Conventional wisdom says we need to set goals if we are to achieve anything of consequence. Like a lot of accepted truths, the idea has its detractors. For instance, goals give us focus but at the same time limit us. If, for example, my goal is to sail around the world, then I cannot simultaneously be working full-time in building my business.
And it isn’t always clear what we are giving up when we choose our goals. For instance, the busy executive who chooses an ambitious financial goal and neglects his well-being may not understand the price he will pay in broken health until it is too late.
The limitation of setting goals can be compounded by a lack of imagination. How do we create big enough goals?
Imagine trying to map an area walking on a mountain trail where you can see only a few feet ahead. You don’t know what lies around the bend, nor can you imagine what the view will be like when you reach a higher elevation. Because you’re limited to the immediate scenery, you’re limited in your perspective. Only when you stand on top of the mountain do you see the entire topography. That’s why, once we realize our limitations in setting goals, our friends, family members and colleagues who stretch our imaginations become incredibly valuable to us.
It is also difficult to articulate goals that speak to our deepest needs. I’ve found that trivial goals, such as cleaning a closet, are easier to list than significant ones, such as changing jobs, preparing a will or saving for retirement. That may be because organizing a closet is a task I can confidently achieve, whereas I am not at all certain, for example, that I can achieve the goal of finding a new job. Consequently, if I don’t know whether I can accomplish a goal, I’m tempted to leave it off my list.
Goals also have the unfortunate consequence of making us dissatisfied with the status quo. If, for example, I set a goal to lose weight, that goal reflects my discontent with my current body shape. Yet everything I’ve learned about making progress with weight loss and fitness indicates that acknowledgment and acceptance of my situation is essential if I am to make constructive changes. I find this statement paradoxical.
A friend of mine, a prominent psychologist, was well-known for his refusal to set goals. He wanted his future to be open-ended so that he could respond to and capture the essence of each moment. He wanted to be in sync with the flow of his life, rather than impose a structure on it. I learned a lot from him because I realized that goal setting for many of us is an ill-disguised attempt at controlling an uncertain future.
If you have ever uttered the expression “Man proposes and God disposes,” you have acknowledged how unpredictable and uncontrollable the future can be.
The other day I was out on a walk by myself, enjoying the blue sky, fluffy white clouds, warm sunshine and gentle breeze. I could hear birds singing in a nearby bush. In the next instant, I was face down in a brown mud puddle, having tripped over a small rock embedded in the dirt path. When I got up, I had a gash on my hand that had broken my fall and a sore knee and shoulder. But it was really my feelings that were hurt. I was embarrassed cleaning dirt, grass and blood off myself, even as I gave thanks that I had suffered only minor injuries. This incident is a small reminder of how quickly the circumstances in our life can change.
Setting goals has the potential to make us unhappy when we fail to reach them. Perfectionists in particular fall prey to this subtle trap. Take the woman, for example, who decides to eat 1,500 calories a day to lose weight. On Tuesday, for some reason, she overeats and doesn’t reach her goal. Since she missed the mark, she decides to overeat the rest of the week and start over on the following Monday. Does this behavior make sense? No, but I have made that mistake myself.
Still, with all their shortcomings, we need goals. How would we ever reach our destination if we didn’t know where we intended to go? Consequently, I can’t resist setting goals, and I get tremendous satisfaction working toward them and finally achieving them.
One such goal, for example, was completing a cathedral window quilt sewn entirely by hand. The quilt is composed of small squares that are separately constructed and then hand sewn together. Each of the squares is complicated to make (it has five layers of fabric), and each takes about one hour to construct.
Because of the multiple layers of fabric, about 36 yards of fabric are needed to make one queen-sized quilt. Once the boxes are sewn together, a design fabric is hand sewn on the top, again in a complex, detailed pattern. When finished, the quilt resembled a cathedral window with variegated colors and the illusion of depth.
For seven years, I worked about an hour a day on my quilt. I enjoyed cutting fabric, hand sewing each square and later painstakingly assembling the various pieces, even though my fingers would hurt from the handwork and I’d have a headache from eye strain.
Each time I added a square, I relished the day when it would be completed. Having assembled all the squares, I sewed dainty lace around the sides. The final stitch was sewn on a Christmas Day while the turkey was baking. I remember the moment because, after the initial elation, I was surprisingly sad. I realized I needed to find another project to fill the void. That’s how important goals are to my well-being. I felt the same way when I retired and quickly realized I needed to create new goals.
Setting goals is really how we try to define the future; that’s why I language my goals as desired outcomes. I try not to worry if I don’t know how I will achieve them. Through experience, I’ve discovered that adding this requirement—knowing how to achieve the results—puts a brake on my thinking. Instead, I spend time reflecting on what I truly want to achieve.
At this point, the prevailing wisdom about how to articulate goals is useful. The ideas are summarized in SMART:
Instead of setting a goal, for example, to lose weight and get fit, set a goal to lose 10 pounds by July 2008. This second statement is specific (lose weight), measurable (10 pounds), attainable (a weight loss of 2 pounds a month), relevant (I really want to do this) and time-bound (July 2008).
Another essential element of successful goal setting is writing down goals and measuring progress. For many years, I wrote down annual and quarterly goals that I regularly updated for both my professional and my personal life. Now that I am semiretired, I have a master set of goals that I break down into weekly plans. Each day, after checking the weekly goal sheet, I write down what I want to accomplish.
Articulating desired outcomes is an important first step. But of course, the work doesn’t stop there. The next critical skill involves tackling the goals and staying on track. I’ll save writing about that for another day. In fact, now that I think about it, I better put that writing assignment on my list!