As we head into the last weeks of the year, now is a good time as any to reflect on our goals for the past year. How are you doing so far with the goals you set (or refreshed) at the beginning of the year? Are you making good progress? Are you drifting or stuck? Did you fail to set intelligent goals to begin with?
In my experience, choosing the right goals to begin with is incredibly important if you want to make real progress and enjoy that wonderful feeling of flow. So let me share some of my recent discoveries on how to set goals more consciously.
The Classical Approach
In the past I used to set goals with a focus on covering the different areas of my life. I’d set goals for my health, work/business, contribution, finances, social life, relationships, personal growth, spiritual path, etc. This worked okay for the most part, and I maintained this approach for many years. I even wrote some articles recommending this approach.
This wasn’t an approach I devised. It was basically something I inherited from various personal development books I read. The approach seemed sound, so I used it by default. Initially I couldn’t see anything wrong with it.
However, as I4 continued using this approach I often felt myself getting stuck or sidetracked. Sometimes I’d look at my goals, and while they seemed pretty intelligent on the surface, I felt like something was missing. I didn’t feel as motivated as I expected.
I kept tweaking the categories, but something was definitely off.
I experimented by letting go of goals for a while and just going with the flow, but that produced even worse results. I know some people are fans of that style, but it hasn’t worked well for me. I make much better progress — and I’m generally happier and more fulfilled — when I wield greater conscious control over the direction of my life.
Recently I’ve found an approach that works much better, so let me share that with you now.
Goals From Identity
Instead of thinking of goals as specific accomplishments I want to rack up in each part of my life, I began thinking of goals as a means of self-expression. Some part of my personality wants to be expressed, and a strong goal can help me focus that desire for self-expression. As this expression manifests in reality, the result is a feeling of satisfaction or fulfillment.
For example, some part of me obviously loves to learn, grow, and explore. I love traveling, especially to new places. I love meeting new people and having new experiences. This desire is deeply rooted in me, but it’s not limited to any particular category like health or career development.
Another part of me loves to teach. I find it rewarding to write, speak, and otherwise communicate in ways that help people grow. This desire isn’t limited to one particular area in terms of what I enjoy teaching, so I may help people improve their health, relationships, career path, etc. That’s one reason I write and speak about so many different topics and refuse to limit myself to one specific niche. Furthermore, I don’t constrain this form of self-expression to my career path. I freely share guidance with friends in my personal life just as I do this work professionally. I don’t turn off this aspect of my personality at the end of the workday.
I began thinking of simple labels I could use for these different aspects of my personality where I seem to have a strong need for self-expression. Eventually I came up with the following list:
- The Explorer – The part of me that loves to learn, grow, and explore. This part loves traveling, making new friends, and new experiences.
- The Guide – The part of me that loves to teach and help people grow. This part especially loves to express himself through writing and speaking.
- The A-Player – The part of me that enjoys being effective, efficient, and successful. He’s competent and confident. He doesn’t need praise or acknowledgement to function well, and negative criticism just bounces off of him. He trusts himself. And he especially likes to connect and work with other A-players.
- The Member – The part of me that loves to connect with interesting people, to volunteer, to be social, and to belong. This part of me served as President of a non-profit association, was active in Toastmasters, was a member of the Transformational Leadership Council, administered multiple successful discussion forums, and hosted public meet-ups in different cities.
- The Champion – The part of me that loves to eat healthy, exercise regularly, and pop out of bed well before dawn. This part loves to keep training to become stronger, faster, smarter. He ensures that I have abundant physical and mental energy.
- The Master – The part of me that loves to be in control. He has a strong need for order, structure, and neatness. He stays calm under pressure and is very good at managing his emotions. He welcomes responsibility and likes to be in charge.
This is a work in progress, so the list isn’t complete, but I like what I have so far. For the sake of simplicity, I think I’ll limit this list to a maximum of seven items.
Now instead of setting goals with the classical approach, I use this identity-based approach. I begin by deepening my understanding of the parts of me that crave expression. Then I set goals to give a voice to those desires.
For example, The Guide will be speaking at a number of events this year (and he’s writing this blog post). The Champion is currently starting on Week 5 of the Insanity workout program (which is insanely challenging) — he’s been pretty happy lately since I’m bouncing around with extra energy and a higher than usual metabolism.
Some goals are inspired by just one aspect of my personality, while other goals are suggested by multiple aspects. The key here is that every aspect needs at least one current goal to express itself.
Sometimes these personality aspects align somewhat with the categories from the classical coverage approach, but they aren’t so limited. For instance, The Champion often aligns with health goals, but that same personality aspect can push me to raise my standards in my social life as well. And The Explorer can also get involved in setting health goals.
I think the main thing missing from my list above would be the part of me that loves caring, intimacy, cuddling, not harming animals, etc. I haven’t come up with a good label for that part yet, but when I do, I’ll include it as well, and I’ll make sure I have some goals to express that part of my personality more fully. What I have above is just a first draft, so I’ll probably refactor it significantly in the weeks ahead. But even though it’s a bit rough, I wanted to share it now instead of waiting till it’s perfect. An imperfect idea shared immediately is generally superior to a perfect idea delayed indefinitely.
It would be ideal for the personality aspects to exhibit loose coupling and strong coherence. Loose coupling means that there’s little overlap between each aspect. Strong coherence means that they’re very crisply defined without too much fuzziness at the edges. We may not be able to achieve such rigidity with personality aspects that are integrated into our neural nets, but if we can come up with abstractions that adhere to these standards as much as possible, it can assist us greatly in understanding how to set more congruent goals.
Often the mere act of deciding to pay more attention to a particular aspect of self-expression is enough to kick-start it and get some fresh energy moving. It might sound a bit hokey to say this, but I do believe there are aspects of ourselves that are superconsciously connected somehow. When we energetically open ourselves to new experiences, we may receive compatible invitations and opportunities even when it appears that we haven’t taken action yet. I think that deciding to move forward is a valid form of action itself though, one that the universe seems to acknowledge with positive feedback at times.
Consider how you can apply this idea to some activity in your own life. How can you inject more of your personality into your work, play, relationships, etc?
Losing the Cage
One advantage to this approach is that you won’t ignore significant aspects of your personality, which is easy to do with the classical coverage-based approach.
A problem I had in the past was not paying enough attention to my need for exploration and fresh experiences. This part was especially squashed when we were so caught up in buidling our business. I went six years without travelling or taking a vacation.
In the past I would still set some travel goals, but they were usually my lowest priority goals. Career and contribution and relationships were always more important, and travel was just an optional tack-on entertainment category, often listed as “Travel/Fun.”
As I began pushing myself to do more traveling, I realized it wasn’t a diversion or an escape for me. It was an immersive growth experience, and I found it deeply satisfying most of the time. This helped me to stop treating this category of goals as something optional and recreational. I realized that this is an important aspect of my personality that needs to be expressed. Otherwise I just don’t feel like I’m really being me. Now I’m finally treating this aspect of my personality with a high degree of respect, at least on the same footing as any other types of goals.
I think you’ll find it immensely satisfying when you finally start expressing a part of your personality that’s previously been caged or squashed. That’s definitely been the case for me.
It’s easy to verbally acknowledge an aspect of your personality that you recognize. It takes little effort to say, “I like to travel too.” But it’s another thing to set specific goals in this area (travel to where? when are you leaving?) and to begin working on these goals seriously, as if your life depended on it. I’d say you’re not really serious till your flight is booked.
Also note that your strongest goals will satisfy multiple aspects of your personality. Last year I decided to do more public speaking, and this was an easy goal to accomplish because it aligns so well with aspects of my personality that desire expression. The Explorer gets to travel. The Guide gets to teach. The Member gets to connect with new people. The A-Player gets to thoroughly prepare. The Champion enjoys the challenge. And The Master loves to direct the audience to stretch themselves (with their permission of course).
Why Absolutely Must Set Goals That Are Truly You
If you were to come up with a similar list of personality aspects for yourself, what would you include? I encourage you to brainstorm a first stab at such a list right now. How well do you know yourself?
Note that you don’t need to list every little piece of your personality. Try to only list the strongest and most pervasive aspects, the ones that keep trying to express themselves again and again — and when they aren’t being expressed, you feel trapped, stuck, or depressed.
Do your best to generalize these aspects as much as possible. For instance, if you like coffee and you need to drink it every day, is it because you like to indulge in the sensual experience of it? Do you do it for social reasons? Do you crave the stimulation of the caffeine? Any or all of these could be aspects of your personality looking for expression.
Notice what you catch yourself doing in your spare moments. What aspects of your personality might you be trying to express?
When you really take ownership of your personality… when you can look at your list and say, “Yup, that’s me!” then I think you’ll find it much easier to claim full ownership of the goals that arise from this approach. You’ll finally be setting goals that are truly you — not your parents’ goals for you, not society’s goals for you, and not merely some marketing-implanted desire for the latest iStuff.
A major benefit to this approach is that it will help you set more holistic, intelligently integrated goals. You’ll develop a better understanding of which goals are wise choices for you, and which aren’t.
I can see that business coaching and consulting is a great fit for my personality. That’s probably why I love it so much. I currently have my calendar booked through March of next year, and I’m always looking for more. Business-related goals are very congruent, and so I find them fairly easy to achieve. Working on these goals is a labor of love.
On the other hand, developing new products is much more challenging for me. I can eventually accomplish such goals, but they take a lot longer, and my progress is slower. Such goals satisfy some aspects of my personality like The A-Player and The Guide, but they don’t do much to satisfy other aspects like The Explorer and The Member. This awareness suggests that I could develop products faster if I could align the process with more aspects of my personality. For instance, one thing that helps is working with other people on a product instead of working solo.
[reminder]If you try this approach, please let me know what you come up with for the list of your personality aspects. And especially let me know if you find this approach helpful in setting new goals that you otherwise might not have considered.[/reminder]
The Guide is now satisfied.