What’s your experience with goals? Do you love them? Do you loathe them? Or do you perhaps avoid them altogether?
These questions are contentious, and opinions are divided. Goals have their pros and cons.
So I’ve done a bit of research. Read on to find out what the experts say. And why my conclusion is that, in terms of your life, it’s best to set direction instead of goals! (And also find out 3 ways for how to do that.)
3 good things about goals
Whether you love them or loathe them:
1 Goals are expressions of our aliveness
In their best form, they are statements of our authentic wants and desires. They’re the very expression of us working to realise ourselves in our life. As such, you could say that they are in fact essential to keep us alive.
And goals, in making us think about what we want, are affirming and confidence-building. As we move towards that, we strengthen our belief that we are deserving or worthy, and able to achieve it for ourselves.
2 Goals give us purpose
Used constructively, goals lend us purpose, focus and priority in an increasingly confusing and overwhelming world.
Particularly when things look uncertain, a goal gives us a sense that there are at least some things that we have some control over.
Goals are about having agency in our own life, even when the going gets tough: So whilst the sea might be rough and choppy, and we might lose our way, we can still be captain of our own ship, and decide on our course as best we can – rather than being helplessly tossed about.
3 Goals help us improve
In order to work towards something you want and don’t already have, you are likely to have to stretch yourself at least a little: Do something you’ve never done before. Learn something you didn’t know before. Do something differently. You are also likely to learn something along the way. And you will not just improve your life, but also yourself.
Goals can also help you chart your progress on your life journey. They’re a way of making your development visible: Achieving them provides milestones and structure. Which will make you feel more satisfied with your life.
All of the above makes us feel alive. And more positive, motivated and enthusiastic about ourselves and our lives. And it helps us keep going and persevere even through difficulty.
That’s not the full story
For some people of the people I work with, goals are off-putting and scary, or even a burden.
For others, setting hard, specific goals anticipates feeling a failure, or feeling guilty for having fallen short of their goal.
And others again criticise the whole idea of pursuing goals as setting ourselves up to constantly chase something we don’t have – staying stuck in an eternal loop of lack and dissatisfaction: Achieving one thing, only to feel another lacking, and keep chasing after it. Or hitting a big void when you’ve achieved all the things you wanted, and there are no more goals left!
All this might well lead us to become cynical about goals, and believe that they don’t work, or don’t work for us – and aren’t therefore worth trying for.
We might not like certain aspects of goals for good reasons. Yet it seems to me that opting out of them completely also means depriving ourselves of all the good stuff they bring – and cutting ourselves off from aliveness itself!
So let me ask you:
How do YOU feel about goals?
You love them? Because they give you focus, inspiration, motivation, an opportunity to stretch yourself, and a great sense of satisfaction when you’ve achieved what you wanted.
Or you loathe them? Because more often than not, they haven’t worked for you, making you feel that you’ve somehow failed or are not good enough.
Or perhaps you avoid them altogether? Because you feel that the pressure and rigidity they put on demotivates you, and you’d rather make up your path as you go along.
Well – I’ve come across all three attitudes in my life coaching practice. And in the coaching world, there seems to be no more contentious subject than goals and how to use them.
So I did a bit of research, in order to find out what the great and the good of psychological, scientific and spiritual thinking are saying…
What the experts say about goals
Here’s what I found:
Performance-driven goals work
Compared to vague or easy goals such as ‘Do your best’, specific, hard and challenging goals do work in improving performance and results – research has shown this again and again, particularly in the fields of business and sports.
That’s provided that people have or can obtain the resources, knowledge and skills required to achieve the goal. (Too great a stretch without appropriate means will result in stress, overwhelm, and goal-non-achievement.)
I guess there’s a place for this kind of goals philosophy in those highly competitive worlds where performance is key, and where it’s all about the thrill of winning or losing.
But over-prescribing goal-setting does more harm than good
Research put together by a team of scientists from various universities for Harvard Business School indicates that setting overly specific and performance-driven goals has been overstated, and has in fact been causing systematic harm:
Firstly, it’s led to a rise in risky or unethical behaviour:
Individuals motivated by challenging goals chose riskier gambles in order to achieve these. The scientists even point out that such stretch-goal-prompted risk-taking lies at the root of many real-world disasters, such as the collapse of Enron and the global financial crisis of 2008.
They also state numerous examples where employees charged customers unnecessarily, or falsified financial statements in order to meet challenging financial goals.
Secondly, the overly narrow focus of performance goals has led people to neglecting other important aspects of a matter.
To name but one example: On their 1996 Mt. Everest climb, world-class high-altitude guides, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, identified so closely with the goal of reaching the summit that they made 11 risky decisions that led to their own and 6 of their clients’ deaths.
Finally, over-use of performance goals has been shown to harm companies…
…by damaging interpersonal relationships and co-operation between employees, corroding constructive and ethical company culture, reducing personal motivation, and even inhibiting learning. So much so that in many situations, the damaging effects of goal-setting have been shown to outweigh its benefits.
Beyond performance goals: Mastery goals
Some experts, particularly in education, advocate using mastery goals instead of performance goals: These emphasise mastering a task, with a focus on learning and improving yourself according to your own standards. For example: Instead of aiming for that straight A in your Spanish test, you could aim at becoming fluent enough in speaking Spanish to be able to get by on your travels to Spanish-speaking countries.
That is still challenging and interesting, but doesn’t set you up for either success or failure, and you will also gain the satisfaction of developing and exercising your new skills, and gaining understanding and insight along the way.
As your motivation comes from feeling your mastery within you (as opposed to having demonstrated a performance level others set) you’ll be more able to keep going through setbacks. And you’re likely to always find a next interesting thing to learn, and so won’t run out of steam or motivation after you’ve achieved one goal.
And a Buddhist point of view
Set direction, not goals
This means you’re not aimlessly drifting, and feel a sense of agency, of having a say in where your life is going and what you’re doing with it.
Yet you recognise that a narrow, specific, performance oriented goal is likely to be constraining, and doesn’t recognise that life isn’t a performance contest. That not everything in it is in your control. That you and your views will change along the way. And that learning, and flexibility to respond to what happens around you is key to end up somewhere that suits you and makes you feel happy.
Here are my 3 Top Tips for how to set direction instead of goals:
1 Create a statement of direction that works for you
Something that reflects what you want in your life, or where you want to go.
It can be starting from a dream, an aspiration, an intention. It can be small or big, specific or vague. It can be focused on a performance level, or on mastering a skill. It can be focused on the outcome, or on the journey. Creating a life vision might work for you.
Set your direction in the way that feels right for you. (If you don’t know how, let me help you.)
Now, whichever way you set your direction:
Whether you choose to call your statement of direction your goal or something else: Make sure that you express it in a way that speaks to you. So you feel emotionally engaged, motivated and looking forward to get going with it. And if the word ‘goal’ shuts you straight down, don’t use it!
Then use your statement as your guiding light, to give you a rough direction of travel. If it’s very big or vague, see if you can break it down into all the things that will need to happen along the way. Then find a first step, and get underway with passion and enthusiasm.
2 Keep it flexible
Bruce Lee said: “A goal is not always meant to be reached; it often serves simply as something to aim at.”
I can relate to that. Life can be full of chaos and unpredictability. As we progress in the direction we’ve decided to go in, stuff will happen that we couldn’t foresee. And we’ll gain experience and learn, about ourselves, our life, and where we want to take it. Hence, our views and plans – and indeed our direction – might need to change.
Be prepared for that. Be open to it, and be ok with it.
Rigidly sticking to an overly narrow goal – or one that’s feeling increasingly ‘wrong’ for you – for the sake of hitting your target is only going to make your journey more difficult than it needs to be. And you might well feel disappointed and unhappy once you get there, and find that there is not right for you after all.
So I recommend you do as I do – for myself, and in my work with my clients: Review your progress frequently. What’s happened? What have you learnt? What’s still right about your direction? What needs to change?
And don’t be afraid to adjust your course, or even take a u-turn, go back to base, and figure out a new direction to embark in.
3 Detach yourself from success or failure thinking
See your direction statement as your power to influence what you can in your life. It’s your rightful expression of what you want.
And knowing that, as per point 2, not everything is in your control, detach yourself from views where ‘getting there’ = ‘success’, and ‘not getting there’ = ‘failure’. Such black and white thinking is unhelpful in life, which can be full of shades of grey…
Imagine this: What if you were able to value the journey towards your very own life direction for itself?
Independently of whether you ‘got there’ or not, ask yourself:
What have I learnt along the way? What has the experience given me? How has the way I see things changed? What’s important for me now?
There is no perfect way to set direction into a life you love – just your way!
Over to you now…
What do YOU think?
I’d love to hear your views, and what works / doesn’t work for you. Thanks for leaving your comments in the box below!
Photos: Pixabay Graph: Monica Castenetto