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The (Outrageous) Jammed Cat

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Canadian Marnie McBean, three-time Olympic gold medalist in rowing, has a clever theory on what it takes to set and achieve goals. She calls it the jammed cat theory of performance. Folk wisdom tells us that if a cat falls, it will land on its feet. Folk wisdom also tells us that if a piece of toast with jam falls, it will land jam side down.

What would happen, McBean wondered, if you spread jam on the back of a cat and dropped it? Wouldn't it just hover inches off the floor, forever rotating, landing neither on its feet nor its back? And isn't that a lot like the state of tension that exists when we seek to improve our performance in some area of our life?

McBean noticed a paradox about achieving goals, whether that's winning Olympic gold or dropping 50 pounds: people tend to feel simultaneously satisfied and dissatisfied as they go about the task. To be able to reach our big goals, we must be patiently impatient. We must be satisfied with what we've done and yet dissatisfied with what we haven't done. Our acknowledgment of the steps already taken is tempered by our constant desire for more. We're a jammed cat.

Even when we reach our big goals, the theory is at play. Although we're happy about our success, we often have stabs of disappointment. McBean won gold, but she was disappointed because she knew she had committed a small technical error early in the race. Let's say we achieve our goal weight... but then we wonder if we could have done it faster, or better. Maybe we should have started sooner. Maybe, the voice of doubt nags, we're just going to gain it all back again. Content/discontent. Jammed cat.

In McBean's view, the jammed cat state is optimal for learning and improvement. We need to embrace the paradox and keep the tension: both proud of what we have done AND disappointed in what we haven't done. If we're too satisfied with our progress, we stop pushing ourselves, and we stall (hello, weight gain). If we're too dissatisfied, we get overwhelmed, and we give up (hello, weight gain).

I like the jammed cat theory of performance, but keeping a balance of tension is hard: perhaps that's why so few of us will ever be Olympic champions. And anyway, having a theory and having a practice are two different things entirely. I have therefore tweaked the jammed cat theory by adding a method to mitigate the disappointment while keeping the tension: Raymond Aaron's (also a Canadian!) MTO goal setting.

Aaron noticed that in any competition in which the top two teams competed for the win, the second-place finishers never celebrated: They hadn't won the silver—they'd lost the gold. The bronze medalists, meanwhile, would jump for joy, because even though they hadn't placed as well as the team that came second, they had won their medal.

The disappointment of silver, Aaron realized, was akin to ALMOST reaching a big goal. It's hard to acknowledge all we've achieved when the fact that we've come up just short is staring us in the face (hello, last 10 pounds). But how do we address this disappointment? If we aim too low, we won't be happy with our achievement. If we aim too high, we might fail. Either way, we've lost the balance of tension; the cat lands jam side down. Next stop: "Screw this," we say, "and where's that pint of Ben and Jerry's?"

Aaron's solution is to avoid setting what he calls binary goals: either you reach them, or you don’t. Instead, craft your goals as MTO: minimum, target, and outrageous. This idea is so brilliant, I'm forever amazed that I never see it mentioned in any other goal-setting literature.

Your minimum goals must be so easy, so no-way-I-won't-be-able-to-do-t
hat, that you'll be tempted to augment them before writing them down. Resist the urge; do not make your minimums into your targets. Your minimums are the goals that will get done no matter what. Maybe it's logging onto SparkPeople 3 times a week, or exercising at least 10 minutes per day, or drinking 5 glasses of water. Something you can be expected to do based on your past performance. If all hell breaks loose in your life, at the end of the month you can pat yourself on the back and say, "Well, I reached my minimum goals."

Target goals are what you aim to do. The minimum goals get the ball rolling, giving you momentum to go for your targets: logging in every day, exercising at least 20 minutes per day, drinking 8 glasses of water, whatever you've set for yourself. Targets should be a bit of a stretch but well within reach of your current capabilities.

Outrageous goals are stretch goals. You know you could achieve them, but it's going to take some work, and in any given month you're not likely to reach them all. If you do, they are probably not outrageous enough.

The beauty of having outrageous goals is they push you past your target goals, keeping that tension and optimizing your performance, but if you don't achieve them, that's okay. Your sense of disappointment is muted because you knew they were a stretch to start with.

Even better, you're keen to set new outrageous goals the next month, and over time you'll see that what was once outrageous (exercise 30 minutes a day?!) becomes a target—or even a minimum. The cat keeps spinning, the tension stays balanced, the Ben and Jerry's never makes it into the shopping cart.

I hope you adopt the outrageous jammed cat mindset for goal setting. I hope that, armed with MTO goals to support your optimal performance, your cat never lands jam side down.

(For a five-minute video on MTO, visit
v=j1CNsELv_i8. McBean’s book is called “The Power of More: How Small Steps Can Help You Achieve Big Goals.”)
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  • no profile photo INCH_BY_INCH
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    786 days ago
    Thanks for sharing this!
    936 days ago
  • no profile photo CD17713391
    What an interesting way to look at goal setting. This is totally in harmony with the Spark Guy 10 minute challenge goal and a great way to augment it with personal "big" goals.

    Thanks for sharing.
    936 days ago
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