It’s a commonly accepted sentiment that setting goals will lead you to success.
Many of us believe life will be better by reaching those goals, so we make our plans, put our nose to the grindstone, and work our butts off until we’re there.
Many high achievers I’ve worked with over the years reach their goals, but they end up missing their lives in the process—and not in a trivial "I’m-working-too-hard-to-have-friends" kind of way.
No, they reach their goals and discover they were the wrong goals and the wrong path to get there. No one taught them how to set goals that would give them the life and the career they wanted.
Here’s how to set the right goals for the life you actually want:
The first step to setting goals that will bring you an awesome life is to stop setting goals that will bring you a sucky life.
Most goals are about a destination. "I want a million dollars." "I want enlightenment." "I want a truck." If you tend to set your goals based on the destination, and don’t consider the journey, try switching it around.
Instead of setting life goals, think about setting a life direction. Figure out the things that would create a fun, meaningful, compelling journey.
- How do I want to spend my time?
- What daily activities make me want to leap out of bed?
- What do I want to learn?
- Who do I want to hang out with? Talk with? Collaborate with?
Now set your goal. Choose one that will create the journey you just designed.
In fact, the specific goal you set is almost arbitrary—it’s simply setting a direction so the pursuit itself gives you the life that you want. With the right journey, it won’t even matter if you reach your goal.
For example, Chris, a mid-career finance executive, had an original life goal of making a small fortune. That goal led to an education in securities and securities law, a life of financial analysis on Wall Street, and a community of financial professionals. Despite the money, Chris feels like life is slipping by in a gray fog.
Any number of goals could send Chris on a different journey. Here are his answers to the above questions:
- How do I want to spend my time? "Helping people."
- What activities make me want to leap out of bed? "Problem solving, using my body, and public speaking."
- What do I want to learn? "History, anthropology, and urban design."
- Who do I want to hang out with? "Creative, ambitious, motivated people who expose me to new ways of thinking and challenge my assumptions."
Many possible goals can bring about this journey for Chris. He could help an immigrant neighborhood plan annual events to preserve its cultural identity; work on designing his city’s response plan for weather emergencies; or champion a real estate development in a historic section of town.
These goals are wildly different from one another, but what they all share is that the journey to reach them will motivate the activities, learning, and community that Chris really wants out of life.
As you can see, the goal is really just a way of making sure we take a meaningful journey. Some journeys are so much fun, people stay on them forever. My actor friends often say, "Why would I retire? What I do isn’t work; it’s pure fun!"
But if your job involves staring at a screen and filing TPS reports, you may not share that sentiment. As much press as persistence gets, keep in mind that you can always change your direction. Your goal is there to shape your life in a way that delights you, not enslaves you. If the pursuit of the goal is draining your life, then why keep it?
We adopt goals for one reason and one reason only: to change our lives. Rather than adopting a goal you hope will change your life once you reach it, do it the other way around. Choose the journey that for you would be awesome—the activities, personal growth, and friends. Then choose a goal that acts as a compass to give you that life as part of the journey.
And if you ever feel your direction needs changing, change goals. Because it’s not about where you end up, it’s about the life you live on the way. Your life is too precious to settle for less than extraordinary.
—Stever Robbins is an executive coach and serial entrepreneur. He helps people live extraordinary lives and embark on big-vision, world changing projects. He is the host of the Get-It-Done Guy podcast, which has been downloaded more than 22 million times, and the author of bestseller Get-it-Done Guy’s 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More.