Open almost any book on self-improvement, and one of the first things you will be told is that you need to have goals. But over many years of working with people to improve their lives, I've started to question their importance.
Possibly the most famous model for goal setting is the SMART approach. It deems that goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based. This is an excellent model if you want to do something that can be clearly defined, is quantifiable, can be broken down into identifiable steps that can be scheduled, and has a definite end point. Running a marathon or holding an art exhibition would be excellent examples.
However, when we look at the process of cultivating a meaningful life, it gets a little murkier. Many of the things that make life worthwhile don't have a defined start and end point, and many are not measurable. You can't just exercise for a specific period and then declare that fitness is 'completed'. And where is the end-point of practising compassion or appreciating beauty? How do you quantify the closeness of a relationship? How do you measure self-acceptance or creativity or fun?
There is another common dilemma that I see with goal-setting: the measurable, tangible indicators for success can easily become measurable, tangible indicators of failure. Let's say someone sets a goal of going to the gym at 6am every morning. They start off well, but one day they have a sick child and can't go, then on other days their back hurts or they have to drive their mum to the airport or they sleep in after a big night. They begin to 'fail' at the goal, which generally leads to two conclusions: either the goal is a failure and not worth continuing, or they are a failure, so it is not worth continuing. Goals that are too clearly or rigidly defined can instill an all-or-nothing mentality. In practice, it often ends up being 'nothing' when the 'all' can't be consistently achieved.
Now, I'm not saying that goals are bad things or that we should avoid using them. Goals have their place, but I suggest that they are not absolutely essential to the cultivation of a good life. Goals are only one of many tools that we can use to provide direction and motivation, and we need make sure we are using the right tool for the job. So don't let the self-help gurus bully you into thinking that you are a slacker if choose to explore some of the other options, such as those outlined below.
Some life-enhancing concepts such as 'being more creative' or 'strengthening relationships' are on-going rather than time-framed, but they will remain nothing but good intentions unless they are transformed into action. If you were being more creative or strengthening your relationships, what would you be doing? Identify specific actions, then look at how they can be made part of your day-to-day life. Multiple-choice plans can be a great way of increasing adaptability. An example would be "in my creative time, I can draw or write or cook" or "in my exercise time I can walk or swim or do yoga".
Plans can also featured a range of options, replacing the all-or-nothing approach with a better-than-nothing approach. Plan A might be to go to the gym at 6am, but if that is interrupted Plan B might be a quick walk in your lunch break or doing yoga at home in the evening, as this is better than nothing and still keeps you on track.
Sometimes it can be useful to clarify the activities that make your life satisfying, and aim to tick these off your list each day. Examples of a check-list might be "every day I need to do some physical activity, do something creative and connect with someone I love" or "every day I'll spend 30 minutes on housework, 1 hour on writing and 15 minutes in mindfulness practice". The way that these items are ticked off the list can vary from day to day, giving more flexibility than a conventional plan while still providing focus and structure.
If you are trying to juggle multiple roles, such as work and family, or a paid job and a home business, you will know that plans are often interrupted by competing demands. In this case it may be useful to clarify your priorities, to help you to improvise and adapt your plans effectively on the run. Let's just say that you are torn between your child's request to play a game and your desire to tidy the house. If you have a clear idea that your priorities are family closeness and fun, then you might choose turn a blind eye to the mess to play a game.
Directions and aims
Directions have the same long-term view as a goal, but a less specific path and finishing line. A goal might be 'I will have a book published by the time I am 50." An aim or direction might be 'I aim to be the best possible writer I can be' or 'I plan to dedicate increasing amounts of time to my writing'. These big-picture ideas can be a useful reference point when making choices in your daily life - 'what can I do today that will move me in that direction?'
Projects and fancies
Projects can have a clear end point, like a goal, but can be much more flexible in their ideas of the method and time-frame. Fancies are things that take your interest for a while, and are enjoyed for their own sake, rather than being pursued for any specific purpose.
Values and intentions
Sometimes what you do is less important to your quality of life than the way that you do it. Clarifying your values and intentions can give you a sense of meaning and direction, even if you are not following a clear plan or goal. So, for example, you might aim to approach tasks with serenity or curiosity or efficiency. Or you might set an intention to seek moments of connection with others. This approach can be particularly beneficial in chaotic periods of life, when specific planning is near-impossible.
Any thoughts? I'd love to hear your take on the topic.