A friend was recently asked about his New Year’s resolutions for 2017. He replied, “To stop setting goals I can’t possibly achieve.” That got me to thinking: is goal-setting a good or bad idea? We live in a highly goal-oriented culture where constant striving for ever higher and brighter brass rings is both encouraged and applauded regardless of the consequences. In fact, not only is achievement rewarded, but the opposite is also true. Being satisfied with merely good enough is looked down upon to the point of being considered lazy or even irresponsible.
So should we be setting goals? For me, the answer is “yes”, but with caveats. Here are some ideas to consider:
- Set small, incremental goals. Many years ago I remember hearing a speaker in a class aimed at potential entrepreneurs talk about the “BHAG”, an acronym for “Big Hairy Audacious Goals”. There is, of course, something to be said for that. Some of you might be old enough to recall, for example, the excitement of establishing “first man on the moon” as a national goal. The whole country got fired up behind that concept. But like any other goal, it didn’t happen all at once. It happened in stages. So if you have a goal in mind like getting a new job, or remodeling your kitchen, or, more commonly, exercising more or losing weight. Remember that you can’t go from zero to sixty without first passing 1, 2, 5, 10, etc. Break the big goal down into its component parts and make each part a goal in itself. Just like climbing a ladder, each rung is an achievement in its own right. Since we all periodically need an excuse for a party, each incremental accomplishment is worthy of celebration.
- Craft methods in soft pliable clay instead of cement. In other words, keep the plan malleable. Once you know where you want to go, be flexible about how you actually get there. There is always more than one route. Most of us can think of a time when we planned a trip thinking we would get where we wanted to go in a particular way only to be stymied by unexpected circumstances – road repairs, weather delays, GPS errors, etc. In my own experience, I can’t think of a single time when I didn’t eventually reach my ultimate destination. But I might have had to change plans and find an alternative method, or simply wait until conditions changed. This is true for any goal. The best laid plan might not work out the way you thought it would. This doesn’t necessarily mean the goal is not achievable. It just might mean that a different method needs to be explored. For example, if a sudden snowstorm makes the 10-mile hike you planned too daunting, maybe you can do 3 or 4 shorter stints on a treadmill. Or do something entirely different and put the hike off for another day. Sometimes, too, you might find that a larger goal was not broken down into small enough increments. There might be a way to dissect it further into more manageable parts. Whatever obstacles appear in your path, they are most likely temporary. If possible, try not to etch time lines in stone. You might still be able to reach your goal if you are willing to accept that it might take longer or have to be done differently than you originally thought. Attempting to bludgeon your goal into submission won’t get you there sooner. In fact, forcing it will likely just increase your frustration. Be willing to accept change when necessary.
- Set goals but not expectations. There can be a tendency to attach too much significance to a particular goal. We might think that losing 10 pounds, or buying a bigger house, or some other achievement will have some magical effect on our lives and we will live happily ever after. Of course, life rarely seems to work that way. But that doesn’t mean that the accomplishment and all the hard work invested to get there was wasted or worthless. Sometimes the path leads to outcomes that you couldn’t possibly have foreseen. Keep an open mind. Take the steps required to achieve your goal, but let the outcome unfold on its own. The destination you reach may look different from the mental picture you had when you started the journey, but it may hold a beauty all its own. It might take some time to see it, but you’ll realize it eventually if you are willing. In fact, what actually happens may end up far exceeding any result you could have planned.
- Establish your own goals. The concept of success in our achievement-oriented society often includes certain fixed ideas of what constitutes success. It’s easy to fall into the trap of other people’s expectations. Whatever goals you set, make sure they are for you. Trying to please someone else will only lead to disappointment. You may think you know what others want from you, but it is unlikely that your perception is the true reality. You can never go wrong being the best that you can be from your own point of view. That’s the only view you can truly know or control. Accept yourself and your own accomplishments. Even if you are the only one that appreciates your achievements, so be it. Your opinion counts! Be your own cheerleader!
- Finally, enjoy the journey. No matter what your goals or how you measure success, you’re going to learn a lot along the way. That in itself is a valuable experience. Whatever your goals, you won’t be able to reach them if getting there means gritting your teeth and hating every minute along the path. This doesn’t mean that you won’t struggle at times. But all struggles should at least be tolerable in the context of the larger goal. If climbing Mt. Everest is your goal, you’re certainly not going to get there without considerable hardship and sacrifice. But a true love of mountain climbing should help you to accept the temporary suffering that is inevitable along the way. On the other hand, if you’re terrified of heights or hate the cold, this is not going to be an appropriate goal for you. This is true whatever your goal is. The goal you choose might be challenging, but recognize the true reality of the steps you need to take to get there. With a full understanding of what is involved and a sincere desire and belief in your ability to get there, you will be able to find a way through the rough patches. They are, after all, only temporary. One of my favorite sayings among ultrarunners is “It never always gets worse.” Whatever circumstances you find yourself in, nothing lasts forever. Hang in there for a while and it will change.
Although I am not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, goal-setting can be motivating. Especially if you are one of those people who knows you need a goal in order to stay motivated. I know many runners who need to sign up for a race in order to motivate themselves to get out and do the training. But avoid letting goals become a sledge hammer hanging over your head giving you one more reason to beat up on yourself. Accomplishment and failure are subjective states. Be patient and kind and give yourself some room for growth. Remember, too, that every day is a new day and a new opportunity to re-adjust and try again. Your goals may change but you will still be a success.