Do you need to set goals?

or are you better off without them?

Goals do you need them

Whether it’s on New Year’s eve, or any other day of the year, not everyone likes to set goals – and they’re not always necessary either!

So, let’s take a balanced look at the pros and cons of having goals.

In his book, ‘Help: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done’, Oliver Burkeman is quite damning about goals, or at least the idea of obsessing over them.

He’s particularly upset by Brian Tracy’s book ‘Goals!’ that he describes as the most stress-inducing book he’s ever read!

One paragraph from ‘Help!’ sums up Burkeman’s argument nicely:

‘Life’, Brain Tracy is fond of saying, ‘is like a buffet, not a table-service restaurant: you have to buckle down and work hard now so that you can enjoy the fruits of your labour in the future.’

But this is surely exactly wrong – a recipe for storing up all your happiness for a brief few minutes on your deathbed, when you can look back smugly at your achievements.

Contrast that with the insight of Stephen Shapiro, whose book ‘Goal free-living’ makes the case that you can have some kind of direction to your life without obsessing about the specific destination.

“Opportunity knocks often, but sometimes softly,” he observes.

“While blindly pursuing our goals, we often miss unexpected and wonderful possibilities.”

That sounds a lot more ‘smart’ to me.’

What are my thoughts?

Well, I agree that ‘blindly’ pursuing a goal is a very bad idea.

You wouldn’t want to step onto an aeroplane if you believed the pilot to be someone who was stubbornly determined to take you directly to your destination, regardless of stormy weather en route or other hazards at the destination… would you?.

That said, I’d hope that you wouldn’t get on that aeroplane if you suspected for one second that the pilot had made no plans for the journey either!

So, there’s more to this debate than whether ‘Goals’ are good or bad?

My advice, in a nutshell, is this:

Go steady on the number and scale of your goals.

and do plenty of work – don’t just spend all your time planning!.

Don’t try to fly 6 aeroplanes at once

but don’t give up on goals altogether either.

Urgency of doing. Da Vinci. Paul Claireaux

Indeed, it’s a very good idea to make one of your goals to have a reasonable slice of free time in your diary.

We often underestimate the value of the time spent relaxing with others or the creative ideas that pop into our heads when they’re not buried in work or in our phone screen.

So, perhaps you should stop reading this now 😉

Such time can stop us getting obsessed, or over-stressed about our goals and, let’s be honest unless you’re training for a marathon, or something similar, a lot of your personal goals won’t have a fixed end date.

So, you can flex the timings on these ‘discretionary’ goals – to smooth out your workload. You might even manage to achieve more balance in your life – from time to time at least.

If you’re the super helpful type, you’ll need to take extra care to get your work/life/helping others balance right and it would be incredible if you managed that all the time.

Just be sure to build in time for rest and relaxation – and accept that you might have to say ‘no’… or, at least,  ‘not just now’ – to the never-ending requests for help that others – at work or at home – might pile onto you.

Is it smart to make SMART goals?

Well, the ‘SMART’ acronym, so sarcastically dismissed by Burkeman above, can actually help us to make better plans… but only if we don’t obsess about those plans or stubbornly refuse to adjust our course as life circumstances change.

I know I overuse the aviation analogy (flying was my favourite hobby for 25 years) but the simple truth is that you must be prepared to adjust course or cancel flights from time to time – for your own wellbeing and of those around you.

If you’re going to use the ‘SMART’ acronym, at least get the words right – a lot of coaches get this wrong.

SMART goals are:

  1. Specific
  2. Measurable
  3. Attainable
  4. Relevant 
  5. Time-bound

Remember that ‘R’ is for ‘relevant’. It does not, as I’ve seen printed hundreds of times, stand for ‘realistic’.

Realistic is just another way of saying ‘attainable’. So, we’ve already got that requirement in the list.

Relevance is KEY

Relevance is essential for our motivation.

We need to understand ‘why’ we’re undertaking our bigger life goals – if we’re to find the energy to do them.

Few people will put much effort into goals when they don’t understand the benefit of their actions to their wellbeing over the short or medium term.

And this is where we miss a big trick.

I’ll come back to motivation again soon… because it (and its limitations) are critically important to understand if you want to achieve more. To see that, sign up to my occasional newsletter here – or at the base of this page.

For now, just be aware that most New Year’s eve resolutions fail very quickly.

So, we need to know how specific goals are ‘relevant’ to help us achieve our bigger game plan in life.

Go steady on that ‘time-bound’ thing

Go ahead and put end dates on your goals… as a starting point.

In some cases (like exam timetables or Marathon running events) you’ll have to stick to those end dates too.

However, in many other cases, you’ll have some flexibility on when you complete your goal.

What we know for sure is that beating yourself up on small setbacks is likely to set you back further.

So, be kind, not a bully to yourself.

And don’t spend too much time with a coach who doesn’t understand the word flexibility either 🙁

Put yourself in charge

I think what Burkeman and Shapiro missed in their earlier work is that people in project-based environments can’t get away with saying no to goals. And they’d be daft to do so – ‘project’ work is not all bad.

There are some very exciting and worthwhile projects you could work on. It’s just about finding the right work environment that’s aligned to your values.

Whether you like them or loathe them, the chances are that you’re going to have to work on a lot of goals in your life.

Of course, these work-based goals can be stressful if your boss (or your customer – if you run your own business) sets an unreasonable ‘end date’. But you should be able to sort that out by negotiating sensible timescales for your projects – and on those smaller tasks too.

You’ll feel a whole lot better once you acquire a sense of personal control over your work – and you’ll sleep better and deliver a better job too.

So, everyone wins if you ‘go steady’ on the time-bound point – where you can.

Plan early on bigger goals

In big projects, you may be assisted by a project manager for the planning work.

In my experience, most projects would be total chaos and confusion without them.

On big projects, a good project manager (who is nothing like the image given on the BBC’s ‘Apprentice’ programme by the way) will bring together and coordinate expertise from dozens of different disciplines.

Just think of the different jobs that go into building a house, a road, a bridge, an aeroplane, a ship, a spaceship, a new smartphone and even an Olympic stadium or an Olympic opening ceremony.

We know about the very talented artistic directors and players in that Olympic opening scene, but let’s take more interest in the unsung heroes in big projects – the project managers and experts making them all happen.

Project managers are mostly anonymous people

who make sure that big things get built

to good quality, on budget and on time 

as far as is possible.

Now, you really wouldn’t want to have to tell the world that you’re going to be late with an Olympic stadium, would you?

Yet that’s what precisely happened with the Canadian (Montreal) Olympics of 1976. Their games started with an unfinished main stadium – and it was not until 1987, 11 years later, that both the tower and roof were completed.

So, with your bigger projects, whether personal or business, start things the right way and early.

Do you need help?

If you want coaching help, someone to bounce your ideas off and be challenged before you make your big decisions, go for it.

Just be careful who you work with… frankly, there are some air-headed idiots out there.

Here are my views on what a good coach looks like

And if you believe I could help – let’s have a chat about that.

Hope that’s been useful, good luck on the next stage of your journey and,

Thanks for dropping in


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