Goal setting. It’s how to live a successful modern life, right? It’s the best model for coaching, true? Well, in my opinion, no. Which I guess is a weird view for a coach. But, nevertheless, I think that goal setting can be deeply destructive. Here’s why.
When you conceive of a goal and start putting plans in place to move toward it you are focusing on a perceived better future self.
But what about the current you? What does it say about you now that you need to be better? It says that somehow you are less than you should be.
These kinds of shoulds and oughts are detrimental to your self image and to your lived experiences. They often come from expectations outside yourself, not from what you deeply value. Coaching should be a matter of appreciating yourself, and getting more of what you want into your life.
For example, imagine that your house is often untidy and disorganised.
Your goal is to be neat and organised by an exact future date. If you reach this goal everything will be better than it is now. You imagine. So you plan the steps you need to get there. These involve a massive declutter. Curtailing family spending and impulse buys to reduce stuff (never a bad thing, obviously). Getting everyone to put their stuff away. Writing a check lists. That ought to do it! All of this is achievable, you think. It’s organised. And by your prescribed date you will no longer be messy. You will have reached the goal and somehow be better.
Perhaps this will happen. Perhaps. But just the thought of it is joyless and self-critical, and regimented in a way that is not fun. And if it were this easy, surely you would have done it before? You're an intelligent adult human after all.
A better focus than what you ought to achieve is what you are in the here and now. What you prefer and value today, and how you can get more of those things into your life. Not at some future point, but now, and over time, by building new habits of behaviour and belief. And enjoy yourself while you are doing it. And feel proud of the changes you are making in the moment that you make them.
Enjoy the journey instead of fixating on the destination
So, what now? Well, take the goal to be tidier. What grounds this? Probably it’s something like a desire to feel more in control of your surroundings. The mess makes you feel like you can’t find things and this inhibits your ability to relax. You might also feel that the mess is a poor reflection on you in some way and you want to be well thought of by others.
There are a few important things going on here. But we need to know more.
What is it, specifically, about the mess that makes you feel out of control?
Maybe it’s that you keep losing important paperwork, and you worry about missing deadlines for paying bills, or renewing your car tax, or getting important dates in the diary.
Tackling this one problem, by having a single place to keep your mail, even if it’s messy, might re-establish a sense of control and reduce your worry.
You immediately and easily change a small habit to get more of what you want.
Studies of habits show that successful small changes and easy wins, bring about a cascade of other significant changes. No self-flagellation or punishing routines required. Just minor changes in one area that have a knock on effect on behaviour in general.
The loss of control might also come from a feeling that no matter what you do, in a busy household you can’t stay on top of the mess. You put things away, but you can’t control what everyone else in your home does. You feel both like you can’t relax until you’ve tidied everyone else’s mess; and resent that your preferences aren’t respected. Your relaxation time is compromised by other people.
Getting other people on board: experiment, collaborate
It’s so much easier to change and control your own behaviours than those of others. Which is frustrating. No amount of goal setting is going to help, because they are your goals, not everyone else’s.
To get other people to change their goals you need to be persuasive, to establish buy in, to bring everyone on board with your vision… sounds a lot like work to me. Sounds like the start of a losing battle. So what is a better approach?
You need to experiment with ways to get everyone on board. You need to collaborate with them to come up with ideas that might work. It needs to be fun. Changes might take some trial and error so that they suit everyone. It’s hard to put an exact time-frame on that. Habit formation takes time, and everyone is different.
If you think about it, setting goals and the logical steps that will lead you to achieving them, seems sensible. After all it’s a great way of managing all kinds of projects. For a project to be efficient we need to know the steps that we are going to take in service of the overall project outcomes; there needs to be steps and processes that are followed sequentially; you need to be able to communicate which tasks have been completed and what are yet to be done. This keeps projects on track and ensures that deliverables are actioned. Goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-framed. Or you'll get scope creep, and projects will take too long, or they'll go over budget. And you experience some or all the other pitfalls of poor planning.
So, it ought to stand to reason that you should approach changes in your life the same way that you plan projects. Except that our lives are not at all like work projects. In your life there are times that you need to be organised, like when you are organising a complex event, but much of the time what makes a good life is the journey to the destination, not the destination itself. And too much specificity, too much measurement and time-pressure sucks the joy out of the journey.
So, do I think we should never have goals? Not a bit. But I think that our goals should be less like project deliverables, and more like the process of skills acquisition.
Effort & persistence = success
To develop a skill or learn something new, you can’t set a time-frame on when it will sink in. You can’t say for certain what will help your learning. But you can try different tasks that will help you to achieve your objective, like reading, or practicing, or getting feedback, and making changes based on the feedback. You need to commit to doing the work. Though you can’t decide when the work will pay off, or even exactly what the work will be.
That depends on a lot of things. Like where you started, your learning preferences, any pre-existing skills or knowledge you have that are similar to the new skill. And that’s because your brain isn’t exactly the same as my brain. How I learn a skill is not the same as how you'll learn it. To learn and to make changes you need to tailor, to experiment, and to practice. You need to be dedicated to the process and trust that the outcome will follow.
Let’s return to the decluttering example. If you are less focused on a time-framed, measurable, specific outcome and more focused on practicing a series of small habit changes, and experimenting with what works for you, then the process itself is pleasurable. And when you eventually reach the goal you set, it will seem less important than what came before in achieving that goal.
Coaching for value
This is the power of coaching. It helps you to be clear on what you really want e.g. not just a tidy house, but more deeply, a sense of control and tranquillity and relaxation. Then it helps you to experiment and to try out the best ways for you to get these. It'll help you to laugh at the things that go wrong, and learn lessons from them. And it will keep you accountable: making sure that you put the work in to get what you want.
So for true peace of mind and satisfaction, stop focussing on goals, and start focusing on what those goals can give you. Make your goals work in service of what you value and what you deeply desire rather than being ends in themselves. Because, after all, when we reach the end of something, that means it is finished.
I'm Jodie Lamb, accredited life coach since 2008. I founded Trevnee Coaching in 2020.
Trevnee coaching is for people like you. People who are motivated to make career change, or lifestyle improvements, but aren't sure where to start.
I can help you find clarity, make decisions, and take challenging action to get what you want.
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