Goal-setting has its strengths and weaknesses. They can give you immense clarity and focus when you are lost and confused. They can push you to grow when you might otherwise think of turning back.
However, goals can also harm. Obsessive goal-setters can lose sight of the bigger picture, endlessly chasing objective after objective only to feel more and more dissatisfied. Goal-setting can also leave you inflexible to take up new opportunities. What was once a brilliant plan becomes slow compared to a new route.
I’ve found it hard to reconcile these pro’s and con’s under the same package. Set too few goals nothing happens. Set too many goals and you can end up losing sight of the big picture and throwing away good opportunities.
It would be really easy to just proclaim that the solution is just to abandon goals when they no longer serve your purposes and express integrity in the moment when new opportunities come. Unfortunately, the whole point of a goal is to keep you committed even when you are resisting it.
Wisdom and integrity to your purpose may be the ideal solution, but those are qualities that take years and decades to build. You need an effective way to use goals today. Coming up with a more effective way to use goals to minimize their weaknesses and still utilize their power is necessary.
I like to think of personal growth as a sea voyage. In this respect you have two major tools along this voyage, a compass and various lighthouses that mark the coastline. Goals are like lighthouses, having a direction is like your compass.
You always need a direction. Whether you decide just to “be healthy” or to “lose 15 lbs by March 3“ you are still setting a direction. A goal also includes a specific destination and deadline, but both statements have a built in direction.
There are times along this sea voyage of life when you are going to want to rely more on your compass (pure direction) and other times when you are going to want to rely more on the lighthouses (direction plus destination and deadline). This is the goal-setting equilibrium.
When to Set More Goals
When do you increase your goal-setting equilibrium? When do you choose to rely more on those lighthouses?
If you are just starting on a new direction and need to build some momentum, goals can do this. If you are just starting on a new project, this is usually a good time to rigorously set goals. As your habits of productivity develop, increased goal-setting may be less necessary.
Goals sharpen your productivity. Once you’ve already become fairly productive, setting a few goals will keep you sharp. Setting too many once you’ve already acquired the habits of productivity and effectiveness may only lead to tunnel vision and excess stress.
Once momentum is built, navigating more with your compass can allow you to catch new opportunities and see the larger picture.
Where Measurement is Easy
Some areas of your life will be better suited for goal-setting than others. Finances, projects and certain skills can be easily translated into goals. For these cases, setting a specific goal can be just as functional as a direction. Setting monetary or career goals is usually better than monetary or career directions because they tend to be fairly linear.
Other areas of life cannot be translated into goals well. The quality of your relationships and personal attributes such as discipline, courage or charisma can’t be written easily as goals. Setting a goal for “9/10 in personal discipline by 2009″ isn’t much better than “more discipline”. Set more goals when the direction you are pursuing is receptive to it.
In Highly Predictable Areas
One of the major weaknesses of goals is they make it more difficult to handle new opportunities. Some areas of your life may be bombarded with new opportunities frequently. Other areas may be a fairly direct path from where you are to eventual success.
Health is an area where new opportunities aren’t that crucial. Despite all the fancy supplements and exercise equipment, the route to physical fitness is usually pretty straightforward. Exercise, eat right and get enough sleep. Setting goals here is easier because you can stick to the same path.
For the Short Run
I had set a few long-run goals a couple years ago, but now I think the idea is ridiculous. Not only to long-run goals fail to motivate (what is one day of procrastination if you have a decade to complete it) they also drift considerably with the amount of growth you experience.
I don’t believe long-run goals are universally bad, just that goals tend to work better if they are constricted to a shorter time frame. Longer range directions are usually better because they are more flexible. Having a long range direction to be in great health is better than a goal to weigh 150 lbs and be able to run 10 miles in five years.
I would avoid setting any long-range goals when objective is completely arbitrary. This means only set a ten year goal to run a marathon if you really want to complete a marathon and not just using a marathon as an indication for fitness. Don’t set a ten year goal for earning a six figure salary if the direction of being wealthy would suffice.
Short run goals give you the added flexibility of operating under a long-range direction but also keep you focused and productive.
Goals are a tool. Nothing more, nothing less. They can work wonders if applied correctly, but just like every problem can’t be solved with a hammer, they can’t solve every problem. They cut down on procrastination and force you to operate closer to your full capacity.
But if used inappropriately you can end up like the matador’s bull always rushing into the red cloth and missing his intended target. Some people argue that these weaknesses mean goals aren’t worth using. I absolutely disagree. I believe that they are a sign of it’s potency.