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One of the biggest misapprehensions I come across when I run our ‘Tools for Goal Setting’ workshop is the belief that there are ‘goals’ people, and those who just bumble through.

Yet there are many successful people who don’t see themselves as ‘goals’ focused. However, anyone who is managing to run their lives reasonably well is setting and fulfilling goals. Whether they do this in a structured, conscious way or not is a matter of organisation not goal setting! Let’s face it, if you didn’t set any goals, you wouldn’t even make it out of bed in the morning.

Most of us have an internal depiction of where we are going. This can take the form of an idea, a picture, or deep sense of purpose which we often unconsciously refer to when making decisions. Very effective people who don’t ‘do’ goals, will often have such a compelling internal vision that is so motivating to them, they just keep ploughing through obstacles to get there. Many of us have this, but not clearly in our awareness, we just ‘instinctively’ know what we need to say yes and no to.

Whether we need structured goals and action plans or not, is a matter of personal preference, and both approaches have advantages and disadvantages, neither is wrong. What’s important is how effective the strategies are.

If what you are doing is working for you, great, keep doing it. If you struggle to get what you want, read on.

Setting your compass

The first and most important step is to work out what you want. I call it setting your compass because it’s not about intricately planning the next decade. You have no way of predicting what will happen over the next 10 years. You and your passions will evolve and the world is constantly changing.

When the first Harry Potter film came out, we smiled indulgently at the talking posters on the wall, and the newspapers with moving pictures in them. Now we walk around any major city in the world and see posters with movies advertising products, and people reading newspapers with embedded video on their hand held devices!

If you keep your long term plans vague and flexible, then as with any journey, when you have to go round the life equivalent of a mountain, or ocean, you’ll have the opportunity to explore new territory. You may even discover new passions that take you in an unexpected direction. It would be a shame to miss those because they weren’t on the plan you drew up years earlier! What does matter is that the direction you set is important to you.

Identify key steps

Once you’ve set your compass, what has to happen to get you there? Identify the smaller goals and key steps that need to happen for this to become your future reality. Put them in order and identify what has to happen first.

For some this will be enough to take action, others will need to spend a bit more time working out the detail, and scheduling in more specific activities. Before you start though, take these goals through the workout below.

The goal workout

As Steven Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People said, “It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in an activity trap, in the busy-ness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall.”

Do this goal workout and make sure your ladder is in exactly the right place! Ask yourself the following questions about each goal:

What do you want?

I mean what specifically do you want? If you want to earn more money, how much more exactly, when do you want to earn it by and what are you going to do with it? The more detail you can add, the more refined and compelling your goal will become.

Sometimes when you go into the detail, your goal can change. Take the goal of wanting to earn more money. Maybe when you’re more specific, you realise that what you actually want is more free time with your friends and family and you have been working on the assumption that the only way to get that is to earn more.

Once you realise that what you thought was the goal was actually the enabler, you can brain storm around your real goal and see if you can come up with an alternative range of solutions and options.

It’s important to state your goal positively. “I want to stop smoking,” or “I want to lose weight,” are examples of negatively set goals, they are stating what you want less of, not more. It’s a bit like jumping into a taxi and saying, “I want to be somewhere else!” You can imagine the response you would get.

Just as the taxi driver has no way of following that instruction, you can’t make a plan or actively ‘stop’ or ‘lose’ something, they are not activities, they are non-activities.

These alternative versions would give you something to aim for:

“I’m going to put the £5 a day I normally spend on cigarettes in a tin box, so in nine months I will have the money I need to book a holiday in Spain.”

“I’m going to follow these eating recommendations and walk four miles every day, and in six months I will have lost four inches off my waistline, and be feeling more energetic.”

The more specific you can be about your goals, the more they come to life in the present, and the more you will feel drawn to putting in the effort to make them happen. 

How will you know when you’ve got it?

How will you measure your success? What evidence will you use to check you’ve achieved your goal? What is enough? What is too much?

This sounds obvious, but you’ve probably met people who’ve strived to attain a position that they thought they wanted, but find that it takes them away from the activities that play to their strengths and that they really enjoy. For example, journalists who become editors sometimes realise that much of their time is taken up by managing people, budgets and schedules as opposed to chasing and writing stories - which is what they are best at and thrive on.

How will other people know you have achieved this goal? What evidence will they use to know you’ve got this goal?

When do you want it?

If your goal is to be really enthusiastic and motivated, do you want this all the time, in every area of your life? Or do you want to be able to switch off sometimes and relax? Being enthusiastic and motivated 24/7 would be exhausting, not to mention a bit challenging to live with, so think about where you want to be like this, and where in your life you don’t want it.

Is this goal right for you?

Perhaps you seek fame and fortune, but are terrified about the impact this might have on your friends and family. If you never address this, it will remain an unhelpful niggle in the background, stopping you from putting in the effort you need to. When you realise what is bothering you, you can address it, change your goal to accommodate it, or knowingly accept the risk.

Perhaps this goal isn’t yours, maybe a parent or teacher set this goal for you when they were trying to help or encourage you when you were younger, and you have been pursuing it trying to please them, ever since. It’s very hard to make a goal work if you don’t really care about it at a deep level.

To find out if your goal fits with who you are, ask the following questions.

  • What will you gain if you get this?
  • What will you lose if you get this?
  • What will you gain if you don’t get this?
  • What will you lose if you don’t get this?

The answers to these questions will start to weed out potential or imagined drawbacks to your goals that could be encouraging you to quietly self-sabotage.

Is it within your control?

There’s no point setting a goal that depends on someone else doing something. For example, if your goal was, “I’m going to be commissioned to write for television.” You have to ask yourself, how are you going to make that happen?

Instead, if you focus on what’s in your control, your goal could be, “I’m going to research where my style of writing is currently used in television, then I’m going to allocate one day a week to network, call, and find avenues where I can present my work to give myself the best chance of being commissioned to write for television.” That then becomes a goal you can action.

Ready for action

Once you’ve taken your goals through this workout, you will have highlighted, understood and dealt with any issues you have identified. If the issues you came across were deal breakers, you need to change your goal to accommodate them.

Once you have done this, you will probably find that it is hard not to work towards your goals because this process makes you focus on all the elements that make them more compelling for you. If you like structure, draw a chart, if not, then just by doing this process you will be clearer about your ultimate objectives and this will make your choices easier and your path clearer.

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