Do you need to set goals?

or are you better off without them?

Urgency of doing. DaVinci

Whether it’s on New Year’s eve – or any other day of the year – not everyone likes to set goals.

Here’s a quick look at both sides of the argument.

In his book, ‘Help: How to become slightly happier and get a bit more done’, Oliver Burkeman is quite damning about goals, or at least the idea of obsessing over them.

And he’s particularly upset by Brian Tracy’s book ‘Goals!’ that he describes as the most stress-inducing book he’s ever read!

One paragraph from ‘Help!’ sums up Burkeman’s argument nicely:

‘Life’, Brain Tracy is fond of saying, ‘is like a buffet, not a table-service restaurant:

you have to buckle down and work hard now, so that you can enjoy the fruits of your labour in the future.’

But this is surely exactly wrong – a recipe for storing up all your happiness for a brief few minutes on your deathbed, when you can look back smugly at your achievements.

Contrast that with the insight of Stephen Shapiro, whose book ‘Goal free living’ makes the case that you can have some kind of direction to your life without obsessing about the specific destination.

“Opportunity knocks often, but sometimes softly,” he observes.

“While blindly pursuing our goals, we often miss unexpected and wonderful possibilities.”

That sounds a lot more ‘smart’ to me.’

So what are my thoughts?

Well, I agree that ‘blindly’ pursuing a goal is a very bad idea.

You wouldn’t want to step onto an aeroplane if you believed the pilot to be someone who was blindly stubbornly determined to take you directly to your destination – regardless of weather hazards en route – or other hazards at the destination.

That said, you wouldn’t want to get on the aeroplane if the pilot had made no plans . . . would you?

So, go steady on the number and scale of your goals – don’t try to fly 6 aeroplanes at once – but don’t give up on them altogether.

Indeed, it’s a good idea to make one of your goals – to have ‘free’ time in your diary 🙂

We often underestimate the value of the time spent relaxing with others – or the creative thoughts that pop into our heads when we relax alone.

Such time can prevent us from getting obsessed or over-stressed about our goals.

And let’s be honest, unless you’re training for a Marathon, or some such, a lot of your personal goals won’t have a fixed end date.

So, you can flex the timings on these to smooth out your workload. You might even manage to achieve more balance in your life – from time to time at least.

But watch out if you’re the super helpful type. That balance might only be possible if you’re able to say ‘no’ – or ‘not just now’ – to the never ending requests for help from others at work (or home).

You’ll find more ideas for achieving more of your goals right here

7 ways to succeed

As for the ‘SMART’ acronym, sarcastically dismissed by Burkeman above, I do think it can help us to make better plans  . . .

. . . but only if we don’t obsess about those plans or stubbornly refuse to adjust our course as life circumstances change.

And, if you’re going to use the ‘SMART’ acronym, at least get the words right – a lot of coaches get this wrong.

SMART goals are:

  1. Specific
  2. Measurable
  3. Attainable
  4. Relevant and
  5. Time-bound

Remember that ‘R’ is for ‘relevant’

You may have been told it stands for ‘realistic’ – but that’s just another way of saying ‘attainable’

And it’s relevance that’s important for our motivation

It’s very unlikely that we’ll want want to work at a simple list of goals  – however useful they might be to our long term health or wealth.

Most of those goals fail – and most very quickly – as we saw here.

We need to know that our specific goals are ‘relevant’ to helping us achieve our bigger game plan in life.

As for the ‘time bound’ thing?

Well, yes, it’s useful as a starting point – and in some cases (like exam timetables or Marathon running events) you won’t have any choice on the timing.

But in other cases you will – so don’t beat yourself up about small slippage on the timing of your ‘discretionary’ goals.

And don’t spend too much time with a coach who doesn’t understand the word flexibility either 🙁

Put yourself in charge

People who work in project-based environments simply can’t get away with saying no to goals – or rather ‘projects’, which is what the business world prefers to call them.

And they’d be daft to do so – ‘project’ work is not all bad.

There are some very exciting and worthwhile projects you could work on.

It’s just about finding the right work environment that’s aligned to your values.

So, whether you like them or loathe them, the chances are that you’re going to have to work on a lot of goals in your life.

Of course, these work based goals can be stressful if your boss (or your customer – if you run your own business) sets an unreasonable ‘end date’

But you can sort that out by negotiating sensible timescales for your projects – and on those smaller tasks too.

You’ll feel a whole lot better once you acquire a sense of personal control over your work – and you’ll sleep better and deliver a better job too.

So, everyone wins if you ‘go steady’ on the time bound point – where you can.

Plan early on bigger goals

In big projects you may be assisted by a project manager for the planning work – and most projects would be total chaos and confusion without them.

Their work brings together and coordinates expertise from dozens of different disciplines.

Just think of the different jobs that go into building a house, a road, a bridge, an aeroplane, a ship, a spaceship, a new smartphone and even an Olympic stadium or an Olympic opening ceremony.

We know about the very talented artistic directors and players in that Olympic opening scene, but let’s not forget the anonymous project managers who played a large part in getting it built and making sure it all happened on time.

You really wouldn’t want to have to tell the world that you’re going to be late with an Olympic stadium, would you?

That’s what happened with the Canadian (Montreal) Olympics of 1976.

Their games started with an unfinished main stadium.

And it was not until 1987, 11 years later, that both the tower and roof were completed.

So, with your bigger projects (whether they’re personal or corporate) start early with your planning.

And get some expert help – if you’re not great at this planning game.

All the best for now.


If you found this useful – join my Facebook group here

For more (evidence based) Insights into happiness, personal achievement and money management –

join FB Group

Or sign up for my newsletter

and get my ‘5 Steps for planning your Financial Freedom’

and the first chapter of my book, ‘Who misleads you about money?’

Turn your thinking upside down

Discuss this article