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When goal setting backfires

Goal setting can be powerful – humans like to have projects, and knowing where we want to go makes it a lot more likely that we’ll get there. Stephen Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” famously starts with habit 1: “begin with the end in mind”. In wellness spaces, we’re told that we can manifest our dreams, which starts with setting clear goals and outcomes. And so we dutifully get out our journals and workbooks, writing lists of all of the things we want to achieve.

But for a few of my clients recently, the endless focus on goals was creating more harm than good. When you see where you want to be in the future, by definition, you’re not there yet. For folks who tend towards perfectionism or self-criticism and judgment, that gap between where you are now and where you want to be in the future can actually create anxiety, fear, and ultimately self-sabotage. Instead of working towards those goals, the chasm between your current reality and where you want to be breeds hopelessness.

In these moments, we’re confusing the end goal with the process – the actually doing and action that achieving the goal requires.

The difference between lead and lag measures

You see, a lot of our goals are lag measures – we want to have fulfilling jobs, to be less anxious, or to lose weight. These are important goals to have and it’s important to articulate them, but they’re unfortunately not goals that we can guarantee. I’ll use an example from my own work –  there’s nothing that I can directly do that will make me have 30 people attend a yoga class. I can take lots of other actions, but I can’t actually guarantee that those 30 people will come.
So the first step to making goal-setting a positive process is to focus on lead measures instead of lag measures. Instead of my goal being “get 30 people in a yoga class”, it’s much more useful for me to instead set goals around the actions and processes that should (but might not) get me to my lag goal. So my actual goal is to market my class on Facebook each week or to reach out to 1 person who hasn’t come to class in a while. I go ALL IN on the lead measures, knowing that they improve the chances of success with my lag measures.

Recognize the Blocks

Sometimes it feels like you try and try and try to achieve a goal, but for some reason you can’t make it happen. You say you want it! You make the plan! But the action just isn’t happening or happening consistently. That means it’s time to do some self-study (in yoga it’s called svadhyaya) to understand the blocks to achievement. These blocks may indeed be structural and outside of your control. Or there may be some internal blockers that are hurting your progress.

Some of the common blocks I see are:

  • Taking on goals that are actually other people’s, not our own.
  • Unclear motivation or an unclear “why” for wanting to achieve that goal.
  • Lack of emotional or structural support needed from family or friends.
  • Competing priorities – too many goals or goals that can’t be achieved simultaneously.

If you want to reach a goal but you’re not making progress on your lead measures, it’s time to sit down and ask yourself:

  • What is the benefit (and cost) of accomplishing this lead measure?
  • What is the benefit (and cost) of not accomplishing this lead measure?
  • Which benefits are most important to me? Is it worth the cost?

You might just find that there are emotional or physical barriers that are stopping you from taking action towards what you say that you want.

Celebrate the doing

Our preoccupation with the end result paradoxically makes achieving our goals less likely. We create resistance to the very thing that we want to bring into our lives! I’ll show you how this works. Let’s say your goal is to run a 5K. You’re just getting started with running, so right now you run for 1 minute and walk for 30 seconds. There are two options:

  1. Each time you go out on your run/walk, you are frustrated at yourself for not being able to run a 5K yet. You see your pace and your mileage, you compare it to that 5K goal, and feel like a failure.
  2. Each time you go out on your run/walk, you celebrate. You got outside. You are taking steps towards your goal. You’re proud of the fact that you’re stepping into discomfort and trying something new.

One of my favorite ways to celebrate the doing is to say “that’s like me!” every time I take action on one of my lead measures. Instead of constantly benchmarking my current reality against where I wish I was, I celebrate exactly where I am.

This tool builds self-esteem and confidence, and helps you stay on track, instead of falling into despair or self-criticism. Note that this isn’t about false positivity. Rather, it’s about mindfully acknowledging where you currently are, instead of constantly striving for where you want to be.

Get that Accountability

When you say your goals out loud, you get to process them in a new way. You might find that saying it out loud just doesn’t feel right. Or that you get so passionate you realize how important it is to you.

Plus, accountability matters, and it works. When you tell your friend about your goal, or you block time off on your calendar, you’re sending a message that this is something you care about and are committed to.

Having people who also want to celebrate the doing and celebrate you for showing up, day in and day out, can make all the difference in making goal setting (and goal accomplishing) an easier, more fulfilling thing. By getting the goals out of your head, onto paper, and into the world, you make it that much more likely that you’re going to achieve them.

If you could use some extra support in setting personal goals that you’re passionate about, consider reaching out for an Ayurvedic consultation. We’ll focus in setting and celebrating lead measures that affirm your values and desires.

Make Goal Setting Work For You

Notice your relationship to your goals. Does thinking about them bring a wave of despair? Or a wave of inspiration? Despair is a lack of hope. Inspiration is a drawing in of breath and energy. If you feel inspired – AWESOME. Continue forth. But if that negative self-talk comes in, it’s time to rethink how you approach your goal setting.

I’d love to hear from you – what goals are you working towards and how can you focus on lead measures, remove blocks, celebrate the doing, and get some more accountability? Leave a comment below to let me know.

  Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful day,   samantha attard sig

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