I must admit, I’ve never been much for setting goals. Even before I understood my reasons why, I didn’t feel comfortable being beholden to arbitrary goals that often wouldn’t mean much in the long run. Of course, this flies in the face of our North American cultural orthodoxy. Our cultural narrative demands that you have goals, and if you don’t, well, your life won’t amount to much. In most cases, I prefer to create intentions rather than set goals.

One of my issues with goal setting is the outcome orientation and the implied failure if you don’t meet that outcome. Most goals, by definition, have fixed outcomes. Unfortunately, with most goals, there are a lot of variables on the way to those outcomes that we can’t or don’t control. You can set a goal to grow your business 15% this year, but if you don’t make it due to uncontrollable external variables or plain bad luck, have you failed? What if you grow the business by 10%? Have you failed? There are very few journeys in life where we control all the variables, so having an orientation towards fixed outcomes seems like a recipe for consistent disappointment and perhaps the negative impact associated with feelings of failure.

Goals can help us focus and give us direction. On the other hand, we need to watch that our goals don’t go too far and give us tunnel vision, causing us to neglect other important aspects of our lives. You may have a goal time for your next 10 km road race, and your training schedule may call for a long, slow run on Saturday morning, so off you go, perhaps ignoring that your young son is ill. A better decision might be to be a loving and caring parent in that moment.

One of the stranger downsides of goals comes from psychology, which tells us that goals can actually be demotivating. Achieving a goal can certainly feel great and be a motivational boost, but failing to reach a goal, or more importantly, fearing that you may not reach a goal and therefore fail (or be a failure), can be a potent demotivator. For some people, the fear of failure can be quite high, and the resulting stress may cause self-sabotaging behaviours, leading to missing the goal and further feelings of failure.

Sometimes a goal can feel like a ball and chain around your ankle. This could happen when a person sets an aggressive goal to pay off their mortgage or save for retirement, for example. Of course, who doesn’t want to be mortgage-free or retire well financially? But if it costs you years of turning down opportunities to enjoy life in the present with family and friends, is it worth it? Is it a wise goal?

Goals can have their place in life, but generally, I prefer setting intentions.

  • I intend to slim down and lose weight.
  • I intend to be a better friend.

After we’ve created the intention, we can still develop clear actions and plans that we intend to execute, similar to what we do in goal setting.

We have an intention guided by a plan, but we’ve released ourselves from the responsibility for an outcome and relaxed our timeline. I believe this frees up creative mind space to visualize the many paths to success on our journey. And it gives us permission to start over, pivot, or incorporate the revelations we are sure to acquire as we move forward.

I like the language of intention. It is softer and makes it easier to invite people in. For example: “Let’s set an intention as a family to put our phones away at mealtime.”

Using intention vs. goal setting may take time to adapt one’s mindset. A person must get used to the discomfort of not having a pre-set destination and/or time frame. You must let go of outcome orientation. The direction is known, but the focus is on creating the person you need to be for consistent success. It’s creating and celebrating those base hits that move you forward and ultimately score the runs. It’s finding more fulfillment and less “failure” by using a more fluid definition of success.

Goals can create a lot of self-inflicted stress, and who needs more stress? You may find benefit in setting intentions instead.

 

What goals do you have that may need to be revisited or abandoned (maybe temporarily) in light of changing circumstances?

Do you currently have goals that may serve you better if they were converted into intentions?

What are your most important intentions for the current or next chapter in your life?

 

With loving kindness,

Coach Billy