Keep learning and growing – to set goals or not set goals? But is that even the question?

I don’t know about you but this month seems to have been all about setting goals.  This has partly stemmed from my thinking on new year’s resolutions but everyone seems to be going crazy for setting goals and writing to do lists.  With this explosion of interest also comes a hundred and one ways of doing it.  For example, I’ve heard, and had a go at, doing the following this month:

  • Setting three big, stretching goals for the year
  • Changing one habit a month
  • And, I think this is actually my favourite – coming up with one word (or up to three depending on who you listen to) that should define your year.  I’ve chosen CLARITY as it is needed in so many areas of my life at the moment.

I’ve also recently started a coaching qualification in which I get some coaching myself and, of course, I’ve had to come up with three goals for that.

Alongside all this, there are the lovers of To Do lists (myself included) but I think even I’ve taken it a little too far this year and currently have lists for things to do:

  • This year
  • Before I’m 40
  • Before I die.

I feel the need for a giant 1980s style Filofax to keep track of all of it all.

And so I can see why some people are questioning whether setting goals is the right thing to do and there has been a backlash from some who say that setting goals just doesn’t work.

For example, someone commented to me the other week that I shouldn’t be setting big goals but aspirations instead.  This one stumped me for a while.  Then I decided I didn’t like that idea.  Aspirations are great, don’t get me wrong.  I aspire to be a good person.  But aspiring to be one won’t actually help me be one.  I need a few well-chosen and appropriate goals to help me focus on what I mean by that and how I can get there.

And then there are the reports, like this article in Forbes, that setting goals can actually be dangerous, causing (albeit in companies) “unethical behaviour, over-focus on one area while neglecting other parts, distorting risk preferences…”  However, I don’t think this reflects a problem in setting goals per se (did I use that right?) but in the systems that we work and live within (including our own self-beliefs) that reinforce the view that you have to achieve your goal, no matter what.  Very Machiavellian and a lot of drivel if you ask me.

I think that if you only set aspirations for yourself, you are listening to the demons in your head (remember Top Dog?) that set out to protect yourself from failure because there is every chance that you might not achieve a concrete, stretching goal.  And I think that the dangers in setting goals come from our misguided assurances that once written down, they are then set in stone and never to be discussed again until they are achieved.

My approach, as will most things in life, is not to be too hard on myself.  The process of setting goals helps me focus on what’s important.  Writing a To Do list captures things I want to do that I might otherwise forget.  But I don’t then go hell for leather in trying to achieve them all.  I use a process of Test, Review, Redraft and Test again (although it’s never as explicit as that at the time.  I’ve just come to realise that that’s what I do.)  I try things out, asking myself if I really enjoy what actions those goals entail.  And crucially, if I find I’m not, I question if that’s because it’s just getting too hard and I can’t be bothered.  Sometimes the answer to that is no and so I change the goal.  But more often the answer is yes and so I try to be gentle with myself but keep going with it, drip by drip.

An example.  My habit to change this month was how I use my technology.  It’s supposed to help me but I was finding that my overflowing in-box at work was giving me palpitations and I was spending too much time at home checking my emails and on FB.  I have to admit, that two-thirds of the way through January, I am doing rubbish.  But, I think I’ve figured out why.  I sorted my work inbox and now have a system that I’ve been using pretty successfully for two weeks now (big tick, J for me).  But I still spend too much time on email and FB at home.  However, if I’m being absolutely honest here, by reflecting on why this is, I think I’ve uncovered a deeper psychological issue.  I’m afraid of missing out.  I like seeing what folk are up to and watching stupid videos that everyone’s talking about.  So I’ve decided to refocus my goal.  I’m still going to try to reduce my time on FB but my priority is staying on top of my inbox at work (which feels amazing, by the way).

So I threw caution to the wind and decided, hell yes, I am going to introduce the kids to goal setting for the New Year.  All I asked them to do was to draw up to three things that they wanted to do in 2014.  I am totally kicking myself as I put their drawings “in a safe place” and can’t find them but Mischa wants to go on holiday (booked), go down a zip slide (on the to do list) and install a fireman’s pole from her bedroom to the kitchen (probably not going to happen but we have agreed to redecorate her room this year as a  result).  As for Jude, he wants his own website (we’re on the case) and to grow farty beans – still stumped on this one but it’s a challenge!