll only know if you’re going towards your goal once you step on the walkway that you choose.

Suppose that you chose walkway A, and, as you step on it, you realize that it gets you farther from your goal.  It also picks up speed, and no matter how hard you try to walk against the direction it’s going, it’s faster than you, and you keep getting farther away from what you want. You also notice that it’s going faster and faster.  How valuable would it be for you to find a way to slow down the speed, stop the movement and be able to jump on the other walkway?  Priceless, right?

Because, see, the second walkway, is not only going towards your goal, it’s also moving faster and faster towards it.

My claim is that we are either on a virtuous cycle or a vicious cycle. There is no neutral; everything we do puts us on one of these two cycles. These cycles are usually slow at first, but then they pick up speed. If you’re on the vicious cycle, it gets harder and harder to go where you want to go. If you’re on the virtuous cycle it gets easier and easier to reach your goals.

I believe that the Minimums system is this magic key that can turn things around if you’re in the vicious cycle. Moreover, it’s also the key that keeps you on the virtuous cycle; because, even as it gets easier and easier, it’s still pretty easy to stumble and find yourself back on the vicious cycle. Therefore, this system is extremely important and more than worth exploring to help us understand the possibilities available to us to reengineer our lives.

minimumOk, hopefully, I got you curious. What is a Minimum? According to the Seldmans, a Minimum is the smallest meaningful unit of behavior (or change) that will start to close the gap between what you say is important and how you use your time.

Simply put, the Minimums system suggests that you first identify that gap between what you value and your behavior. Then, to course correct, you commit to some Minimums, and you refine them continuously.

Now, this can have an exponential impact because of the acceleration factor inherent to any cycle we’re in, and because we’re essentially creating several cycles nested in each other, all activated by these simple minimums. The first new cycle we’re creating is an energizing one. The more we do of the things that are important to us, the more energy we generate.  Have you ever experienced that excited, bubbly feeling that comes with making progress on a cherished goal?

Another virtuous cycle we’re creating is about generating confidence. The more you reach your goals the more you feel confident. I remember reading that a famous actor did so many things that were supposed to be impossible that after a while, nothing seemed impossible. That’s confidence. If you have confidence on your side, it changes everything.  You feel more hopeful, you act differently, you make different plans and take different risks.

The next layer of virtuous cycle has to do with relationships; the better you feel, the easier it is to show up in your relationships and work towards meaningful, healthy relationships.

In addition to helping us align our actions with our values, increasing momentum, energy, and confidence and supporting us in showing up more in our relationships, Minimums stop energy drains. You can have most of your life in order, but if one area is going very badly, it might very well suck all your energy, stopping you from appreciating and leveraging all that is in place.

As I’m writing these lines I’m acutely aware of the power of Minimums…because I neglected to set one last year.

A few weeks ago, I calculated how much money I earned the previous year; I was shocked to notice that I received about 35% more income than I thought! The bad news is that I didn’t have money to cover the extra income tax I’ll have to pay because of this “extra” gain.

All of this could have been avoided if I had had in place the simple Minimum of spending five minutes every Friday entering my income for the week in a spreadsheet. If I did that, I would have been well on the way to having the information I needed to avoid costly financial surprises (something very important to me). I’m also sure that just doing that simple step would have given me momentum to spend more time tracking. It would have increased my energy for doing such tasks (imagine how energizing it would have been to realize each week I was earning more money that I had thought!). And, it would have given me confidence that I was handling my affairs in a way that was beneficial. It would also have saved quite a lot of the turmoil and stuckness I found myself in when I discovered how much money I needed to come up with all of a sudden!

Let’s use another example of Minimums to make my point clear. My wife, Anya, trained for eight years as a ballet dancer in Moscow, at possibly the best school in the world.  At some point, after focusing mostly on being a mother, she wanted to go back to dance.  We agreed on a Minimum consisting of 30 minutes of ballet, three times per week (which was nothing compared to what she used to do in the ballet school).

dancerAfter a week I checked with her. It didn’t work, she didn’t do it.  We then shifted the Minimum to 15 minutes, three times per week.  It still didn’t work.  I then proposed 5 minutes, three times a week, and this time it worked; it got her started.  And as I write these lines she’s a few weeks away from offering her second solo performance for two nights to our community.

What are the benefits to her?  I could say a lot but I’ll say only this: I’ve heard her say on the phone to a friend: “It feels like I’m finally living my life.”

During an initial conversation with a new client, when I asked her to describe an ideal week, the first thing she mentioned was that she would have a clean office. After explaining the theory of Minimums to her, we agreed that she would clean her office for five minutes, three times per week.

The next time we had a phone appointment, she didn’t even say hello; she said: “Hey, guess what? My office is clean! And that’s not all, my kitchen too! And (she previously shared that there were two rooms in her house which were full of stuff for years) I cleaned one and a half of those rooms!”

She was a very happy camper. All of that was made possible by a very simple, almost ridiculous Minimum.

I just did another experiment with Anya.  A few weeks ago she injured her knee as she was preparing her new solo performance. It threw her routine off, and she got a bit lost not only being unable to dance, but also to walk outside, since in the winter it could be hazardous and potentially make her injury worst.  As a result she started to lose focus, energy and enthusiasm.  She felt unsatisfied about her days, and went to sleep later and later. Two days ago, I told her about the vicious and virtuous cycles, and that she was on a vicious cycle since her injury. I told her that she could shift from vicious to virtuous by using the Minimums system. I asked what would be one Minimum that could make a difference. She said that going to sleep at 10.30 pm would be very helpful. So we agreed on one Minimum as a way to turn things around. Just one.

Here’s what happened.  Pretty much all day she focused on getting things done faster than usual because she would go to sleep much earlier.  She was in fact much more focused and productive than she had been, even though she had a shorter day. Part of the plan was that I would set-up her computer so it shuts off at 10pm each night She worked hard to reach to attain the goal and managed to be in bed at 10.30, although she still needed to ice her knee; finally she turned off the light around 11pm. Not exactly what we wanted but fairly close. And, she felt very good about going to sleep at this time and was already thinking of how she could turn off the light at 10.30 the next day.

This shift helped her to get back on the virtuous cycle; she gradually regained motivation and energy towards her dance performance as she got more done.

How to create Minimums for NVC Leadership

What are three important areas of your leadership journey in which you’d like to see growth?

For each area, answer the following:

  • Where would you like to be in this area? What behavior would you like to see yourself doing?
    (example: writing a blog about NVC)
  • Where are you now? What behaviors are you currently doing to support that goal?
    (examples: not writing at all; or writing but afraid to share with anyone)
  • What is the smallest meaningful unit of behavior (or change) that will start to close that gap?
    (examples: spend 10 minutes twice a week writing about how I would use NVC to transform a dialogue I had that week; post a comment on one NVC site or Facebook page three times each week.
  • After two weeks, assess – did you achieve the minimum?
    • If yes, then congratulate yourself and set that minimum again. If it was very easy to do, then ask yourself, “What is the next small behavior I can do that will keep me moving towards my goal?”
    • If no, first give yourself some empathy. Then ask yourself, “What is a smaller unit of behavior I can do that will get me started on the path of closing that gap?”

Here’s some more information to consider as you begin to create successful Minimums:

  • Minimums have to be measurable, not vague.
  • Minimums are serious, you really commit to it.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you won’t have time to do these Minimums because you have so many of them. Trust the process.
  • Minimums have to be put in your calendar; so…write it in your calendar!
  • If you want to stay aligned, you’ll have to keep tracking and adjusting your Minimums. I suggest you track and refine them every two weeks at first, and then, every month.