Happy New Year everyone. I know I’m a bit late to the party but it’s been a hectic and difficult start to the year. We returned home after staying with family for Christmas to find our beloved cat very sick. After ten days backwards and forwards from the vet there really was nothing more they could do and we had to make the very difficult decision to end her suffering and put her to sleep. I also made another very big decision over the festive period – the decision to leave my job at the blue chip organisation where I have worked for the past six years to embark once again upon the daunting but exciting arena of self-employment. The hole where the fluffy black fur-ball used to reside was making my family pretty sad and so after several trips to the RSPCA we finally adopted Alice – a friendly, playful young adult cat. We had really gone to adopt a kitten but Alice was highly persuasive with her feminine, feline whiles and even when we told the centre to go ahead and allow another family to adopt her because we weren’t quite ready (still grieving our beloved mog) when we went back a couple of weeks later and there she was, the adoption with other family having fallen through. So Alice is settling into her new home (currently spread halfway across the desk) and I am settling into a new phase of my career.

With this start to the year there wasn’t much time to think about New Year’s resolutions. The only thought I had really given to the subject was to quietly acknowledge to myself that we really don’t know what the year ahead holds in store and perhaps we should focus more on the moment and appreciating what we have than constantly striving for something better. But New Year is the time people are most likely to set new goals. Since I havn’t had a chance to do that it got me wondering what difference it would make. Will setting the goal ‘lose 12lb make any difference to whether I lose 12lb or not? I’m not convinced it will and here’s why:

Most goals require behavioural change

Most goals actually require some kind of behavioural change. There are some goals that don’t. Goals that are basically a repeat of something we have done over and over again probably don’t require a behavioural change. This may apply for example, to a project at work  that simply requires you to keep on doing the same daily activities you have for the past few months or years.

But most goals require a significant behavioural change. Losing weight, giving up smoking, doing more exercise,  being more patient with the kids, etc. all require us to change our behaviour. Setting the goal isn’t what’s going to enable us to achieve the goal, it’s changing the behaviour. So if achieving our goals is more about changing our behaviour isn’t that what we should focus on rather than the latest goal-setting book?

Most of us don’t actually know what our goals really are

We often mistake the mechanism for achieving a goal with the goal itself. For example, let’s say you have been dreaming about leaving your job to set up your own business. Is having your own business your goal? Or is your goal freedom? It may well be that having your own business is your goal. Many people simply enjoy running a business. They find it challenging, exhilarating even. they want to take the lead, call the shots, make all the decisions and dislike being told what to do by someone else. Some people actually desire the freedom to do what they want when they want. They may want more time to spend with their children or on a personal project in which case the real goal may be more time. People that give up the ‘day job’ to run their own business in the hope of having more time can find, initially at least, that the demands of running a business can take up far more time than their ‘day job’ and so are unable to reach their real goal.

People also tend to be driven in one of two ways – towards pleasure or away from pain. In the example above, the goal to set up your own business might actually be driven by the need to move away from the pain of your current work situation. Your goal might actually be to work for an employer that values your contribution, providing tangible reward and recognition.

The goals we think are ours aren’t

How many young adults embark upon college and university courses based upon their parents’ goals? How many eighteen year olds in the UK have embarked upon university courses in the past five years, not because they really wanted to but because the government set a goal to have fifty per cent of young people in higher education?

Do you want to exercise more because you know you enjoy it or do you want to exercise more because you keep hearing on the news and in magazines that you should be exercising thirty minutes a day a minimum of five days a week (for an revolutionary take on how much exercise is required to provide significant health benefit check out Fast Exercise by Dr Michael Mosley).

We confuse goals with commitments

Let’s also not confuse goals with commitments. Commitments are promises or pledges you make, usually to other people. You commit to helping someone move house on Saturday. You commit to attending a party. You commit to meeting your friend for lunch. If you don’t honour your commitments you usually let someone else down. If you find yourself frequently unable to honour your commitments you need to look at why that is. Are you over-committing? Are you committing to things you don’t really want to do? Are you afraid to say no?  I believe different emotions are bound up in commitment – emotions such as guilt and shame. Guilt can drive you to do something positive but can also eat you up (for more on guilt and shame – and the difference between the two – see the excellent work of Brene Brown). I personally don’t think guilt and shame are emotions conducive to attaining your goals.

Goals you complete versus goals you achieve

Is there a difference between goals you achieve and goals you complete? If I decide I want to run a marathon I have to complete the marathon, but in order to stand even a chance at completing the goal I have to achieve a level of fitness.

To be awarded a first Class Honours Degree you have to complete the course but you have to achieve a level of skill or knowledge to be awarded that particular classification. In both these examples you are required to ‘achieve’ and ‘complete’. If you achieve a certain level of fitness conducive to marathon running but don’t complete the marathon the goal is not attained. If you complete the course but don’t achieve the required level skill or knowledge in your degree subject, again your goal is not attained. Are different processes or systems required for achievement versus completion?

A recent Forbes article entitled ‘Why setting goals can do more harm than good‘ highlights the findings by researchers from four top business schools which showed that goals can do more harm than good. The authors of the research caution against goal-setting to increase productivity, pointing out that in organisational settings, when individuals focus on one stretch goal this can lead to neglect of other key activities and a rise in unethical behaviour, although they do point out that learning and mastery goals can have a positive effect. Thinking of my own experience of goal-setting, my most successful outcomes have been where I was learning a new subject or mastering a new skill.

Are goals bad then?

I don’t think goals are bad but I wonder if perhaps we should focus less on the goal and more on the bigger picture and the finer detail. It seems I may be more likely to achieve my ‘goal’ if I am clear on what the real goal is, am prepared and able to change my behaviour and the goal is based on learning something new or mastering a skill. These aspects all require a bit more, well…… effort, than a simple declaration that I’m going to ‘do’ something, an addition to my calendar  or even, dare I say it, a bright and colourful visual depiction of my goal on a piece of A3 paper!