A Goal By Any Other Name?


This New Year’s there were plenty of folk decrying the New Year’s Resolution – saying things varying from they’d rather focus on a theme for their year, key words they wanted to evoke during the new year , or even my favorite from the lovely Molly Mahar, to focus on ways of being, and let goals and directions and tasks flow from that.

So, if this blog is about achievement junkie me trying hard to break that pattern of thinking and learning to be more… well, learning to be, then shouldn’t we talk about what a “goal” is? Dictionaries define a goal as the purpose toward which an endeavor is directed; an objective, an intention.  But I’d argue that a goal and an intention are different, very distinct, things.

A goal, in my short, narrow view, is a specific event or thing that can be achieved.  For example, “Run the Philly 2014 Marathon” is a goal. It has a deadline, a specific action and tasks that have to be performed to accomplish it – in this case, training for and actually running 26.2 miles.

An intention is an idea, an aim or a purpose.  When I taught yoga, I would describe an intention as a the thing you seek that is, ultimately, also seeking you.  I would provide peace, love, clarity, joy, and honor as potential intentions.  When I get on my yoga mat to practice, I sometimes dedicate my practice to someone I love who might need an extra boost of good vibes, like a sister with health issues, or a friend with a broken heart, or I might state specifically what my plan is for that practice – “to be here, and now” or “to feel centered and grounded.”

While you can say that your goal is to be centered and grounded, how to you quantify it? I was 80% present at work today? I was present during the meeting on benefits again even when I didn’t really understand it? There are specific things you can do to become more centered and grounded, yes, go to yoga, sleep more, be clearer in your communications, etc., but again, not a clear way to quantify it. There’s no “win” there – no ZING! I did it, I am now balanced and happy? So intentions are those things that we can strive for, but maybe won’t set off the achievement hungry monkey inside saying “feed me things to check off my list!”

So a goal is not an intention, it is something that is, for our purposes, quantifiable, with actions to take and a deadline.

How then, do you motivate yourself to do things you want – for example, I want to feel more fit, I want to start a small online boutique, change my job, and I want to write more – without having deadlines and specific tasks to do?

As Laura Vanderkam states in her article on giving up goals in Fast Company, found here, “having a sense of where you’re going vastly increases the chances that you’ll get there.” Ok. So far so good. We know where we want to go – what things we want to do more of in 2014 – and thus, we’ve announced them to the universe (well, at least to the one person reading this blog).

Laura’s point, though, is that sometimes you have to let go of goals because you evolve away from them. That is, let go of goals that don’t serve you.

Other research, at least on the business end of things (and I did declare in my barbaric yawp that I wanted to start an online boutique) that goal setting can be harmful.  In a Harvard Business Review article, the authors discuss using goals to motivate employees and start with noting that “advocates of goal setting argue that for goals to be successful, they should be specific and challenging, and countless studies find that specific, challenging goals motivate performance far better than “do your best” exhortation.” The article can be found here. However, the authors found that “the use of goal setting can degrade employee performance, shift focus away from important but non-specified goals, harm interpersonal relationships, corrode organizational culture, and motivate risky and unethical behaviors. [and ] In many situations, the damaging effects of goal setting outweigh its benefits.” This study is also discussed here where the author suggests keying into areas of focus.

They note, as we have, that goals focus attention. However, goals focus attention so narrowly that people can overlook other important features of a task.  In our case, as we’ve discussed, goals have specifics, they have quantifiables. A goal of a marathon has a training plan attached.  That means, the goal of running the Philly Marathon in 2014 would have specific tasks of running 10 or 12 miles. That attention on the miles tends to take attention off of the actual enjoyment of the running.  I know that when I was banging out 12 mile runs last year, I wasn’t enjoying being outside as much as when i just ran. That’s a whole other post thought.

The authors state that “With goals, people narrow their focus. This intense focus can blind people to important issues that appear unrelated to their goal.” I think, on a larger scale, if I set goals of doing specific things – at last count last year I had about 20 goals – to run a marathon, to do yoga every day, to bill however many hours, to write however many articles, I lost focus on other things. Everyday things, like making home made pizza and having a beer with my friends.

So what do others do instead of setting goals? Come on, I’d love to be ground breaking here and say I was the only blog talking about not setting goals (but I will be the only one who talks about motivation and also talks about our addiction to getting shit done which glorifies busy-ness). Let’s take a peak:

  • some blogs talk about setting One Word as their focus to encourage activity or to set a theme
  • some blogs talk about the fact that without goals, their projects were unfocused and didn’t have follow through like this one
  • others (on fitness) urge readers away from goals “Its not the goals that matter, its the method, systems, or plan that do.”
  • others talk about goal setting as creating burnout, that goals may hurt more than they help
  • some blogs discuss the idea that creating goals can stifle creative outlets, and suggest that readers focus on starting habits instead
  • one of the most helpful does talk about goals, but frames them in terms of three questions: what is your vision, what do you want to learn, and how can you perform it authentically, i.e., in a way that makes you your best self?
  • Another provides six ways to challenge yourself, based on your feelings and reactions, to live outside your comfort zone, get to know yourself more, and find things and actions that resonate with you.
  • many refer to Leo Babuta’s Zen Habits and having a year with no goals.
  • the last exhorts that you create a reminder list of what you want to do on a living, dynamic areas of focus

So how do I plan to take on this year of having no goals? First, and most importantly 28d354a4bf5476448434b995d6a9c4a2

As I said, I have things I want to do, priorities and ways of being I want to encourage this year. But I also am someone who burned out pretty hard in 2013. As in, at one point literally couldn’t get out of bed. A person who could drink a latte and then take a 4 hour nap. Caffeine didn’t work because I was so exhausted from killing myself on 10 and 12 hour days, training for a marathon and trying to run around the Delaware Valley taking care of friends and family.

I’m starting with those priorities, and inviting them in. My priorities are to write more, find a job where I don’t have to pick up a sword and shield to do battle with the billable hour, where a 9 to 5 schedule is easier to enforce, and to start this little online boutique. To do those things, I have certain tasks I need to do, but I don’t need to fall back into achievement junkie mode of focusing only on the tasks rather than being present in my every day. This is why motivation is so clutch to this project. This isn’t a blog about sitting around going “om”. It’s one where I have plans and priorities and things I want to get done, the question is, can I get them done without falling back into that process addiction of doing too much all the time without a core belief in my worth without the checked off to do list?


4 responses »

  1. Thanks for the link to my article about Goals as Self-Inflicted Wounds. That was actually the start of my year long experiment to live without goals. If you’d like to see the end result, check out this post: How Do You Measure a Successful Year? (click on the link in my name)

    Sounds like you are also an overachiever. It’s not easy for us to give up goals, and I don’t think such journeys are ever perfect, but it’s well worth the effort! Good luck!

  2. Thanks for the link. It’s also really nice to know I’m not the only crazy person out there who is sick of the pressure to set “big” goals and achieve them, as if that were a path to happiness and fulfillment. Of course, you are well aware that it’s not, I just wish the news would spread a little faster. But, we’re working on it!

    I completed my no goals year in 2013 and it was a smashing success so I should do a follow-up post as well. I’m certainly going to continue a goal-free life from this point forward. That is, until I change my mind, which I reserve the right to do.

    Best wishes on your year-long experiment. I suspect it will be worthwhile.

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