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  • Writer's pictureJared Viljoen

The dark side of goals and how to improve them


They're important, right? They help you know where you are headed. They give purpose to all the stuff we're doing.

My motivated family member

A little while ago I was talking with a family member and he said that he'd never really had any big goals when it came to his career. I was quite surprised at this because I consider this guy quite successful. He's very intelligent, is doing very well in his chosen profession, is very disciplined when it comes to work ethic. Outwardly, this guy has all the trademarks of someone who is very driven. He doesn't do things by halves. If he's going to do something he does it well. He plans and he implements those plans diligently. If he's going to put on a specific amount of muscle then you can be sure that's what is going to happen. If he's going to get up at 5:30am for the next few months, then that's what's gonna happen.

Unmotivated me

Me? I struggle to finish things (read more about that here). I'm not the most disciplined guy around. Give me a time to get up in the morning and I'll take it more as a suggestion... a weak one. YET, unlike my thriving family member, I've had big dreams for as long as I can remember. Since I was young, I dreamed about being financially successful, about playing the Phantom on Broadway, I dreamed about being a bestselling author. At the same time, I've struggled chronically with motivation, procrastination, and depression. Yet, I do think I have a little bit of talent. I'm not a total imbecile.

So, what was this about him not having any great aspirations for his career? How was he doing so well and also seemingly so contented with his life? It got me thinking.

The one without big ambitions (note, of course he wanted to be happy, etc., but he wasn't holding on to any particular dream about a career, etc.) was hitting every target he aimed for, the one with ambitions (me) struggled to even know where the target was. My wife and I have had a few discussions about this and we've sometimes said that it would be easier not to have any ambitions. Then you could just enjoy life as it was, take care of your family, ensure you have food and shelter and some meaningful relationships, and everything else is a bonus.

Unfortunately, that is not the way my brain seems to work.

Are goals bad?

So, are goals bad?

I don't think so. I think goals, a vision of where you want to go, are great. However, I think setting a goal is really only the beginning of the journey to achieving an outcome. A goal without the how can actually become quite demotivating because all it does is highlight the massive gap between where we are and where we want to be. Being aware of that gap can be pretty damn depressing sometimes, especially if we have repeatedly been unable to bridge that gap.

"A goal without the how can actually become quite demotivating because all it does is highlight the massive gap between where we are and where we want to be."

And, I think this is often what goals did for me. They got me excited. Initially. But, it wasn't long before they lost their luster. They became grueling, instead of invigorating, and pretty soon I would give in to the typical behaviours that undermined my goals. I'm pretty sure we've all been there. Every New Year is littered with the corpses of once-shiny goals.

So, how can we do this better? Putting on my strategy and planning hat from a previous career, below (in no particular order) are 5 suggestions for how to improve your goals.

5 ways to set better goals

  1. Make them clear and specific - A vague idea of what you want and where you're going will lack the power to motivate and invigorate your mind when the road gets steeper, as it most assuredly will. Get it very clear in your mind what you want. Give it colour. Give it sound. Give it texture. The more real it is in your mind, the easier it will be for your brain to hold onto it.

  2. Make it positive - So often we set goals like "Lose weight" or "stop eating junk food" or "avoid sleeping in". The problem with these types of goals is that they focus on the negative. They focus the mind on what you don't want. By focusing on the problem, you will likely get more of it. At the MoJo, we are big believers in the idea that emotions follow your focus. If your focus is on what you don't want, then that will, overtime, become pretty emotionally negative. Instead, change them to something positive. "Eat 1 healthy meal per week" or "Get up at 6:30am every day" or "spend an hour with my kids each night". These types of goals focus your mind and heart on what you want, and now your brain has something positive to hold onto.

  3. Know your WHY - This one is pretty important, perhaps the most important. You really need to dig deep and get to the heart of why this goal is important to you. Not surface level why, but a few layers deeper. Why do you really want to write a novel? Why do you want to tell stories. Dig deep, ask "why?" repeatedly until you feel you hit the hidden heart of this need. It should make you feel something. And write that down. Record it somewhere. Get very clear on your why and this will help pull you through tough times. Pull out the why when your feeling down and tap into the emotional why when you need some inspiration.

  4. Have a system or an action plan - A goal or target is not sufficient. You are the product of your daily habits, both mental and behavioural. Setting a goal without changing the habitual systems that will support that goal will likely result in failure. Assess your systems - your daily routines, habits, your environment. Does something need to change? Most likely yes. Start small, and make the mental and behavioural and environmental changes that will support the goal. Someone who is trying to write will need a system in place that supports writing. Is there a space to write? Are there small habits in place that will support writing (e.g., having my laptop open and ready every morning, writing one sentence every morning first thing, etc.)? You must have a system if you are serious about achieving your goal. Because, when motivation runs out, as it will, you will fall back on the habits and systems that are most familiar to you. Are those systems supportive of your goal, or are they destructive?

  5. Have milestones - something that large organisations will spend a lot of time developing are something called KPIs - Key Performance Indicators. These are measures that tell an organisation whether or not they are progressing towards targets. When setting goals, we need something similar. Little milestones that will tell us that we are progressing and heading in the right direction. Set your milestones, and then work towards them. Want to write a novel? Then some milestones might be a certain number of words per week or month. You will quickly know that you are off track if you are not hitting these smaller milestones. Make them small. Make them achievable. AND REMEMBER TO CELEBRATE!!! You must reward yourself and be kind to yourself along this journey. Milestones are a great excuse to spend a lot of your time celebrating. Wrote 200 words today (a small daily milestone)? CELEBRATE! Put your gym shoes on and went for a walk? CELEBRATE!

We could probably talk a long time about goals. But, we hope the above 5 suggestions will be useful. I think one reason my close family member was achieving so much was because he was more focused on the process than he was on some arbitrary distant outcome. And, he was happy with whatever came. The pressure of a distant goal was not distracting him from working in the now.

One last thought: Goals shouldn't be about a technical list of targets and systems or checkboxes (though, they can be fun). They should ultimately be about joy. So, when you are setting them, it is essential to find the joy in your why and take time to find joy in the journey. Else, what's the point?


PS - For NaNoWriMo we're offering 60% off our digital planner. For a limited time only!

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