Do I need to set goals to make the right decisions?

lauraevemcleod / January 14, 2018

I got talking to a friend of mine last week about goals for the year, decision making processes and planning ahead. She expressed a couple of very enlightening things:

  1. Her only goal for 2018 was to “drink more water” because goal-setting previously had caused pressure.
  2. That her late husband, also a friend of mine, used to live by the motto “any decision is a good one”.

Amidst all the goal-setting and success-related Medium posts at this time of year I really felt these two things gave me a new perspective. Are we all just over-thinking everything, applying too much pressure to our lives, and holding ourselves back from just doing the stuff that will serve our futures well?

Is it time to stop procrastinating over goals, just make a decision and get on with it?

Lets look at both of these things, because for me there are two interesting topics here.

Do I need to set goals to realise success?

Research tells us the answer to this question is yes.

Goal setting leads to motivation. In this Harvard paper from 2014, S. Turkay points us to many references on goal-setting theory, which states that they both improve motivation and achievement. Whether you’ve been set a goal by a teacher or instructor, or if you’re setting your own, it is empowering to consciously propose to do something and achieve it.

There’s certainly enough evidence in recent research to say goals are absolutely effective, but the key seems to be in how  you set them. This 2012 article by Sebastian Bailey, also supports the evidence that goal-setting leads to better performance, but its the characteristics of the goal that matter.

When you embark upon a personal training program, your trainer will assess if you’re looking to gain strength or more keen on weight loss. The training plan will differ accordingly, it will be optimised towards the core goal.

If you’re running a PPC campaign for your new retail website, are you looking for reach or are you more focused on profitability? Depending on the answer to this question you might be optimising towards impressions or ROI.

Therefore you need to set a goal that is uniquely tied to the objective in order to achieve what you’re trying to achieve. The way you structure the goal is important as it will determine the actions that follow.

There are many ways to effectively structure the nature of your goal, and one of the most common ones is the SMART framework, which I use with more rigour in my working life. But for my personal life, we don’t always think about applying this, and maybe we should. It just feels a little sterile somehow I guess.

In December I read a great post from Joe Pulizzi on the goal setting exercise that made all the difference for him. So I followed suit. I set mine under the headings:

  • Financial
  • Career
  • Family
  • Spiritual
  • Mental
  • Physical

I made them for 5 years time on a more macro level, and then on a more micro level focusing on 2018. I wrote them in an email, and then emailed them to myself so I have them for regular reference. I think Joe Pulizzi’s goals put into practice most elements of the SMART framework, so I used these as good practical examples for my own and it wasn’t that tricky to do.

I’ve recently spotted some more holistic and fun-looking exercises to help with life planning, including yearcompass, which allows you to download a booklet and complete your goals in a much more reflective manner. I think Tim Ferriss’ approach to fear-setting over goal-setting is also refreshing because its associated with the fact we only have a limited time to achieve specific things and actually many of the fears we use as reasons not to do something hold us back and we can actually work through them.

So is it just Procrastination? Do I need to specifically think about what I achieved and didn’t achieve to be able to go forward in a positive way. By the time I’ve done my life goal planning I could have read a chapter of a book or learned 7 more sets of German verb conjugations, or begun my business plan. Right?

Yes this may be so, but lack of focus can ultimately lead to dissatisfaction in the longer term because you’ll have achieved a set of things that aren’t necessarily connect as opposed to a list of things that helped you achieve a much bigger, longer term goal.

So perhaps rather than procrastination, this is simply prudence; an effective measure to steer your life in a direction that’s focused on what matters the most to you.

Which leads to my next question…

Will any decision I make really be a good one?

I don’t know if we’ll ever have the ultimate answer to this somehow rhetorical question, but the reason I like the motto “any decision is a good one” is because it actually places the focus on working towards turning the decision you make into the right one. Its more about taking the pressure away from the decision itself, or the repercussions of it, and focuses on the possibility of what will happen if you just do it. I think this is a crucial factor in empowerment and progress.

A relatively old but good Harvard Business Review by Ed Battista article picks up exactly on this topic. He cites CEOs who take less time worrying over whether or not the decision is right, but that you plan enough to ensure that once you make a choice, you can make the outcome work for you. Emotionally being able to anticipate what effect that decision will make is a crucial factor in making our decision work out for us.

Also, if the decision for some reason leads you to a less desirable outcome, you can pivot easily or you’ve figured out what the repercussions of a plan B are enough to capably deal with it.

Could this be scientific proof that there’s an element of “gut feeling” involved in making our decisions the right ones? Possibly yes, but it means taking the time, or developing the skill to project what emotional benefit making that decision will give you. Its, I think, a measured way of eliminating the worry or negative consequences of one’s actions might be. This also might make one accountable for one’s decision, which again I believe to be another important factor in progress.

There are pros and cons behind any decision we make. Whether that’s buying a house, starting a family, moving to another country, starting a business or making the decision to move to be nearer family. We can all look back and say that we wish we had done this or that to have re-shaped our lives in a different direction, and if not careful that can lead to regret.

Gary Vaynerchuk‘s content is often centred around the topic of regret. He cites older people saying “I wish this, I wish that”. Its very true, I hear this a lot from some older members of my own family, and it always makes me wonder why we don’t do more to prevent us in future from feeling these kinds of emotions. One of Vaynerchuk’s current mantras is “Regret is poison” and he has a point. You should do everything in your power to avoid this in your own life.

Is then the moral of the story that if you wish for something, don’t waste time and just do it? Stop procrastinating, labouring over the decision and get on with it, right?

Perhaps yes, but if we’re working towards making a decision right for you, as opposed to making the right decision, you have a higher chance of making that decision feel good if it matches at least one of your longer term life goals. In theory this should ultimately lead you to overall happiness.

Procrastination or Progress?

I think if  we look at this idea of procrastination through the lens of goal-setting, some of the things that we want to achieve may either rely on other things to happen in the interim or for the right time to come around during the course of the year. In which case, waiting for the right moment to make a move or for some additional funds to come in, or to reach a certain milestone to come around in a relationship, or a family member to be in better health. I think that’s all fine, as long as you have other short term goals to achieve in the meantime that will help you achieve the larger goal, or at least help you with your plan B just in case anything changes or doesn’t go to plan. So a staggered approach to your goals can in fact be productive, as long as they’re all working towards the bigger picture. Besides, life can throw more than a few curveballs at you.

Procrastination can be useful thing, if done in an “active” way. Frank Partnoy, author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay explained to Entrepreneur that “Active procrastination means you realize that you are unduly delaying mowing the lawn or cleaning your closet, but you are doing something that is more valuable instead. Passive procrastination is just sitting around on your sofa not doing anything. That clearly is a problem”.

So working on your shorter term goals, whilst working towards your big big overall smiley, happy life goal is not procrastination. Its being prudent, being active and helping you to eventually remove those regrets from your life. At least that’s the goal 😉

What’s the conclusion to all of this?

My friend’s goal to drink more water in 2018 is a good one. She’s stopped procrastinating over goals, which were something that made her feel uncomfortable anyway, and chose to make this one simple, achievable goal based on the prediction that this will provide her with a happy 2018. This makes it a good decision and I’m sure she will be happy with the outcome.

What about my more lengthy  and specific approach to goal-setting? I’m happy with them too. I think they’re achievable and are so far helping me to fill my time with useful things (this blog post included) whilst I ferret away at some longer term items.

But all this goal-setting, re-forecasting, reflecting, it can take up what’s precious to us and that’s time. We don’t have very much of it, which I’m reminded of very much when I think about Ben who we sadly said goodbye to in 2016 aged only 37.

So cheers to Ben for this pearl of wisdom- he always had such a wonderfully honest viewpoint on life and superb in making decisions on the spot.

So my take on this is that you should aim to make a decision that feels right but work at making it so in accordance with achievable goals that you can hit and feel good about.

Lets hope it brings us all a great 2018, whichever way we’ve chosen to set out our hopes and dreams.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *