WE HAD SOME interesting discussions at our recent Goal Setting workshop around the merits and demerits of setting goals. It got me thinking. Is it even possible to live without setting any goals? And if so, would this be a good thing?

Going with the flow

The argument against setting goals came from a concern about losing the benefits of living in the moment, and I know from working with clients, that some people really can miss out on years of their life by focussing only on the future.

Some people spend years in jobs they hate, with their sights set firmly on making enough money to relax and enjoy their old age. I know one person who did this and sadly didn’t live to see their retirement.

So there’s definitely something to be considered about not being so focussed on goals, that you forget to enjoy the main event. It’s a bit like booking an expensive meal, and being so fixated on the dessert, that you gulp down the first two courses without tasting them, only to find you don’t have room for dessert when it comes, so you end up not savouring any part of the meal!

It’s also important to remember that achieving a goal is often short lived. You celebrate and enjoy it for a brief period. Then you start to think about your next challenge. So to not enjoy the bits between the triumphs is a bit of a waste really, isn’t it?

Without any goals though, how can you make good career choices? How can you possibly know what’s ‘best’? How can you evaluate choice X against choice Y? What measures could you use to determine ‘better’, or ‘more useful’, if you don’t have a clue about where you’d like to end up?

Many people don’t realise that they set goals. In fact some of the people on our workshop didn’t think they were ‘goals’ people. However, they were all qualified and working in their creative industries. How did they know what to do to get themselves where they now are? I’m pretty sure they all had some sort of plan or broad target that they worked, and are still working towards, even if they never expressly sat down and drafted a goal schedule.

Let’s face it, if we are functioning in society, we are achieving small goals all the time. If you turn up on time for work or to an audition, it’s the result of you setting that as a goal, then turning that goal into action. Most of us have at least a general, if vague goal, which we know we are working towards, but may not have taken the time to define clearly.

It was suggested that the only people without personal goals are monks, nuns or hermits, but if you think about it, they do actually have goals. Their aims are often around living their life in the service of god, or humanity, or of withdrawing from society, finding inner peace etc. So I’m left with the question, is it even possible to live without goals?

Setting Goals

When it comes to setting goals, not all goals are equal. They come in all shapes and sizes, many are externally imposed, like sales targets set with an arbitrary 10% increase, regardless of what’s happening in the market place and economy. Some are challenges plucked from the air, without any attempt to make sure that they sit comfortably with who we are, no down sides being considered. Imposed goals are out of our control, some arising from what we think we ‘ought’ to do.

Many of us manage to achieve goals like these, but they often don’t feel satisfying and, I think, can be damaging to at least some degree, e.g., not really wanting a goal can be detrimental to your motivation and energy.

When I discuss goals, I always use the analogy of setting a compass, so we know what direction we are headed in, but have the flexibility to take detours to get around any obstacles that may arise. I personally am a great believer in not being too fixed on the destination, because some of the detours we encounter in life, and this has definitely been the case in my own experience, often end up taking us down a more attractive path than we could ever have predicted.

Also, to make rigid long-term goals, is flawed because if you think about how much technological and social change we have experienced in our lives. We can’t possibly predict what the world is going to be like in 10 years, so there’s no point in firmly nailing our colours to a mast that might soon become obsolete.

In our workshop we give our goals a full workout. We test whether we actually even want them, and we fine-tune their detail to make them appealing and achievable for us. We make sure that our goals fit with who we are and are aligned with our values.

In conclusion

So, as with most things, I am inclined to think that there is a middle path. In my opinion, having some goals is not just desirable, it’s essential, and I would argue that literally going with the flow ultimately takes us out to sea!

Being completely focussed on your goals and your future at the expense of the present is also rarely a wise path. Being too firmly wedded to your goals can make you less resilient when life gets in the way of your plans.

So neither extreme is attractive to me. Somewhere in the middle is definitely where I prefer to be. Defining a broad-brush future direction for yourself, with specific interim targets, allows you to aim for something relevant and tangible, measure your progress and adjust your course as necessary, without making it the only focus of your life. What do you think?

More info

For quick tips and answers to frequently asked questions on goal setting plus an e-course ‘Overcoming Freelance Challenges’ (showing you how to stay motivated to achieve your objectives), go to the FEU Digital Learning Centre.

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