I’m not writing an anti-goal blog to be a heretic. It is well-established that setting goals can be an important piece of achieving any type of meaningful change. Yet, while setting goals can be an important piece, they are just one piece. They might even be the least important piece, despite being the one that tends to hog most of our attention.
So to be clear: I’m not trying to twist your arm into dropping goal-setting altogether. Instead, I hope to encourage you to expand your perspective of behaviour change and thoughtfully consider where you want to invest your attention.
I’ll explain it all with a bit more detail and examples below. But in case you are seven seconds away from running out of attention, here is the TLDR version:
Please call to mind a goal you may have currently, or have had in the past.
In the image of a pyramid (your life) below, I bet that the goal you imagined fits nicely into the What level, right in the middle of the pyramid. That’s okay – pyramids need middles! But, middles need a foundation to sit on top of; and they need a roof, too.
If you have some attention left, let’s walk through a real world example of taking a broader perspective on a goal.
This broader-context approach applies to all goals. Whether you want to improve your relationship, heal from anxiety and depression, run a half-marathon, or receive a promotion at work.
But for the sake of this post, let’s say that you have a goal to implement a daily meditation practice of at least 20 minutes by the end of this year. Starting at the top of the pyramid (your life), why is it so important that you implement that practice? Is it because you recently read an interesting book that touted all sorts of benefits, or an influencer that you follow suggested it?
Be honest with yourself. Do you expect those sources of motivation to be strong enough to sustain you through the boring, frustrating, and grueling (yes – it can be grueling) journey of developing a daily meditation practice? Good luck.
On the other hand, If spending quality time with your family is an important Value of yours, yet you’ve noticed yourself becoming more reactive and less present with your children, you may have just identified a value mismatch. If you believe that a daily meditation practice can help you align better with the Value of spending quality time with your family (and research shows that it can), hallelujah!
Clarifying the underlying Value that is giving your direction is often the first step of meaningful change.
If it’s difficult to explain why your goal is meaningful to you, then it might not be an appropriate goal. Or, maybe you just need to spend more time finding clarity about the purpose of that goal in the first place. Perhaps spend some time journaling about the meaning behind the goal in your life, or consider exploring this with your therapist (these days there is a therapy for every type of personality ranging from logical-minded CBT to heartfelt attachment-focused counselling)
Excellent. You’ve defined what is important to you and determined a goal that will help you identify that you’re on your way. Now it’s time for the least glamorous – and probably most important – part of the whole process: the day-to-day How of working in alignment with your Value. This is where you roll up your sleeves and ask yourself how it is that you will integrate this new meditation practice into your life.
But before you start, remember that your life is full right now! Even if it seems like you have free-time, you are spending all of that time doing something, even if it’s streaming a mini-series. If you don’t understand precisely how you will add this new behaviour into your life, know that you are handicapping your efforts of making change stick.
Finally, the least glamorous – but possibly most important – job, determining precisely how you will implement this practice. This is where you may need to put on your project manager hat. Unless you’re able and willing to turn your whole life upside down, it’s time to realistically evaluate your current lifestyle and routines to decide how you will integrate this new journey into your current life.
While there is no precise formula for effectively creating the building blocks of meaningful change, here are some questions that you may find helpful to ask yourself:
- What will be your trigger or cue for performing your daily practice? It’s usually best if you attach a new activity to something that’s already part of your routine. Considering the time of day can be a good idea, too.
- Will you have a commitment device? These external tools can help stack the deck in your favour. It can be as simple as having an accountability partner.
- How will you record your progress? Jerry Seinfield marks an X on his calendar each day he has written even a single joke. I keep a scoresheet for myself in a journal. What will work best for you?
- How will you handle a setback? Setbacks are part of any change journey, planning how you will be resilient in the face of imperfection is important.
- Finally – what are you willing to commit to doing?