On the promise and pitfalls of goal-setting
Goals, goals, goals.
If you’ve ever read something related to personal development, engaged with a coach or therapist, and/or are required to have a continuing professional development plan of some sort for your job, you’re probably sick of hearing talk of setting goals.
My own experience is that I’ve often felt like I’m drowning in talk of goals and goal-setting. Having almost completed my postgraduate training in occupational therapy, goal-setting has come up time-and-time again. Do a little search of the literature and you’ll find oodles of empirically-grounded, goal-based assessments and health interventions. In my own life, I set goals all the time: goals related to trail races I want to run, my vocation/career, things I want to study, and so on and so forth.
But sometimes, I don’t find it very helpful. In fact, I’m convinced that goal-setting can become a very unhelpful — perhaps even detrimental — exercise.
Why? Just ask any person with a proclivity toward perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking. Goal-setting can quickly become a deeply paralyzing, despair-inducing exercise. The ‘bar’ can be set so high that goal-setting becomes a source of psychological distress. Goals can quickly become tyrannical; a constant reminder of how much one fails to measure up.
But, even if you aren’t prone to these types of thinking styles, ask yourself this: do you measure your sense of self-worth by your goal attainment? Or, put differently, is your self-worth attached to what you achieve? Or, how productive you are? There’s ample evidence indicating that this is something many of us in modern, so-called developed societies struggle with.
This is why I’m suggesting it’s helpful to re-frame goals as signposts. One of the most helpful pieces of advice I once received on the topic of goal-setting was that goals are not ultimately about achievement, but rather are about setting life into motion. Or, to use that old cliché, it’s about the journey rather than the destination.
The metaphor of the signpost is useful because it better captures the phenomenological reality of one’s journey toward reaching a goal(s) whilst avoiding some of the rigidity of traditional goal-setting (which can play into unhelpful proclivities and behaviours). What do I mean by this? Returning to my own experience for a moment, goal-setting can quickly become paralyzing not only because it sets up an ‘ideal’ for one to measure themselves against, but also because one can become bogged down in thinking through all the possible ways to reach that goal, or all the challenges that may arise, or all the things that could go wrong. Which, is mostly out of our direct control. One may also unwaveringly attach themselves to a particular goal or outcome, refusing to adapt, change, or let go of that goal and expending themselves at-all-costs to achieve it. This is, put bluntly, a recipe for disaster (most of the time).
Re-framing goals as signposts, on the other hand, acknowledges the fluid (or impermanent) nature of reality and our lived experiences. It acknowledges that goals are not ends-in-themselves, but are indeed about setting a direction and taking forward-moving action. How many times have you set a goal (whether implicitly or explicitly) only to change it as you’ve encountered new information? Or, life has thrown you an unexpected curve ball and you’ve had to adapt in response? Seeing goals as signposts acknowledges that they are just that: signposts. Once we reach one signpost, it points us in the direction of the next one(s). It is not set-in-stone nor is that one signpost the be-all-and-end-all. As we take action toward reaching a signpost, the path before us is increasingly illuminated which, in turn, further shapes the direction of our lives. This is why it can be such a valuable exercise to set goals when one is stuck in a rut (whether that ‘rut’ is pathological or not): the value lies not so much in the goal that is set, but the very fact that setting goals can ‘trick’ us into taking action. If you haven’t already noticed, the keyword here is action. And, as we walk the path before us with dedication, compassion, and curiosity, we develop wisdom: a necessary ingredient for the flourishing life.
So, don’t go throwing out those goals you’ve set just yet! There is nothing inherently wrong with goal-setting. But, could you be better served by holding these goals lightly and, instead, viewing them as signposts? For me, it’s undoubtedly led to a more life-giving and playful experience of goal-setting/working towards my goals without losing the motivational ‘power’ of the process.