Whenever I speak to Vistage chairs around the world, the theme of goal setting comes up. They are keen to find new ways to help their member CEOs hit great heights, achieve growth and boost results, and I recognise my younger self in these CEOs that are driven to achieve and succeed. We spend time together in San Diego every year to discuss ways to enhance and improve out meetings, and it was in one such meeting that I felt rather out of place.

You see, I stopped setting goals around five years ago. As a result, I’ve seen more progress and success than ever, which is weird… but even more strange is that I’ve also become less stressed than ever, despite the increased speed and progress. There are a few key points I believe we can use to avoid the pitfalls of goal setting, which I will get to later. But first, let me explain why I feel that goal-setting is slowing down success.

Firstly, goal setting is typically conducted ‘in a vacuum’. Perhaps at the end of a year, or at the beginning of one, we reflect on the things we failed to do and commit to change our ways and be better. We commit to losing weight, stopping smoking and taking more time off. We commit to spending more time with loved ones, picking up a hobby or learning something new. We decide we are going to increase business revenue, get that promotion or exit a job we hate. We typically have a sense of aspiration around ‘life changing’ events we commit to take on, with a ‘Gung Ho!’ attitude. We’ve all told ourselves; ‘this year is going to be different. I’m going to achieve!’

Unfortunately, in a year’s time, most of us will be looking back and making excuses for the goals we failed to achieve. We either give up or simply roll them onto the next year. Suffice to say that over 70 per cent of fitness centre memberships bought in January are no longer used by March…

Here’s why

Dopamine is secreted by our brain when we set ambitious or audacious goals, as we envision ourselves as a picture of that success when we are asked to describe how we would feel on achieving that goal. Dopamine gives us a sense of wellbeing, making us feel great and hyping up reality. Dopamine also banishes the cortisol-secreting reality checks that keep us grounded and mindful of risk. I’m all for aspirations, but chances are that your BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) is going to be thwarted by a feeling of perpetual guilt when reality kicks in. Every time you use the accountability check, and life has typically got in the way of your progress, you feel bad about yourself for failing to progress with the same aspirational speed you had planned.

As a result, we make excuses to mitigate the guilt, building a repertoire of self-sabotaging strategies and blame for not achieving your goals. How many of you hear the voice in your head justifying your slow progress with ‘I was too busy, not enough time; not enough resources; not enough money; someone else prevented me from progress; I had to prioritise something else; it was an overly-ambitious goal in the first place’? Yep, been there too.

So, we see this year after year, and we continue to strive to do better. We make accountability stricter or join a group (like Vistage) to get the chair to make you accountable. Or we buy software on goal tracking (clearly millions are struggling like you, with so many apps offering help) or devise our own tools – writing the BHAG on your bathroom mirror or on your fridge door, for example.

So, if these promised tools worked, why are the vast majority of us still struggling? Because our brain is a habit-loving, self-sabotaging, deceitful little devil. Rationality always loses in an argument with emotion. And once you have a thought or an impulse, the emotion is too quick in the door before your rational brain notices. It takes tremendous willpower to go against the comfort zone and do something uncomfortable. And what is more uncomfortable than change? When we are setting goals, we are simply articulating the outcome of a struggle. We often skip the description of the struggle itself. In a nutshell, goal setting is an action which is too superficial for meaningful change.

So what gives?

As Einstein once said, if you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’re going to keep getting what you’ve always got. Here’s my thoughts on a possible alternative.

I believe that the brain needs to rewire by changing behaviours in order to stop the self-sabotage (e.g., making excuses, distracting from priorities, blaming resources and others, taking the easy way out) that stops or slows success and achievement. We need to ask ourselves how we need to change behaviour. If a client CEO needs me to make them accountable, that is an alarm bell that means I need to help them realise what makes them lack discipline and focus on changing that behaviour with every-day activities that help build it. I ask them to re-train their brain on creating new habits rather than focus on long term goals. What can you do every day to change your behaviour and become disciplined, instead of needing a whip to keep you accountable?

We need to avoid setting ourselves up for guilty feelings by focusing on quick wins, that nudge that change in direction (or behaviour) that will lead us to success.

We then need to stop doing things that hamper our performance, as this in itself reduces guilt that comes with failure. For example, stop saying yes to taking responsibility for everything. Micromanagement is a great example in business. Beating yourself up or starving yourself because you didn’t go to the gym give days in a row is another example.

If you define success as spending quality time with loved ones instead of a goal to have a two week holiday with the family this year, then not staying late at work during the week, not answering emails and calls on the weekends and not thinking of yourself as indispensable to your business may be more effective behaviours you can change for success; don’t you think this approach is going to have a much greater result than taking that holiday and worrying about all the work you are going to go back to, every minute of your holiday?

And by the way, does there have to be a ‘result’ at the end of every strategy, or is life a continuous improvement, and not an ‘end goal’ that you reset ever year?

Focus on the journey

Like a skipper on their boat, sitting at the back of the boat at their tiller and setting a course with a clear direction is more effective than sitting at the front of the boat continuously searching for the destination. The focus becomes that of trimming the sails or nudging the tiller to adapt to the wind and currents to stay on course, keeping a wider view on the situation at hand and with the horizon as reference. We are more mindful of being in the now, and the behaviours that I am focusing and reflecting on to stay on the right course, but also with the ability to change and shift, without feeling guilty, I’m forfeiting a destination (or goal) I had pre-set in advance.

If going to the gym every other day is working better for me, as I am more consistent with that behaviour than a five-day hit and miss, then I can adapt without feeling I’m failing. If YOY growth in the business is no longer the best option and consolidation makes more sense because of a change in the wind direction (market forces), I stay level-headed and am not tempted to take risks to force growth that I had committed to before the landscape changed. If I have to forfeit the family holiday because my work team needs me, but I’ve been spending quality time with my kids every day and on weekends sharing my values and mentoring them, my kids will understand that it’s important to honour one’s responsibilities and the holiday can be postponed to a better time.

So today, I encourage my group members and clients to focus on the journey of change, and not the goal (smarter or otherwise) if they want to find their true success; ‘success’ being defined as them becoming a better version of themselves, not growing my EBTA by 25 per cent.

At the end of the day, if they become better people and leaders, their personal balance and business growth will happen anyway.

Check out the original version of this article on Upyourlevel.com


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