A line I used to say onstage in keynotes was, “Goals are things you write down so you can feel bad about yourself later.” I used this facetious comment for comedy, but it was grounded in truth. The way we commonly create goals is a setup for self-flagellation and disappointment.
Goals are meant to make our dreams hold still, so we can grab them with both hands. And specificity in any goal or request is always a positive, but some version of the old adage, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,” holds true. Setting specific measures of success can backfire.
If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
I have good company in this caution around goal setting. Jason Fried, author of Rework, said in a Glassdoor podcast, “The reason I don’t set goals is because they’re mostly artificial, and you either hit the goal and you’re happy, or you don’t hit it, and you’re upset. And if you hit it, then you just set up another one. It’s kind of like, what’s the point?”
Goal setting is important, but I’d like you to plan with an educated avoidance of certain pitfalls and with a simple framework to do it better.
Why Traditional Goal Setting Fails
Factors beyond our influence sabotage goals. The economy, leadership decisions, and global pandemics take the wheel from our hands, though we feel responsible for reaching our destination. We then blame ourselves for failing at an impossible task.
Many of our goals (usually the ones we choose in January) are formed from reflexive guilt – responses to underachieving or indulgence in our past. These knee-jerk attempts at reformation rarely stick and continue the self-esteem-killing cycle of promises repeatedly made and abandoned.
The goal conversation always encourages us to think big – the bigger the better. The classic direction to set Big Hairy and Audacious Goals (from the book Built to Last) can be valuable but ignores the beauty of incremental and gentle gains. As James Clear teaches in Atomic Habits, tiny targets hit with regularity cannot help but add up to big changes.
Numbers from the future are difficult to guess. And that’s precisely what we end up doing so often in numerical goals – guessing. Sales projections, market share goals, or future salary targets are often pulled almost out of thin air – because they are required, not because they are real.
Dream Hard, Work Hard, and Wait for Something Good
Instead of hitching your dreams to so many uncontrollable and emotionally precarious factors, try letting go of knowing what the future will hold. I suggest taking a micro-approach to planning and goal setting containing three layers of action:
Setting aside numbers, dates, and competitive markers, it’s critical to take dedicated time to purposefully dream about what we want to create. Seeing the future requires us to get quiet, be brave, and dream without the constraint of logic. Take some white space (pausing to be reflective or creative), and invite a movie into your mind of what you would like the future to hold. Mind mapping, journaling, or team brainstorming can all lead to a clearer vision of what we want.
Choose a handful of your generated dreams (and, importantly, take off your list any for which you lack current passion). Then spell out the steps to take you toward them. Notice I did not say to them but toward. David Allen, founder of Getting Things Done®, suggests many times we start toward a goal only to realize we need to take a right turn. Our goal got us started but then shifted. And there is nothing wrong with that. Write the steps you need to take in the direction of each desire, planning your behavior, not the results.
Focused, dedicated doing is the next step. Whether committing to a certain daily routine, such as making fifty sales calls per day or following a punch list down a project plan, keep moving forward through your strategic design, and you will arrive somewhere new and better.
This plan is fascinatingly absent of any specific destinations. It does not say, “x will get me to y.” It says, “I’ll begin at x, work as hard as I can in a smart and efficient way, and I’m sure these steps will give rise to somewhere wonderful – perhaps y.” Do these steps – over and over again – and they will lead you to a grander, larger life and better business.