Thomas Edison once said “if we did the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves”. Goal-setting is among one of the most misunderstood practices in the area of personal development. From not having any goals to looking at goal-setting as an annual one-time or an on-and-off practice, we tend to fail to grasp the transforming power of goal-setting in our lives. After all, goal-setting could turn into a painful reminder of how behind we feel, compared to others, or how we might fail to come up with far-reaching goals for ourselves. Never mind that the goal-setting literature got us fixated on goals having to be S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely) to get them right, a message that further signals goal-setting might be too complex or time-consuming for our busy lives.
Armed with such thoughts, we tend to miss the real essence of what the goal-setting practice actually is – a framework and a tool for life-long improvement. This means in fact that we need to start with a few general guidelines, then make the practice our own, by refining, adjusting and perfecting it over time in ways that are tailored to each one of us. Goal-setting, perceived and used in this way, turns into a practice in the service of lives that are better, more authentic and more aligned with our values and aspirations.
The theory of goal- setting is relatively simple and generally follows three steps: (1) have a vision of what we want to be, have and do, which will be used to define short, medium and long-term goals; (2) have a plan, detailing tactics and practices required to reach these goals; and (3) execute the plan, by displaying commitment and discipline.
A few important reasons to adopt a goal-setting practice:
- Goals imply having a vision aligned with our values, so ultimately being self-aware as to who we are, what we want and why.
- Goals give us a discipline workout, making us more likely to push through even when we don’t feel like doing it.
- Goals provide clarity on what’s important to us and clarity on our motivations.
- Goals imply marking the wins, with a boost in self-esteem and the feeling of accomplishment in the process. With more wins, come more courage and self confidence that future goals can be reached with the right execution and planning.
If the benefits are huge, how come we don’t turn goal-setting into a lifestyle? A few things to know or adopt that can make a difference in how to think about and approach goal-setting are:
- Start somewhere … big or small. A lot of the literature on goals out there talks about dreaming big. So when we can’t come up with some lofty goals, it is easy to feel inadequate about our lives or abilities to accomplish big things in life. But such way of thinking misses the point that we set goals as a way to improve different aspects of our lives. Even if you can’t identify goals for yourself that are moonshot ideas, focus on the next increment of improvement that could be achieved in any area of your life – health, financial, relationships, professional,… Over time, as you refine your practices and spend more time thinking about your values, roles, needs and aspirations, identifying bigger goals might come more naturally or as aha moments. Charles Garfield, a psychologist, professor and author on peak performers, found that when individuals engage in blue-sky thinking, their performance and achievements skyrocket. Blue-sky thinking is defined as thinking and looking about our lives as if there were no limits, just like looking up into a clear blue sky. In other words, if there were no limits to what you can do, be and have in this life, what would that look like and what would have to happen today?
- Adopt tools for goal-setting such as planners, phone reminders, daily, weekly or monthly routines. Such system will keep the momentum and provide a structure and process to recommit to your goals, execute on your plans, assess progres regularly and adjust as needed. For instance, a planner (Brendon Burchard’s as an example) is a great way to get you started with a goal-setting practice. But allow yourself to tweak, personalize and adjust any structure and process based on what resonates and works best for you at any point, depending on the goals you are pursuing or where you might be in life.
- Build the muscles for execution and planning, irrespective of the goal. While goals have different timelines, the making is in the week and day. In other words, reaching your goals comes down to the weekly and daily practices and disciplines you adopt. Brian Moran and Michael Lennington note in their best-seller The 12-week Year that “the greatest predictor of your future are your daily actions”. Brian and Michael further note “the reality is that if you are not purposeful about how you spend your time, then you leave your results to chance. While it’s true that we control our actions and not our outcomes, our results are created by our actions. It stands to reason that the actions we choose to take throughout our day ultimately determine our destiny”. The successful identification, planning and execution of a goal will be setting you up for success for the next goal.
Is it possible that goal setting is misunderstood because (1) we get caught up in someone else’s goals, some of which the society and culture like to set for us; (2) we focus too much on the big that we don’t take on the small improvements that can make a big difference in our lives on the long run; or (3) we fall short on the execution end?
It takes hard work, commitment, consistence, perseverance, self-awareness and self-compassion to reach certain goals or make improvements in certain areas of our lives. Goal setting is therefore a tool for improvement that one owes to himself/herself and the people around them.
Turning goal-setting into a lifestyle ultimately means choosing, as Steven Pressfield noted in The Art of War, among the two lives most of us have – the life we live and the life we are capable of living.