Anywhere I turn there seem to be goals.
It doesn’t matter whether people are busily setting goals or arguing their limitations: it is still goals that excite our discussions.
My first reaction was only human – I started looking for the goals I set myself last year and panicking about the goals I may set for this year. Then I remembered two things:
- first that, strictly speaking, I didn’t set goals last year and
- second that what my readers may wish to read about is not my life and my goals but the ways to think about theirs.
If you are anything like me, you probably find goal setting difficult. Where to start? What kind of goals; are these goals about work, career, relationships? How many goals are enough? What happened to last year’s goals? What is important in my life? What do I really, really want?
Good questions, these. We live in goal oriented, western societies; well, if Alexa is to be trusted, most of my readers do anyway.
Somewhere along the way we have started to associate our economic prosperity (well, recession aside, the West is still relatively very rich) with our ability to set and achieve goals. In other words, we associate prosperity with our ability to control our lives.
Different models, some of which draw on ancient knowledge and others that come straight from the knowledge factories of Business Schools, circulate.
There is the SMART model stating that goals ought to be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely; this was recently discussed by Cash Flow Mantra .
There is the ‘wheel of life’ method which brings attention to the need for balance in our lives. Goals are considered along seven dimensions: attitude, career, personal development, health, social life, finances and family. These are mapped on a circle and each area is scored between 1 and 10. More on the ‘wheel of life’ you can learn here.
And recently I came across an activity based method asking you to finish seven sentences. These are: 1. Learn how to…; 2. Start…; 3. Stop…; 4. Take a holiday to…; 5. Find…; 6. Try…; 7. Be more…
You know what?
I think that one can choose any of these three and end up with a very similar outcome: a list of goals that are real not because we ever do anything to achieve them but because they cause us stress and discontent. Because, in my opinion, what matters is not what areas our goals cover, or even whether these are attainable and realistic.
What matters to whether and how much we achieve and to how happy (read excited) we feel on the way is how we formulate our goals. There are two framework ways to do this: one is to extrapolate from the present and the other to track back from the future.
Your goals: Extrapolating from the present
When looking at their future and planning their lives most people start from the present.
In this case, the future is an extension of their present and they are locked into existing trajectories – even imagining a life dramatically different from their present one is impossible. More importantly, extrapolating from the present usually results in exactly what the SMART model preaches: goals that are attainable and realistic. These goals are often unimaginative, boring and mundane.
Extrapolating from the present rarely brings about what I call ‘craving mentality’. It works with your reason but leaves your emotions, attitudes and longing cold. Want an example?
Well, my present is that I have become a bit overweight. If I were to extrapolate from the present my goal will be to lose 20 pounds in fifteen weeks. I have researched the matter and already know that the healthy weight loss is about 1.5 pounds a week so allowing for minor slips this is attainable and realistic.
Would I succeed? May do! But I think that ultimately I will fail because: 1) I am already focusing on the deprivation and suffering this will bring (can’t eat chocolate and the exercise is murder); 2) this demands a lot of discipline and since this is a zero sum game something will have to give; 3) if I know myself I will lose this weight but once this has happened will compensate and put it back on. In other words, even if I lose the weight I would have kept my overweight mentality – I’ll be an overweight person who is losing weight.
If you ask me, please don’t set your goals starting from the present.
Your goals: backtracking from the future
You know that the future doesn’t exist, right? We shape the future through our dreams and the actions we take to achieve these dreams.
This way of goal setting involves forgetting about the present, leaving realism to one side, throwing attainability to the wind and dreaming. If your present didn’t matter. where do you want to be in the future? Where do you want to be this time next year? How about in five years time?
Don’t think! Just close your eyes and conjure a picture of yourself in the future: how do you look, what are you doing and what have you already achieved. This is best done by taking about fifteen to twenty minutes and making sure that you are comfortable and that you won’t be disturbed. Then start dreaming – make sure that you don’t try to tame and control your dream. Follow the stream of the dream and you may be surprised where it takes you.
Make sure that you remember your dream; I, for instance, talk my dream and record it.
Make your dreams your goals. You will find that you crave your goals, you feel excited by them and just can’t wait to get on with what is necessary to achieve them.
Getting back to our example, my goal won’t be to lose 1.5lb every week for fifteen weeks. My goal will be to look really trim and fit within a set timeline. Once I have developed the longing and excitement of the goal eating differently and exercising more becomes so much easier. But surprises are possible: I may see my future self looking exactly as I do today!
This, I find, is the most obvious benefit of goal setting by backtracking from the future – this allows us to break existing trajectories and change dramatically the directions of our lives. This allows us to re-invent ourselves.
I used to set goals, now I’ve learned to dream.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t have goals; it simply means that my goals are less like racing goalposts and more like a compass helping me to follow the general direction of my true life.