Updated on April 16th, 2019
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 risk-taking prompted by stretch-goals 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, overly narrow focus of performance goals has led to other important aspects of any matter being neglected.
Here’s one especially poignant 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 eleven risky decisions that led to their own and six 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.
Going beyond performance and achievement goals
So what are the alternatives to goals then?
Avoid ‘success-or failure’ scenarios by setting 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 set by others) you’ll be more satisfied and 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.
Move forward by intentions
Some experts and spiritual / self-development traditions actually advocate that you don’t need a specific goal to improve yourself and move your life forward – or you can set it, then forget it, letting it be there in the background, without getting too hung up about its specifics.
Instead of logically breaking down your goal into actionable steps to take you exactly to where you want to be and then disciplining yourself to undertake these steps, yoga practice, for example, advocates to set intentions.
Intention, according to Deepak Chopra, is the creative starting point of every dream – “a directed impulse of consciousness that contains the seed of what you aim to create” in your life.
You can set an intention for anything and everything: For a day, a month, a year. For a yoga class, for an important meeting, for a new job, for a trip. For being with your family or friends, or for being on your own.
Unlike a goal, which states a place you want to arrive at, intention states what you want to be open to, how you want to behave, what you want to pay attention to, or the kind of person you want to be whilst underway to that. Your work then becomes practicing being open to that, behaving like that, paying attention to that or being that kind of person, trusting that this will eventually take you to where you need to be – or to your goal, if you’ve set one.
You could set an intention to be more patient or compassionate, to look for the joy in each day, or even to eat more greens.
Then you focus on doing that, without attachment to any specific outcome or result, trusting that your relationships will transform, your daily life will become happier, or your health will improve. And you pay attention to life or people changing around you, to changes happening within you, or to opportunities and openings coming your way that will take you forward.
The emphasis is on your process, not on any specific end result.
Forget about goals – fall in love with a system instead
This statement is from author James Clear, who writes science-based articles and books about performance and habits. His philosophy is similar to the yogic intentions, but more systematic.
He argues that goals restrict your happiness and fuel your enthusiasm only for a short time – whereas what will give you results and keep you happier is the way you work towards your goals.
So if you’re a writer who wants to write a 40,000 words book, forget about the 40,000 words or even a daily word target, and focus on establishing a writing system instead: Your system includes when and how often you’re writing, what you’re doing to keep the ideas flowing, when and how you’re researching, how you’re getting feedback…
Again, the emphasis here is on systematic process, not end result, because when you’re running a system, says James Clear, the results, cannot help but happen.
And a Buddhist point of view
If we allow ourselves to veer off the science path, and include a Buddhist point of view, we find they are torn between ‘The paradox of having goals in the moment‘ and
One size doesn’t fit all…
In principle, it seems to me that goals are a good thing. They are helpful for setting direction and clarifying what you want.
But they can be too rigid and narrow-focused, lead us into unethical behaviour or misjudgements and sap our happiness by setting us up for success-or-failure thinking.
They also seem to suggest that, if we just break them down properly and work towards them, we can achieve anything and everything exactly as we’ve stated. In real life, however, there is much that is out our control, and we better learn to be compassionate about that.
But it seems to me that a one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work. Goals, in the widest sense of the word, probably have to be tailored to different situations and people!
Rigorous goal-setting perhaps works better in competitive or formal settings like business or sports – whereas a more flexible approach might be called for when it comes to changing and transforming your life.
Also, I suspect that different types of people are drawn to different types of goal-setting: Some of us are motivated by measurable performance goals, whereas others are happier with mastery goals, or open and flexible statements of intention.
So my conclusion is – certainly when we’reworking towards creating and living a life you love – that it is more useful to…
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 is in your control. That you and your views will change along the way, as you learn more about yourself throughout your journey of changing your life. And that learning, honesty and flexibility to respond to what happens around you is key to you ending up somewhere that suits you and makes you feel happy.
You want to know how to do that? Read on…
My 3 Top Tips for setting direction instead of goals
1 Create a statement of direction that works for you
Write down something that reflects what you want in your life, or where you want to go.
You could start from a desire, a dream, an aspiration, an intention. The direction you want to go in can be specific or vague; it can imply big or small changes to your life. If achieving a performance level is your thing, or if mastering a skill is your desire, then state that. If you love the process and the journey, map yours out with intentions, or set up a system. Creating a life vision might work for you.
The important thing is to state the direction you want to move to in your life in a way that feels right for you. (If you don’t know how, let me help you.)
Now, whichever way you set your direction:
Pick something that matters to you, and that you can believe in. Something that’s going to be worth the effort and journey of working towards it. 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 of direction 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 at least some of the places you’ll need to pass along the way. Then find a first step, and get underway with passion and enthusiasm.
Know that you don’t have to have it all worked out up front to start moving forward!
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 love 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 as you move towards it – just 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. Ask yourself:
- What’s happened?
- What have you learnt?
- What’s still right about your direction?
What will you continue to do?
- What needs to change?
How will you address that?
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. It’ll be worth it in the end, whatever that end may be for you!
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 not everything in life is in your control, detach yourself from views where ‘getting there’ = ‘success’, and ‘not getting there’ = ‘failure’. Such black and white thinking is unhelpful, when real life is full of shades of grey…
Instead, imagine this: What if you were able to value the journey towards your very own, authentic life 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