By Rhonda Collins
I Start Wondering Columnist
Are you like me? Every year, I set several New Year’s resolutions for myself. And, every year, about 10 days into January, I’ve already gotten off track.
Then starts the verbal sparring in my brain: You are a failure! No, I was just being unrealistic. You can’t do anything right! I will get better; I just need to work harder, but I’m not sure how. Why are you even trying? Because I really need to make these changes . . . and so on.
We can get off course from our resolutions and goals for many reasons. Maybe we set our expectations too high. Maybe we have unexpected life events that take our energy away. Maybe our timeline didn’t allow for setbacks.
For 2022, I’ve decided to take a new approach to goal setting: one that allows for self-compassion and grace when I fall short of my own expectations. I’m learning the importance of creating goals that are suited to my personality, lifestyle, and chapter of life. And, perhaps most importantly, I recognize the need to have a flexible process that includes an occasional change in plans.
I developed a new goal-setting system that I call GOOD GOALS. “GOOD” stands for Guidelines Offering Organization and Direction, and I’ll share more about GOALS later in this column. (Of course, I love an acronym!) GOOD GOALS can reduce stress by having us focus less on obtaining grand results in a certain timeframe, and instead focus on finding a system that works and keeps us moving toward the target.
Before diving into this alternative approach to achieving our goals, let’s discuss why goals are needed.
Specific Goals Are Important
I suppose the easiest path would be to simply avoid setting a personal goal or declaring a resolution and just hope for the best. However, research reveals that setting goals for personal growth or an improved life are more likely to result in actual behavioral changes than simply saying we want to do better. Also, we are more likely to achieve goals that are specific and ambitious – if they are significant enough to us to keep us motivated.
In other words, wishful thoughts and talking about improvement are not as impactful as a definitive resolution, which is generally a broad statement, such as, “This year, I will get healthy.” But resolutions will not move you toward improved health as much as will a more precise goal, such as, “This year, I will exercise for 30 minutes, three times a week.”
Yet, even with specific goals, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and go off course within a few weeks or days of setting them. So, what’s wrong with goals?
Why SMART goals don’t always work
Many of us who have worked in large organizations have seen the recommendations to use the SMART system, which encourages us to have goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based. From my observations, these types of goals work well in team environments where employees are trying to achieve improvements such as increasing the market share of a product, having better customer service ratings, increasing the number of attendees at an event, or completing the construction of a highway. These are all accomplishments that can be easily measured and given a timeline.
In my job helping college students develop their leadership skills, I found the SMART system doesn’t work well for aspirations related to personal development. As an advisor to student organizations, each year I would ask the new student leaders to set goals for personal skills they wanted to improve, such as increasing their self-confidence, improving their interpersonal communication skills, or being better at team management.
Trying to coach them to articulate a leadership goal to fit into the SMART system was often challenging. First, how do you measure self-confidence or other soft skills? We probably all know when we feel more self-confident, but I don’t know of a yardstick that will give us a number to measure that success. Timelines are also challenging because different people grow at different rates. And, how can my student set a realistic goal for a skill she has never explored before and neither of us knows what she is capable of?
I began to focus less on the SMART part of the goal-setting process, and simply encouraged student leaders to put in writing the areas they wished to improve, along with a game plan for doing so, such as reading articles, meeting with mentors, and seeking out opportunities. I would help the students by making suggestions on how to develop these skills and checking
in periodically to see if they were still on track. These initiatives seemed to help more than ensuring a goal was perfectly smart.
I’ve had a number of unexpected life events in the past few years, including personal ones – the death of a loved one, several relocations, and, most recently, my retirement – and a global pandemic. These are external stressors that we might encounter at any point in our lives, sending us on a different trajectory, and interfering with our progress toward our goals. I realized a kinder, more flexible goal-setting strategy is needed.
My GOOD GOAL-making process focuses on finding a system that works (organization) and helps us keep moving toward the target (direction), just as the acronym says: Guidelines Offering Organization and Direction. For example, in working with folks through my career counseling practice, I’ve found that those who had well-strategized plans (organization) in their job searches and discipline to stay focused on finding new position openings and submitting applications (direction) were those who were quickest at getting job offers.
Although being organized and having a sense of direction generally keep us moving forward, there are times when sticking rigidly to a certain system or path is not achieving the results we want. Therefore, I suggest thinking of your goals as guidelines, not rules. Like a compass that points north, we should think of goals as pointing us in the direction of our destination, while remembering there may be multiple paths to journey there. You might organize your tasks in one way to get where you are headed, but find out that path doesn’t work for you, necessitating a change in your route.
Setting and Implementing Goals
So, how do GOOD GOALS work? This softer approach includes five elements: Get moving, Organizing, Accountability, Learning, and Significance. (Yes, the word GOALS is an acronym, too!) Let’s explore each aspect of this new goal-setting concept.
Get moving – I once was told by a mentor who was advising me on starting a new business that I had “paralysis by analysis” because I was spending too much time researching the best process for launching my business, instead of just starting. So, my advice here is even before you have a solid plan, it’s okay to start feeding your enthusiasm for your new goal by taking some action immediately.
Want to start exercising more? Put on your shoes and walk out the door. Sure, you will want to create a training plan to set you up for success, but that’s the next step. Get moving now!
Organizing – Most significant accomplishments are due to some type of plan that results from determining how to best achieve the results you want. The traditional organizational strategic plan has overarching goals, each with a list of objectives required to achieve that goal, with some plans taking it to the third level of strategies or tasks needed to achieve each objective.
Educator and author Stephen Covey says to envision what you want by “beginning with the end in mind,” and by creating a personal mission statement. Meanwhile, writer and speaker James Clear says it’s less about the plan and more about creating daily habits that move you toward your goal.
However you approach organizing and planning your path to success, it’s good to think through and decide on some type of strategy that is best for your lifestyle and personality. For example, if you are an extrovert living in a small apartment trying to exercise more, you might join a gym or run with a group of friends where you can get energy and motivation from others. Introverts with space might install a treadmill where they run while watching the news or reading a book. Figure out what works for you and lay out a plan.
If you are not a planner at all, you can consider a very easy strategy to move toward your goals. Daily ask yourself about each thing you are considering doing: “Is this action going to move me closer to or further away from my goal?” If your goal is saving for a big trip, it will help you decide between spending money on a high-priced coffee at the corner café or making one at home. Or, you might decide to go for a walk instead of watching TV if the goal is to lose weight.
Accountability – While I am advocating for showing grace to yourself when you aren’t doing what you planned, you also need to get back on track as quickly as possible. One of the best methods for continuing to make forward progress is to have an accountability partner. When I was working on my master’s thesis, I met regularly with two friends – one was working on a book of poetry, and another wanted to try her hand at a short story. Our little writing group would set goals each time we met and report our progress at the next meeting. Knowing I would be embarrassed to say I hadn’t done what I planned kept me on track with my writing.
Sometimes it’s hard for us to know if we are off track because of external factors that decrease our bandwidth or if we are just feeling lazy and unmotivated. Either way, true friends will tell the truth and hold us accountable.
Learn – An essential step in this kinder approach to goal accomplishment is to constantly assess progress and the process/strategy being used to move forward. Every week, take a half-hour to reflect on the past week and plan for the upcoming week. If you find yourself not able to meet your weekly goals, change the goal or the way in which you are trying to achieve it.
You may need to do more research on what’s working for others, retool, reinvest, reschedule or make other alterations. Learn from your mistakes. Mistakes are failures only if we don’t learn from them. Learning the strategy that works for you is the priority.
Significance – It’s logical that the more strongly you desire a goal, the more motivated you are to achieve it. Some studies suggest that if you can tie a strong emotion to the goal, then you are more likely to make progress because your brain will actually perceive obstacles as less of an issue. One way to do this is to determine what is significant to you about this goal you are considering.
Consider two women who have decided to write a book. Mary, who is recently retired, is working on a book about her life because she thought it would be a good way to fill the new time she has available, and something fun to brag about on her Facebook page. Jane also is working on an autobiography because she believes the book will help document her life for her children and grandchildren. Dementia runs in her family and she worries that if she doesn’t write down these stories soon, she may lose the memories forever. Who do you think is going to be more motivated to take 30 minutes to write each day?
Putting it all together
Having goals is a great way to help us achieve personal growth and accomplish great things. Planning and pursuing those goals should not be a source of frustration and angst. Let’s be kind to ourselves by organizing strategies that work for our needs and staying focused on the direction we want to go.
As this new year starts, I am beginning a new phase of life. I’m retiring from my work in higher education and want to do more writing and career counseling, as well as traveling and spend more time with family. I’m using my own advice to set GOOD GOALS that will move me toward a satisfying life. As I transition to a whole new lifestyle. I will keep you posted on how it goes.
Now, tell us what you are doing to achieve your goals this year. The I Start Wondering team wants to support you in your journey,