13 Jul 2012

Towards setting goals properly

Setting goals is important in life in order to gain control, feel empowered and be more in charge of ourselves. By setting goals and taking actions to achieve them, we are giving our lives the directions we desire which makes our life fulfilling and meaningful. Recently, I shared with you the goal to bike for 5 hours a week and started to track my progress with the bar shown on the right column of this blog. This goal has worked out very well for me and sharing it with you guys has motivated me a lot to pursue my goal with all my energy.

Nevertheless, it is highly controversial whether sharing goals with others is motivating or not. See the TED talk below where Derek Sivers advises us to not share our goals:

I think that the research Derek is mentioning is right concerning how and with whom you share your goals. Being admired for just having your goals and being acknowledged as if the goals have been achieved already is indeed counterproductive. In case you decide to announce your goals you should be sure to announce them to the right persons in the right way in order to avoid any kind of gratification that might hamper reaching your goals. You might also have to take care that you are not talked out of your goal either - sometimes this happens as well and it depends on your personality whether this is something that motivates you (to prove people wrong and pursue your goals nevertheless) or whether it is rather demotivating you.

However, in my experience it is important to hold yourself accountable and to tell your goals to others who will ask you regularly about how it goes and kick your ass when necessary. This can help a lot with achieving your goals as you have the pressure to render an account. So, discussing your aims with a positive and helpful audience can help reach your goals. You have to take care, however, that if you give account for not reaching your goals, it is very important to not talk yourself down too much such that you start feeling empty, powerless and as if you were incapable of achieving a goal. This is so not true - everyone can achieve their goals. Instead of talking you down and punish yourself, you should notice that you have not achieved a goal and analyse why you have not achieved it. There is always a cause and it is not your personal insufficiency. It is very important to keep being positive but still realistic (and admit the truth to yourself), in order to be able to improve, change or achieve a goal. One mistake often made is that a goal is not set properly, i.e. it is not S.M.A.R.T. as explained below.

What this all amounts to is that talking about your goals to the right persons can yield a kind of social support system as discussed by the author of "The happiness project", Gretchen Rubin, in the video below. The video discusses also a couple of additional interesting ideas on how to hold yourself accountable for your resolutions:

As mentioned above, setting goals in itself is also not that easy. A goal has to be S.M.A.R.T.ly set, i.e. specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time sensitive. It also is important to not have too many goals at the same time since that might distract you. Focus on the most important goals (ideally just one for each life pillar) and keep them challenging but not impossible to reach. Note that there are also other words that can be used as substitute for S.M.A.R.T. or even S.M.A.R.T.E.R. as can be seen here - unfortunately, there is a specific very nice substitute for the A missing in these sources, namely attractive. Goals have to be attractive, i.e. they have to be formulated positively and not negatively (e.g. don't say "I don't want to be overweight anymore" but rather "I want to get slimmer and healthier and happier" in order to create a positive goal towards which you can target your life). Getting away from something negative is not as motivating as getting closer to something great. Keep in mind that in the moment you reach your goal, you'll feel great and your self confidence improves - this is what you should remind yourself of when targeting your goal. A nice german translation of the S.M.A.R.T. principle of formulating a goal hence is in my opinion: spezifisch (what exactly do you want to achieve?), messbar (when will you know that you achieved it and how do you measure progress?), attraktiv (make it beautiful and appaling and wonderful - note that you can only do so when it's your own goal and not a goal you have been talked into ;-)), ressourcenorientiert (do you have everything you need for reaching the goal? What is missing and what might have to be gathered by you before starting to pursue your goal? Can you gather it on the go while pursuing your goal?) und terminiert (when is your deadline and what exactly are the actions you want to take in order to get closer to your goal and when exactly will you do them?). 

Another very important thing is to check whether your goals match your values and whether your beliefs do not hamper you reaching your goals. It can be very difficult to make our values and our beliefs more transparent since naturally they tend to be hidden. They are a kind of bias we adopted very early in our lives e.g. due to our experiences in our childhood. Since they are deeply interweaved with our personality we usually are unaware of them. Some counseling by an expert with appropriate experience and a fresh mind can be tremendously helpful since we tend to be caught in our own traps. Nevertheless, since good counseling can be very expensive and we all are more or less on a budget and have to prioritize our expenses, here are two techniques to help you adjust your goals to your values and make you beliefs and values more transparent. More transparency can be achieved e.g. by using the 5 whys technique. "Why?" is one kind of question, you might also consider working additionally with questions like "how?", "when?", "to what end?", "what instead?", ... There are plenty of possibilities for leading a fruitful and illuminating conversation with yourself. ;-)
The video below provides some helpful advice by Jeff Doubek on adjusting your goals to your values:

However, as said above, with values and beliefs it's tricky because we tend to stew in our own juice and don't observe our unconcious biases. We don't remember how we gained our bias and often act unconciously. Hence, we should also be careful and try to adjust ourselves to life by means of the feedback we get from others. This requires openness and many fruitful discussions with others. In case we have tremendous difficulties to reach specific goals we really want to achieve, however, it might be worthwile to seek for advice and counselling with an expert with some kind of psychological background (it does not necessarily have to be therapy - I even think that this might be counterproductive in some settings). With the help of the expert you might discover specific unconscious beliefs or values that hamper you and that you have to deal with properly in order to get closer to your goal. Note that the state of your mind is also a resource and hence part of the "R" (here with the much better substitute resource oriented/ressourcenorientiert than realistic, because if you have all resources available, your goal is indeed realistic).

A hands-on first solution how-to for dealing with difficulties concerning your goals: In case you constantly do not reach your goals, you should gradually shrink the amount of goals you are aiming for until you focus on the one goal that is most important to you. In this way, you also prioritize your goals on the go which is very important in time and task management in general. In case this goal is connected with a habit, you should give it 30 days for manifesting it within your daily routine. If it is not a habit but a long-term goal, you should analyze it, break it down into subgoals and define the dependencies and finally realistically assess how much time you'll need until you reach each of the subgoals. You should also investigate what kinds of resources are necessary for reaching your goal and whether they are already available to you or whether you have to gather them before starting to pursue your goal.

And as soon as you have everything analyzed and defined, you can boost your motivation for reaching your goal by means of a vision board. This also belongs to the "A" (attractive) part of S.M.A.R.T.ly defined goals. ;-)

I might share some goals with you soon again, in order to motivate me to reach them. :) Which goals are you currently trying to achieve?

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