As I thought about the topic of goal setting, I realised how involved the topic really is.
Many of us will have come across approaches such as SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely), goal mapping (mainly based on visualisation of your goal) and starting with the end in mind. However, there are some deeper, more fundamental aspects of goal setting that are helpful to explore, rather than left as unquestioned assumptions. This article will look at these deeper assumptions and then touch on some helpful approaches to setting and achieving your goals.
The first question to ask when considering goal setting is: do I really need to set a goal? These days it seems to be an unquestioned assumption that progress is essential, knowing where we want to end up is the only possibility, and without clear goals we will simply be blown about in the wind. There is an old adage, ‘if we don’t know what port we are sailing to, all winds are unfavourable’. When I first heard this I found it really helpful, I understood why I sometimes felt like nothing was going my way, and I started to become clearer on where I wanted to end up so that I could find the ‘winds’ in life that would help me to get there.
More recently I’ve realised that the sense of ‘no winds being favourable’ is also just a state of mind. Sure, having a destination in mind gives us a sense of purpose, motivation and achievement when we get there. But at the same time, allowing ourselves to be alright with the unexpected is valuable. Accepting that life and the universe isn’t designed to ensure that each and every one of us achieves our goals, can be a very fulfilling way to live. There is a wisdom in being fully connected to life in each and every moment, rather than being focused on some point in the future where we think we know what will make us happy. A focus on the future creates a tension in our minds, a lack of satisfaction. This can be motivating and it can also be stressful and at worst demoralising when we don’t ‘make it’.
In defence of goals, if we are always drifting at sea, being pushed randomly by the wind and the waves, then there is no real sense of progress, and we might end up somewhere we wish we hadn’t. We may end up ship wrecked on rocks, isolated in a quiet corner with no wind, or stuck amongst a fleet of marauding pirates. Goals absolutely help us to make progress and to get things done. Goals might be short or long term, and help us day to day to make decisions and take difficult action that ends up being rewarding.
As with most things, there is a balance to be struck. There is a paradox where goals are both positive and negative. Goals can cause us to be blind to other options. They can keep us stuck in an idea of ourselves that quickly becomes outdated but remains unquestioned once the goal has been set. Many people complain about being stuck in their jobs. Often, they had goals of earning more money, having a bigger house, getting the nicer car, getting the promotion… Years later they have never questioned whether those goals still serve them. This questioning of our goals can take a lot of effort, especially when they have been set deeply, and have seeped into many aspects of our unconscious.
Given the advantages of having goals as well as the pitfalls, what is a good way to approach goal setting in our lives? A powerful alternative to simplistic goal setting is direction setting. The direction allows us to set our compass. It allows us to navigate skilfully based on our values in the direction we know we want to travel for the next quest in our life. Once we know where we are hoping to get to, we can let go of our goal and change course as we need to. It allows us to avoid getting attached to an outcome that may not serve us. Letting go of our goal and taking charge of our direction may feel counter intuitive and even a little scary, but it allows us to feel achievement in every little step, and to navigate our path through much more effectively.
Turning our ship towards a point on the shore is committing and can be scary, but the key is to understand the course we want to sail. I’ve found the best approach is to start with the end in mind.
Find a goal that resonates with us. When I say ‘end’ of course I mean a stepping stone in our life. Goals should only ever be seen as short quests in the journey of our life. If we see them as the end point, we will be disappointed when life continues to evolve after we achieve our goal, and we don’t know what we want next. This is your chance to think big, if you want to. You can consider ‘wouldn't it be awesome to become / achieve / have an impact such as …’ Try to imagine the outcome, visualise it if possible, in as much detail as possible. What would the goal look like? How would it feel to achieve it? What would it be like to be telling people about the goal you achieved and the impact it had on you or others? Dream big, this is your chance to get out of your comfort zone.
Once we have a goal in mind, it is very useful to understand which of our core values that goal activates. Spend some time working out why that goals is important to us. There are many ways to do this including becoming aware of our dreaming (unconscious processing), logical thinking, visualisations, meditation, insight through conversation, art or time in nature.
For broader / bigger goals, such as setting up a business, or finding a romantic partner, this process is more involved. Try to figure out specifically what you want from the goal (security, success, connection, safety, fun). There will likely be several values at play, so try and prioritise them. If you miss out this step you're likely to lose focus, jump around, get confused and unfortunately be less likely to achieve and feel fulfilled with your goal and direction.
Work out what actions we might need to take in order to achieve our goal. This might be skills we need to learn. Personal development to let go of old habits. Information we need to gather. People we need to meet to become inspired and motivated. Conversations we need to have to help people around us understand what we hope to achieve, why it’s important and how they can help (or at least not hinder) our progress. This also includes considering what might stop us achieving our goal and pondering how we might deal with those things if they come up.
The next step is to let go of the goal! By now we have understood where we are trying to get to, but more importantly the direction we need to travel to get there.
Check in every so often. If we have made a note of our direction and the goals we had in mind when we chose those directions, we can check in every so often to see if we are still on course. It’s important to consider if the values that have been guiding us are still the ones that are most important to us. It’s also important to consider if the direction and the original goal still serve us best at the next point we find ourselves in life.
This approach is powerful for many reasons. Fundamentally, because we have no attachment to the goal we can actually feel a sense of achievement all the way through life rather than only once we achieve. We avoid the disappointment and guilt of not achieving certain goals. We maintain a sense of purpose and wonder as we go through life. Remember, there is often no need to rush towards your goals. When you do focus too intently on a single outcome, you will often miss many other valuable (and unexpected) things along the way.
I invite you to change the way you look at goals, embrace a certain amount of the wise fool, and live your life balancing progress, acceptance, achievement and a deep reverence for each moment.