Articles > Make Sure Goals Really Do Serve You

Make Sure Goals Really Do Serve You
Globe & Mail, October 15, 2004

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

Over the course of my career, I have designed hundreds of goal-setting and action-planning exercises.

You know the type: By October, 2005, I will be (insert aspiration here). The steps I will take to achieve this goal are: (insert list here).

Yet recently, when faced with the need to write yet one more such exercise, I realized how profoundly ambivalent I am about the very idea of goals.

Although I have designed these exercises, I have never actually asked participants in my career-planning workshops to complete a goal-setting exercise, nor in counselling people have I ever said "What are your goals?"

Questioning the utility of setting goals seems almost like questioning motherhood. If people don't have goals, whether implicit or explicit, how will they direct their behaviour or know what's important?

Indeed, the booming coaching industry is built around the pillars of goal-setting and clarification. Rey Carr, a leading authority on coaching and editor of Compass: A Magazine for Peer Assistance, Mentorship, and Coaching (, tells me that he recently received five books on the subject in the same week.

Without any goals, we drift. Take one 35-year-old man who has spent the past decade bouncing around among different occupational pursuits. With indulgent and wealthy parents behind him, he has never had any sense of urgency to commit to a particular career path nor has he ever thought through what he wanted to achieve in his occupational pursuits, other than a vague feeling of "this might be it." When you talk to him, you get a sense of a lost soul who has no belief in himself or his future.

But how explicit must our goals be? While some find it critical to have detailed targets and timelines, others find that dispiriting.

After calling around to friends, I find the world seems to be divided into two camps. Some people are like my financial-planner friend, who writes personal and term career goals for herself every year, then checks up on them, ticking off the steps she has achieved. "It's also a way of reinforcing myself because every year I look back and congratulate myself for what I've achieved," she says.

On the other side of this divide, a journalist friend comments: "I never set goals. I have something in me which gives me a sense of what I want but it's not specific -- it's more like a vision. For example, I know I eventually want to do a master's degree, but it's a concept, not a directive. It allows me to have a more relaxed feeling as I don't feel I'm being dictated to by my goals."

Attitudes toward the importance of having goals partly reflect underlying psychological needs and preferences. For some people, setting goals can be a way of managing anxiety and ambiguity. As one woman said, "If I don't have a goal, I won't have any reason to get out of bed in the morning. I need goals to motivate me, otherwise I would achieve nothing."

She fears that, without vigorous self-policing, her "inner slacker" will take command. Rather than trusting in herself, she surrenders control to what Freud called the superego, an internalized agent of social control. Except that the modern superego measures performance against targets and timelines instead of moral standards.

For others, however, an aversion to setting goals may reflect a fear of failure: "If I tell myself I'm going to achieve X and I don't succeed, I will feel inadequate."

Others want to keep their options open. "If I commit to this, what if something better comes along?" They feel their freedom is constrained by being locked in to a particular course of action.

This fear of commitment is particularly common among younger people, who worry that, by confirming one career choice, for example, they are negating another forever. But there are also many older workers who share this fear of giving up their freedom, and unfortunately many of them have suffered the consequences in terms of lost opportunities and current career and financial status.

So what's the matter with goals? John Lennon once observed that life is what happens when you're making other plans. When we become driven exclusively by our goals, we lose sight of what else is important. The goal becomes a commodity to be chased at all costs.

While it's true that you can't get there if you don't know where you are going, you may find that you arrive somewhere you really don't want to be.

We all know people who have chased after the brass ring, such as a senior corporate job or academic tenure, only to wake up one morning when the goal has been attained with a profound sense of emptiness. "Now what?," they ask. Or "Is this all there is?"

This is often accompanied by the realization of a marriage lost, kids not seen, sacrifices made during the race to goal attainment. (The academic equivalent is what is known as post-degree depression. You've single-mindedly pursued the degree but instead of feeling elated you feel, well, flat.) Our values change as our life circumstances change. Often we fail to play catch-up to emerging needs and desires, to changes in how we feel about ourselves and what we want to be in the world.

The result is that many people pursue false goals -- based on parental desires or earlier career stage needs or the belief that one more book published or one more senior vice-president's position will finally make them feel good about themselves.

For goals to be helpful, they must be dynamic, lively and mouldable. Otherwise they are reified markers that dominate and interfere with our ability to experience our experience.

Do you see yourself as being on a journey, open to new experiences and opportunities, or are you on a fixed path to a predetermined destination?

There are many happy people who have no explicit goals. They may see themselves as moving toward a state, such as being debt-free, so that their career choices can be made independent of financial concerns, or of having a portfolio of skills that will always make them employable. Their goals are implicit, not explicit, and they feel no need to put them into operation with specific targets and time lines.

So my goal for you? Make sure your goals serve you, rather than the other way around.

Make your goals work for you

If you do set goals, instead of measuring them exclusively against the traditional markers -- specific, time-framed, measurable, realistic and achievable -- consider weighing them against the following:

  • Is your goal dynamic, as opposed to being set in stone? Is it flexible? Is it open to changing life circumstances?

  • Does your goal reflect your most important needs and desires now (as opposed to reflecting external definitions of success or earlier career desires)?

  • Will you experience pride and personal satisfaction when you have achieved your goals?

  • How will you feel if you don't pursue this goal? Will you be disappointed in yourself or regretful of opportunities missed?

  • Goal or vision? Many people find the idea of a goal somehow diminishing when they think of their life's purpose. If so, try the word "vision" instead.

  • Big or small? Career or personal? Many people experience significant rejuvenation and satisfaction from making small changes in their life, such as jogging twice a week or learning a new language. Your goal doesn't have to involve doing something cataclysmic to produce a significant outcome.

  • A state or a specific target? Consider the difference between "I will be living and working abroad some time over the next few years and will now focus my energies on ensuring I have the necessary skills and contacts" as opposed to "by September, 2005, I will be working in Paris as a . . ."

  • Can your goal withstand failure? If you don't achieve it, will you beat yourself up or look at opportunities it liberated?

  • Have you thought about how and why your goal will contribute to your overall life satisfaction?

  • Will pursuing this goal conflict with other important goals? For example, you may want to do an executive MBA but also spend more time with your family. Which is most important and will contribute to your greatest sense of well-being? How will you feel about giving up one goal in favour of another?