Why you could be setting the wrong goals

Don't play safe with your personal and career wish list for 2016. Here's how to think big and make a real difference to your life.

by Rebecca Alexander
Last Updated: 28 Apr 2016

I'm sure you've heard the story about the Harvard MBA students who wrote down their goals, and those who didn't. According to the study, the goal-writers went on to be significantly more financially successful than their non-goal-writing counterparts. Leaving aside the fact that the study's existence has since been contested, it's become received wisdom that those who formulate and write down their goals are more likely to progress. It's certainly something I see in the microcosm of a coaching session.

Dreaming up a goal, saying it out loud, writing it down, suddenly renders concrete all those half-formed intentions that were previously floating around in the back of your mind. From there, it's just a step to making it happen. But before you create your checklist for 2016, consider how inspiring your goals are. How much do they resonate with your idea of what sort of person you want to be, and what direction you'd like to take?

I ask, because very often the first goal that coaching clients utter is not actually the 'real' one. It tends to be something more straightforward, and less risky. For example, 'I will take a financial management course.' 'I will learn Spanish.' This may be a very respectable and useful goal. (And if it is, keep it on your list.) But it might not be THE goal - the one that would make a real difference to your life.

For this I blame: 1) the SMART rubric, and 2) human nature. Let's start with the easy one. SMART recommends that goals be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-based (and yes, there are different interpretations for some of the letters, but I'm sticking with the basics). SMART is great. But when we use it to identify our big goals, it can encourage a certain pedestrian-ness.

Couple this with human nature: a general aversion to change, fear of the unknown or failure, the desire to conserve energy. And these lead us to choose goals that might be worthy, but which ultimately are not life-changing. And that's where SMART lets us down - it doesn't encourage us to dream about the bigger possibilities. It lets us play safe.

So, this year, choose a courageous goal. Something that scares you a little, but which, if achieved, would have an enormous impact on your confidence and self-belief, and indeed on your life. One that puts a spring in your step. Once you've identified it (or them), then you can use SMART to help you map out the path to achieve your aim.

In their excellent book Challenging Coaching (challengingcoaching.co.uk), John Blakey and Ian Day suggest questions to get you into this 'courageous goals' mindset. Here, are just a few:

  • What would be your equivalent of winning an Olympic gold?
  • If you believed anything was possible, what would you want to achieve?
  • If there were no constraints around you, what is the limit of your potential?
  • What inspires you most about this goal?

Onwards and upwards! Let me know how you get on.

Rebecca Alexander is an executive coach at The Coaching Studio. Please email comments or questions to rebecca@coaching-studio.co.uk or tweet @_coachingstudio

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