Is there such a thing as a bad goal?
Personally I find goal setting an incredible powerful and rewarding aspect of my life. Not only is it central to making the most of my opportunities in life, there is also a feeling of exultation when I finally achieve a long-held goal I have worked for that is hard to experience any other way.
I have been following an interesting and robust online discussion about an aspect of goalsetting that I thought was worth some thought and elaboration.
Many goals we set for ourselves are specific actions or achievements (running a certain distance, lifting a specific amount or even reaching a specific weight, etc), which I will call target-focused goals. To reach these goals we often commit to significant changes to our lifestyle- as most worthwhile goals come with some kind of cost- and a long incremental journey towards our target.
In the conversation I was following, the statement was made that we often undervalue the effort it takes to make these lifestyle changes in striving for targets we may not reach. And that often making a positive and enduring lifestyle change (or transformative goal) is arguably a more significant achievement than any single target-focused goal.
This stimulated a fairly lengthy debate about the relative merits of target-focused goals and transformative goals.
I have written previously that I don’t entirely agree with the much-hyped SMART goals acronym that is popular in the corporate world at the moment. From my perspective, unless you’re a bond villain or a One Notion senator (and accordingly hold goals that are objectively bad), just about all goalsetting is good. However each type of goal can have pitfalls that needed to be considered.
Personally, I love the thrill of chasing target-focused goals and ticking off the incremental stages on my way. Having a performance target in mind always makes me work that little bit harder and makes any sacrifices I need to make easier. Moreover there is a joyful and definable moment of when I experience attainment of the goal, which leaves a lasting positive memory. Last year I was lucky enough to complete a goal I had held for many years at Port Macquarie Ironman and I will not forget that for many years to come. And whatever happens in the future, no one can take that moment away from me.
But there is also the possibility, even the probability of occasional failure along the way. I view these moments as necessary and positive corollaries of challenging myself fully, but for many people the experience of failure can be quite difficult and painful. Even just the fear of failure can create significant anxiety as a goal gets closer and lead to self-sabotaging behaviours and psychosomatic symptoms. For this reason, target-focused goals do not work as well for everyone. They need to be attempted in a relatively free-to-fail environment. Not everyone can find this as it requires support from the people around and, for many people, an attitudinal shift towards failure.
If you can’t fashion some kind of free-to-fail environment for yourself, target-focussed goals can be problematic and this is where transformative goals can be more appropriate. In some cases reaching a target can be impossible, no matter how much effort we put into working towards it, but the positive changes we make to our lifestyle and self are just as laudable as the target we don’t reach.
Setting and celebrating transformational goals in relation to establishing more positive patterns of behaviour allows us to focus on achievements that are within our own control to achieve and have a greater benefit to our daily life. And specific achievements can often follow as a consequence. It also reduces the fear and anxiety about our performance as a target-focused goal approaches.
But for people like me, it also removes a degree of the thrill and satisfaction I get from working towards and finally achieving a target-focused goal. There is also the risk that over time my patterns of behaviour will shift once more and I may not have much with which to remember my satisfaction of achieving a transformative goal.
Ultimately, setting goals not only helps you achieve more, but it can be a source of immense satisfaction. It’s just about deciding which type of goals suit you best. Some of us like to challenge ourselves to complete a challenge that might be beyond our abilities, just to see how close we can get. But if the prospect of failure is not something you can make yourself comfortable with, target-focused goals can be double-edged. If you are finding setting these types of goals is actually creating excessive pressure and stress, it might be better to focus on changes you can make to your own lifestyle and let the incidental achievements come as a result of attaining their transformative goals.
Good luck chasing your goals, whatever they may be. My best advice would be to understand what you are capable of, embrace challenge and be ready to forgive yourself if things don’t go to plan.