Goals are often based on a flawed premise: if I achieve this (lose five pounds/get my degree/earn a certain sum of money/buy a house) then I will get that (happiness/love/admiration/friends). So I must achieve this. If I don’t achieve this, I won’t get that.
The goal becomes a high-stakes game in which there are only two possible outcomes: win (reach the goal and be loved, admired, happy) or lose (fail, be unhappy).
And even if we achieve our goal, we then wonder why we aren’t completely happy. Relieved, maybe, probably exhausted, a bit happier perhaps. Did achieving the goal bring you everything you hoped for? Probably not.
From here, we either hold on too tightly to what we’ve achieved (because to lose it would be to lose what we have worked so hard for), become apathetic (I worked so hard for this and I’m no better off – what’s the point in trying again?) or garner our strength, set another goal, and press on again.
Stress, stress, stress.
Goal-setting also tends to kill creativity. While we are ploughing on towards reaching our goal, we forget that there are many other ways to get to where we want to be.
And goals keep us focused on the future, not the present, where we can actually be happy.
Goal-setting seems attractive as a refuge from the uncertain, a bid to control what can’t be controlled – our life. But life is lived in nuances, possibilities, options. It’s a dance, not a route-march.
There is a better, easier, happier way. And that’s to start with a vision.
A vision is a more general idea of the kind of life you want to lead; what your idea of a happy, fulfilling life looks like. How do you want to spend your leisure time? Do you want a relationship or a family or neither? How do you want to keep in touch with your family and friends? Is there a particular religion or spiritual practice you would like to follow? How do you want to eat and keep healthy? What kind of work would you like to do and how/where/when would you like to do it? How much rest do you want to have?
There are many ways to do this. You can make a vision board using pictures and things that inspire you or remember the times when you were happiest and work from there. You can also do this work with a coach if you don’t think you know, or if you think best out loud or with other people.
Whatever vision you come up with, it should inspire and excite you, energise you and carry you forward. It will become your touchstone to remind you what you can do right now to realise your dreams, and your guide book to refer to when you feel out of sorts and realise that you have moved away from what you most want.
From here, it may feel natural to make some vision-fuelled plans, or even set some longer-term goals. So go right ahead, if you want. At least you know now why you are setting them.
Just remember to check in with your vision now and then to make sure that what you are working on will take you there. If your goals stop serving your vision, find another way. They are only a means to an end, not the end itself.
Or, you may prefer to just free-flow it. Keep your vision in mind and just take what feels like the next best step. Or just incorporate elements of your vision into your day to day life, do what makes you happy and see where it leads you.
Most of us work best with a mixture of the two – something to work towards (but not too much – one or two aims is enough), while also paying attention to happiness in the here and now.
Visions keep us light, playful, creative.
“You’ll never get it wrong and you’ll never get it done, so have fun, have fun, have fun!”*
What would you do differently if you believed that that was true?
Incidentally, visions work well in business too (and are a great way to take some of the stress out of managing high performers). This is one of my favourite mottos (paraphrased from a George S Patton quote):
Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what you need to see and then be amazed by how they achieve it.
* (paraphrased from Abraham-Hicks)