There’s no doubt that setting goals gives your life focus. Achieving goals feels fantastic — but do you believe you are only successful when you achieve your goals and a failure when you don’t?
For a long time, I felt great when I achieved my goals and like a failure when I didn’t. As a result, for many years I didn’t like setting goals. I felt like it was a waste of time when I didn’t know with certainty that I would achieve them.
When I wouldn’t achieve my goals I’d feel like I hadn’t “given it my all”; I’d feel like I hadn’t worked hard enough. I felt like I had failed. I felt like a failure. I didn’t feel energised and motivated to pick myself up and keep going, so the whole goal-setting process felt exhausting and uninspiring! Maybe you can relate.
The power of goal setting, I discovered, is not only in reaching the final outcome — but in who you become in the process.
I didn’t always feel this way. When I was younger I loved setting goals and I did whatever it took to reach those goals. I loved the “high” when I achieved a goal and the feeling of success that flowed. However, pushing hard to achieve my goals came at a cost and that cost was to my health.
Only six months after achieving one of my greatest goals — graduating with First Class Honours — I became very sick. I had pushed myself beyond what was good for my body and mind. At 23 I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
I honestly thought it would take me six months to recover, but it took me seven years. One incredibly valuable lesson I learnt in that time was that no goal was worth achieving if it meant losing my health. I no longer wanted to achieve my goals at any cost.
Subsequently, once I had recovered, I resisted setting goals for many years. I preferred to just go along with the flow and make decisions along the way. However, this approach didn’t totally work for me, either. With no clear goals I felt my life lacked a level of challenge that would excite and inspire me.
“One of the consistent skills in people who achieve their goals, is an amazing level of persistence. They change their approach as necessary, but they won’t give up on their ultimate vision.”
I was in a position where I wanted to set goals — but I didn’t want to set them like I had in the past. I no longer wanted to be outcome-focused and inflexible to life’s changing circumstances. Instead, I made the decision to redefine what goal setting meant to me and what success looked like. I went in search of how I could set more loving goals that had room for flexibility and self-compassion.
How did I start? By looking over the goals I had set and “failed” to achieve in order to see what I could learn. I learnt that, even when I didn’t achieve my goal in the way I had planned, simply having the goal to work towards had inspired me to take important and meaningful action.
I saw clearly that, even when I had “failed” to reach my goal, I’d made significant progress and had grown as a person. Without those goals, I wouldn’t have stepped out of my comfort zone and taken action to move me closer to the things I valued and wanted in my life.
The power of goal setting, I discovered, is not only in reaching the final outcome but in who you become in the process. By only focusing on the final outcome, I had limited my view of success and tied my identity to the result. I had undermined my own internal motivation and missed the point of setting goals to help me grow.
Redefining Failure And Success
Dr Carol Dweck, a renowned psychologist who specialises in mindset research, believes people have either a growth or fixed mindset. People with a growth mindset, she believes, define success as development, growth and improvement, irrespective of the final outcome. Success for people with a growth mindset, Dweck says, is “… not about immediate perfection. It’s about learning something over time: confronting a challenge and making progress.”
On the other hand, she believes people with a fixed mindset define success only as the achievement of a specific outcome. People with a fixed mindset believe they should “be” something instead of “become” something. She has found that people with a fixed mindset become fearful of trying challenging things. To someone with a fixed mindset, the act of failure means they are a failure and it stops them moving forward.
I could relate to Dweck’s research. I had approached goal setting from a fixed mindset, believing I was only successful if I reached the finish line. I, too, felt I was a failure when I couldn’t reach a goal I’d set for myself. I ignored how I had evolved and grown during the process; it didn’t feel important.
“It’s not about immediate perfection. It’s about learning something over time: confronting a challenge and making progress.”
As I learnt to let go of my obsession with the final outcome and choose to view goal setting as an opportunity to grow and learn, I felt more energised and excited about the process.
How do you define success? When you set a goal, do you only value the final outcome or do you see value in the whole process?
When you shift your focus from the outcome to the process, you adopt a far more loving and compassionate approach to goal setting. Setting more loving goals allows you to be less critical of yourself and to feel far more confident and motivated as you track towards your goal. Loving goals allow you to see each step as valuable in your growth and progress.
So, how then can you redefine goal setting as a learning and development process and increase your chance of not only reaching the finish line but also enjoying the process?
4 Steps To Setting Loving Goals
- Set realistic yet challenging goals
Setting goals that are too challenging can, in fact, hold you back from feeling confident and motivated. When you don’t feel confident and motivated, it can be a barrier to achieving your goal.
Neuroscientist Dr Sarah McKay, from Your Brain Health, explains that the ideal condition for peak brain performance, learning and motivation occurs when you find your “sweet spot”. Your “sweet spot” is when you are neither under-challenged nor over-challenged.
When it comes to setting goals, she advocates choosing goals that stretch you and take you out of your comfort zone, but not so much that you feel overwhelmed or highly anxious.
I couldn’t agree more. A few years ago I set a highly ambitious goal to run a multi-speaker event (something I had never done before) all in under six weeks. This goal was far too ambitious and very quickly I became overwhelmed. I started to doubt myself and my stress and anxiety increased to the point where it stopped me moving forward.
A month into my planning, I decided to cancel the event. Cancelling the event triggered deep feelings of failure, which took me months to overcome. Had I set a more realistic goal by giving myself more time, learning more about what was involved and what support I would need, I’d have increased my chance of actually making it happen.
- Be flexible & values driven
Have you ever set a goal that you felt you “should” do, only to find your interest and motivation started to drop off? Studies have shown that you can increase your motivation to achieve a goal by choosing goals that internally motivate you, rather than externally motivating ones. This means choosing goals that excite you and inspire you rather than goals you feel you “should” achieve to make others happy.
Kat Millar, from Get Results Training, is a life, fitness and business coach and she says, “Setting goals within our highest values means we are much more likely to achieve them because they are aligned with what is important and meaningful to us.”
Setting goals that are aligned with your highest values keeps you motivated and makes being flexible in your goal-setting far easier. Flexibility is important. How often have you set goals but circumstances out of your control stopped you from achieving them?
When I was recovering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome I wanted to start building strength back into my body. I set the goal to go to the gym three times a week. Within a few days of setting the goal, I came down with a bad flu and couldn’t leave the house for weeks.
It was clear I wasn’t going to be able to achieve my specific goal but, instead of getting frustrated, I decided to change my thinking. I did this by reconsidering why I had set the goal in the first place. For me, going to the gym was about the higher value of building strength back into my body. I knew I couldn’t go to the gym while I was sick, but I also knew I could still live my value of building strength into my body by eating nutritious food and resting — so that became my new goal.
There are times in life when circumstances outside your control get in the way of you achieving your goal. When you know what value you are expressing through your goal, though, you can always find a new way to keep progressing towards it. You don’t need to feel bad when your goals shift or change.
Millar agrees. “One of the consistent skills in people who achieve their goals is an amazing level of persistence. They change their approach as necessary, but they won’t give up on their ultimate vision.”
- Celebrate no matter the outcome
Whether you have managed to achieve your goal or not, it’s powerful to celebrate the transformational journey you have been on. World-famous tennis player Roger Federer lives this philosophy. In an interview during the Australian Open he said that regardless of whether he wins or loses a tournament he goes out for dinner to celebrate with his team.
To Federer, the outcome is less important than the journey it has taken to compete in the tournament. He believes in the value and importance of acknowledging that everyone had worked hard, given their best and achieved significant things personally and as a team.
Celebrating the journey of your goal allows you to feel good about yourself, to stay motivated and be inspired to set new goals that keep stretching you.
- Develop your emotional intelligence
Reflection is a powerful tool in the goal-setting process. When you haven’t been able to reach your goal as you had planned it’s worthwhile asking yourself a few key questions: Could I have done things differently? Could I have stepped up more? What got in the way?
This reflective process is not about giving yourself a hard time, but about being honest about how you may have held yourself back. Holding yourself back is going to happen when you set goals that take you out of your comfort zone — it’s part of how your brain is wired. Your brain will always try to keep you safe and stop you from taking steps that challenge your comfort zone.
By looking deeper at what stops you, you’ll build your emotional intelligence, allowing you to take that powerful knowledge into your next goal. Knowing what allows you to thrive is equally important, so make sure to ask yourself what worked.
Should you strive to achieve your goals? Absolutely! Achieving goals not only moves your life forward in significant ways but also expands your belief in what you are capable of. However, limiting your definition of success to only the final achievement of your goal misses the powerful transformation that happens at each step along the way. Goal setting is never just about achieving the end outcome; it’s about who you become in the process.
How To Set Goals The SPARK Way
- Specific. What do I want to achieve, why does it matter to me and what value am I pursuing through this goal?
- Problem. What obstacles might I face as I pursue my goal?
- Action. What steps could I take to overcome these obstacles?
- Reflect. How have I grown as I have pursued my goal and in what ways did I hold myself back?
- Kindness. How will I celebrate what I have achieved — whether I reached my goal or not?
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