Once you get over the idea that people who walk around with a list of personal goals in their pocket are utter self-improvement dweebs, you should make writing your own list a number one priority. There are bookshelves full of annoying self-help hype around the notion of personal goal setting, which is why we’re skeptics just like you are. But the truth is, when you feel like you’re drifting aimlessly, unhappy with your job, finances, location, fitness level, whatever—it’s time to start writing down goals. A personal goals program is a training regimen for your mind: it makes you visualise a finish line in a better place than the one you’re in now, and it helps you get there. Let’s take a look at why you should shrug off all the cringe-worthy reasons not to think about goals, sit down with a piece of paper, and start writing.
Goals mean you’re trying to be better. Ask anyone if they want to be a better person, and you’ll get “Of course!” as an answer. Ask them what better means and how they’re getting there, and you’ll probably get a pair of blinking eyes in response. Setting a goal is simply articulating an improved state of being, thinking through the steps in between where you are now and where that better place is, and taking them. Setting goals means you’re actively trying to be better. Frankly, it’s a rare occurrence in a world where most people get up, take a shower, pour coffee, and go about their business as usual in exactly the same place they were yesterday.
Writing things down makes them happen. Something potent occurs when a thought graduates from a couple of synapses firing off in your head to a statement on paper: the idea gets a life of its own, it becomes a possibility that can stare back at you, and ask what you’re going to do about it. Writing down your goals means you’ll have a reminder, a record, and most importantly, the experience of promoting an idle thought that deserves to be more than that to a written statement. Lots of people may have goals in their heads, but a goal is only a whim until you articulate it.
Written goals make time for big thinking upfront. Thinking and doing are two very different modes. Like composing a good to-do list, writing down a goal requires you to do your higher-level thinking first, to put on “The Boss” hat, to consider the big picture, to decide how you want to spend your time on this planet. Then, when you’re in out in the world doing your regular, everyday, mundane tasks, wearing your “Personal Assistant” hat, you can just do whatever actions align with the plan The Boss laid out. Most people skip the thinking part and let themselves get swept into the everyday mundane tasks part, like commuting to work or grocery shopping for dinner. Those are the people who, several years down the road, stop and wonder where the heck all their time went, and feel that terrible twinge of regret that they didn’t do something more worthwhile with it. Letting yourself just go through each day without thinking things through means you’re drifting, going wherever the waves toss you. Having goals means that when the rubber hits the road, your tires are pointed the right way.
Written goals give you hyper-focus and clarity. Why do you spend so much of your time leveling up your character or shooting down aliens or collecting gold in your favourite video game? Because the rules of the game are clear, the tasks are obvious and laid out, and all you have to do is practice, shoot and collect to make it to the next level—instant accomplishment. A goals program is like setting up levels in your life and work—the difference is, you have to make the rules and designate what the loot is.
Written goals make it easy to cut the crap. One of the most effective ways to have more time and get stuff done faster is to opt out of the activities and tasks that aren’t important enough to spend your time on. Having goals makes that assessment exponentially easier: when you have doubt about an activity or commitment, all you have to do is figure out whether or not it helps you reach your goals. No? Then cross it off your list or calendar—you have no reason to be there. When you’ve written down goals, you’ve given yourself a direction to point in, hyper-focus, and clarity about what each day’s point is. Goals means you’ve thought things through sooner rather than later, and the answers to the smaller questions snap into focus. “Should I stay at this job?” “Should I start this business?” “Should I go on this trip?” All those answers come easy when you’ve decided on your goals.
Written goals prepare you for the best and the worst. Setting and working towards goals is not a single-pass process—it’s an iterative practice of setting your sights higher than your current position, and climbing the ladder to get there. Constantly. Sometimes you’ll make it, and sometimes you won’t, and when you don’t, you’ll revise your goals into something you can make, and try again. That habit of constantly trying for something just beyond you toughens you up, sets your mind into a permanently hungry and optimistic state, ready and willing to do the work to make things better—and able to cope when things get worse. A person who’s set and achieved goals in life is more likely to weather the storm of a layoff or illness or tragedy because they’ve trained themselves to be goals-oriented, to think positively and work toward something better. That’s their modus operandi—they don’t know how else to be. This is the part about goal-setting that just doesn’t get the press it deserves. People who work on goals put optimism into practice. Every attempt you make to get better (whether you fail or succeed) makes you a stronger, fitter, and more capable person, the person you want to be when all hell breaks loose. Goals prepare you to get better and for worse times.
Now that you’re convinced that having goals is a good thing, how do you decide on them? In the next installment of this Goal Setting for Skeptics series, we’ll cover how to set goals when you don’t know what you want to achieve.
In the meantime, tell us: why have you chosen to write down (or not write down) your goals? Tell us about it in the comments.