How Going to an Extreme Can Help You Find Balance

You might have heard that your goals for 2013 should be realistic and achievable. In my experience, however, setting extreme goals can help you find a healthy medium if you do it the right way.

This year, while reflecting on what I want to accomplish in 2013, I was reminded of one of my ancient philosophy classes back in college. The course was on Aristotle, and we spent a whole year reading one of his books called the Nicomachean Ethics. As the name implies, this book attempts to explain, in a long-winded and meandering way, what moral virtue is and how to achieve it. Specifically, I was thinking about Chapter 9 of Book II, where you will find the following passage:

We must consider the things to which we ourselves also are easily carried away; for some of us tend to one thing, some to another; and this will be recognizable from the pleasure and pain we feel. We must drag ourselves away to the contrary extreme; for we shall get into the intermediate state by drawing well away from error, as people do in straightening sticks that are bent.

The first time I read this back in college I thought it was horrible advice. I’m not the only one either. Studies have also attempted to demonstrate the foolishness of so-called ‘stretch goals,’ i.e. goals that are seemingly impossible or too extreme for comfort. A 2011 study even found that “stretch goals are, paradoxically, most seductive for organizations that can least afford the risks associated with them.” That’s comforting, isn’t it? My college-student self, rife with excesses that would make Aristotle re-think his entire treatise, was much happier with ‘realistic’ goals like “Eat at least one vegetable per week” and “Only go to parties when homework is complete.”

However, I have to say that rereading Aristotle’s words years later, I see there’s a lot of truth in them. Although setting extreme goals can be disastrous, if you do it the right way it can work. For example, in 2012 our family made some dietary changes that were pretty extreme for us at the time. After analyzing our diet and noticing that a good majority of the food I was eating and feeding my kids was processed, grain-based, or dairy-based, and that fresh produce was becoming less and less abundant in our household, my husband and I decided to make some changes. Our goal was to eliminate all processed foods, grains, and dairy for one month and then figure things out from there. For us, this turned out to be quite an extreme challenge, and I think we would have failed if it hadn’t been for these three things:

  1. Support. Although we don’t have many friends who eat this way, we drew upon the resources we found online to change our habits. I frequented paleo blogs to get cooking inspiration, and we both read up on family nutrition. And of course, my husband and I drew support from each other, as well as our children who were surprisingly enthusiastic about eating more vegetables.
  2. Motivation. We were excited to make these changes. We wanted it for our family’s health and wellbeing. Extreme goals require extreme motivation. For us, the desire to have a healthy and thriving family far exceeded the challenge of changing our eating habits.
  3. Confidence. We were confident we could make this change for our family. This was the most striking contrast with other lifestyle changes I’ve made in the past, such as quitting smoking four years ago or eliminating caffeine a few years back. Although both of these experiences were successful in the end, they were marked by an overall lack of confidence and a guilt-driven mentality, which made them more difficult in the long run.

aristotle, stretch goals, impossible goals, goal setting, aristotle goal settingOur family challenge happened about ten months ago. For the first month we were pretty strict. As time went on, we learned how to make this change work for our family. We bent Aristotle’s analagous stick pretty far in the healthy direction at first, almost to its breaking point, and over time it has settled back into a place where we are still flourishing as a family, but more comfortable than the beginning. We went to an extreme because we felt it was necessary, and that extreme has slowly settled into healthy normality. Our kids are healthier than they ever have been before, we’ve had less sickness than previous years, and our energy levels are greatly improved.

So don’t be afraid to set extreme goals for yourself! If you are motivated and confident, then going to an extreme may just help you find balance. I used to picture a goal as a distant target that I had to shoot with my imaginary bow and arrow. For these lifestyle changes, however, I think the phrase ‘paradigm shift’ is more helpful. Sometimes you have to dive into the deep end to find the place where you can stand with the most stability. It’s not a matter of hitting a distant target, but rather of jumping in with all of yourself and simply living the life you want to achieve with no reservations.

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