Most people are familiar with goal setting. Just recently, I sat my sons down and we wrote down their goals for 2011. I used the method I was taught in the corporate world for setting goals, and that is SMART – Goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.
However, this recent article from the January 2011 issue of Oprah has made me relook the way I set my own goals. In it, Martha Beck (my favourite writer in Oprah) explores why some people remain unhappy despite achieving their goals.
Goals are quite magical – they dictate our attitudes and behaviour and where we put our energy. Most people set goals to get what they want without realising that they may end up with ‘unintended consequences.’ Example: Running a business may robbed you of time with your family. Another baby may drain your energy.
She says, most goal setters use mainly nouns and verbs. (“I want my business to succeed. I want to have a baby.”) This frequently leads to either outright failure or the kind of success that doesn’t make people nearly as happy as they expect. These bring to mind ‘imagined situations’ as opposed to ‘imagine experiences’. The two are subtly but crucially different, and experiences, not situations, are always what we really want.
By using adjectives, you can avoid this trap by focusing all your effort on the quality of the experience you want to create. This process is harder than ‘normal’ goal setting – it requires some serious soul-searching.
Here is how you start.
1. Pick a goal.
2. Gaze into the future and imagine what life would be like if you realised that goal you just identified.
3. Generate adjectives to describe how you feel in your dream-come-true scenario. Your adjective can be simple words like energetic, focused, delighted and fine.
Write them down.
4. Focus on anything that can be described with your adjectives. Example: If your New Year’s goal is to lose 10kg – a noun-verb goal – but your adjectives are strong, confident, and healthy, you might realise that your actual goal is to keep fit. That means that your strategy to diet may leave you thinner but with no energy.
Thanks to adjectives, you can fine tune your strategy. Swap a fad diet for a meeting with a nutritionist and sign up for the gym.
Sometimes, your adjective goal might utterly contradict your stated goal. Time to rethink that original target then.
Using the examples above, the one who wanted a successful business described her adjectives as relaxed, joyful, secure. But the demands of her successful business made her tense, joyless and insecure. When she scanned her life for activities and relationships that made her feel aligned with her adjectives, she found them everywhere; in gardening, reading novels, playing with her kids.
Researchers studying happiness have found that the situational elements people crave – money, social status, possessions – don’t reliably lead to an experience of well-being. By contrast, learning to find joy in the present moment (a.k.a. focusing on experiences you truly want in your life) increases life satisfaction, improves health, and allow us to live longer, more fulfilling lives.
So if you find yourself longing for some idealised goal, take a moment to go fishing for adjectives. Then use them to identify the aspects of your life that are already drawing you towards your heart’s desires. Focussing on these people and activities will lead you gently towards even more fulfilling experiences.
Thanks to Martha Beck for this piece of valuable advice. Aaron was in a school motivational camp today setting goals. Perhaps I shall ask him to think of some adjectives when he is back.