The Value of Not Setting Goals

Every Monday, I open up my worn, dark-blue Moleskine notebook and write my plan for the week. It roughly follows Steven Covey’s recommendations from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, listing goals for 3 categories: work, family and self. It then plots these goals onto the days of the upcoming week. It’s a great way to take control of your life in a more proactive way than a daily to-do list. In this way, you can evaluate the tasks that come up throughout the day to see if they line up with your overall goals for the week, and prioritize accordingly.

Now, this is not to say that all of the goals always get accomplished each week. Often times one gets bumped to the next week, or glossed over entirely. This is fine, it helps develop an evolving sense of what’s important and realistic. I had an experience with just this issue last week that I found very useful.

In my “self” column, I listed the goal of “asleep by 10”. Then, as the week proceeded, I found that I was not getting to sleep nearly by 10 on any day. I wondered why my reality was turning out to be so out of sync with this particular goal. Now, of course, I could point to the events that came up throughout each day, which pushed my schedule later and later into the evening and clearly say that those are the reasons why I didn’t get to sleep when I wanted to, but I decided to look further back, to the moment I defined the goal in the first place.

What were my thoughts, feelings and motivations when I dragged my pen across the page and wrote that goal? With some reflection, I found that I unconsciously knew that the week ahead would be a difficult one. I knew that there was a higher degree of unpredictability inherent in the coming week and a lot to get done. I also knew that I would be tempted to stay up a bit late to spend time with my kids and my wife after each long day of work. So, feeling this as a negative thing, I tried to compensate for it by writing a goal to go to sleep early, as though simply writing the goal would cancel out all of the realities that made it likely I would be staying up later.

I realized that I had set myself up to fail. In knowing that I would have difficulty getting to bed at a good time, I resisted by pitting myself against reality, somehow feeling that writing an unrealistic goal would change reality. I was wrong — and it brought to mind the many other goals that we set, whether on paper or not, about how we conduct our lives and work.

Setting realistic goals is not important purely from a sense of what you can accomplish vs what you can’t, but also, not setting a goal can be as effective as setting one. If I had had the clarity to not set that goal of getting to sleep by 10, I may have been better able to simply “go with the flow” of the week, and enjoy the extra time that I took each night to attend to my family and myself. Perhaps my goal should have been the opposite. “Knowing that I will have long busy days this week, I’ll be sure to make some extra time each evening to catch up with my family and self before bed.” That emotional fuel would be just what I need to be more effective during the day. I can catch up on sleep next week.

What is the meaning of this?

As a purpose-driven organization, Do Good Design Co. has lots of lofty goals about leveling the playing field for purpose-driven clients vs the less-responsible Goliaths in their industries, through the power of design. Being a purpose-driven professional means that you may be emotionally invested in very admirable goals, and setting them to realistic standards can sometimes be difficult or feel discouraging. However, when breaking these goals down into smaller ones that happen on a weekly, monthly or yearly basis, it’s important that we do so in a way that feeds our organizations the practical and emotional fuel that is needed. Sometimes this might mean setting the opposite goal of what seems immediately apparent.