Attention economyGoal settingHabits

Shining a spotlight on goal setting

Goal setting 101

Students often cringe when they hear two words: goal setting.

I understand this cringe factor.

When I was in high school, I felt like I was forced to set goals. I’d think, “Why are they making me do this?” and “What’s the point?”.

But once I got to university, I realised that having goals is a super useful life strategy.

In this article, I want to share my perspective on goal setting and how this strategy has helped me to get stuff done.

I’m going to tell you:

• What goals are
• Why you’d want to have them
• How to stick at them
• Why you need to protect your goals from destructive outside forces

Let’s go!

What are goals?

Goals are things you want to do. Perhaps you want to write a book, jog around the block every morning, start your own podcast, get a part-time job to save some money or learn to play an instrument. These are goals.

Why set goals?

• Goals give your life a sense of purpose
• Goals give your life meaning and a reason to get out of bed
• Goals help to focus your mind on what you want/need to do
• Goals help you to create a better, less boring life

As Giovanni Dienstmann explains in his book Mindful Self Discipline:

“We all need to aspire to something and feel that we are going somewhere. Otherwise, there is a sense of boredom in life. Our daily routine feels stale and unengaging. As a result, we seek relief through bad habits, and seek engagement through mindless entertainment, news, social media, games, etc.”

Why is it so hard to persevere with goals?

Have you ever set a goal, you felt excited but then that excitement quickly dissipated and you gave up on the goal?

Motivation is unreliable

Whenever this happens, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion, “Goal setting doesn’t work!”

But the problem isn’t with goal setting as a strategy per se.

The problem has more to do with the fact that motivation is completely unreliable (it comes and goes). Plus, you were probably never taught how to achieve your goals in the first place.

In other words, you were set up to fail.

There’s a lot of pretty average advice out there about goal setting. I’ve heard dozens of goal setting pep talks and they can be summed up like this:

“Set a goal, make it SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time bound), break it down, blah, blah, blah . . .”

Most students tune out when they hear these pep talks. You can feel the energy being sucked out of the room.

I strongly believe this advice doesn’t work for most people. And it’s incomplete.

What’s missing from these goal setting pep talks?

I’ve found that the following simple ideas can make a big difference in helping you to move from inaction to action when it comes to pursuing your goals:

1. Dial down your expectations: Set the bar really low

Achieving big long-term goals usually requires engaging in little behaviours consistently over time. You need to chip away. You need to develop habits to get there.

For instance, last year, after years of thinking about writing my next book (but feeling seriously stuck and overwhelmed by the idea), I finally started writing down my ideas.

What helped me to get unstuck?

By starting really small.

I told myself all I had to do is open up the word document and write one sentence. And the sentence didn’t even have to be good! But I had to do this every single day.

If I wanted to write more than my one sentence, I could. But one sentence was my absolute minimum. Most days I wrote at least a paragraph. But on the days when I didn’t feel great, I would just show up and write one sentence.

Nine months later, I had a draft manuscript ready to send to my editor.

2. Swarm of Bs: Brainstorm specific behaviours

Many different behaviours can help you achieve your goal. Some behaviours are going to be more effective than others. The first step is to brainstorm all the possible behaviours that will help you to get there.

One way you can do this is with BJ Fogg’s tool Swarm of Behaviors (also known as Swarm of Bs).

What you need to do is simple:

You write your goal/aspiration/outcome (whatever it is you want to achieve) in the middle of a sheet of paper. Then you spend a few minutes listing all the behaviours that will help you to achieve it.

Dr Fogg stresses:

“You are not making any decisions or commitments in this step. You are exploring your options. The more behaviors you list, the better.”

When I was brainstorming behaviours that could help me to write my next book, I came up with the following list:

1. Use an Internet blocker app and block myself from distracting websites
2. Carry a notepad and pen with me everywhere I go (to capture ideas)
3. Write one sentence every morning
4. Speak my ideas into a voice recorder when I go for a walk
5. Use the Write or Die app
6. Manage my inner critic (when it strikes say to myself “It can’t be all bad!”)
7. Give myself a pep talk each day (e.g., “Done is better than perfect!”)
8. Do Julia Cameron’s morning page activity (i.e., free writing)
9. Attend a writing retreat
10. Sign up to ‘Turbocharge your writing’ course
11. Pick up a mind map, select an idea and use it as a writing prompt

Once you’ve finished brainstorming potential behaviours, go through your list and select just a few behaviours to get the ball rolling (I selected #1, #3, and #6).

It’s well worth spending a couple of minutes making each of these behaviours ‘crispy’ (i.e., specific). For instance, for Behaviour #1, I decided on the websites I would block myself from using and for what period of time (until 10am).

3. Expect the process to be messy

There’s nothing neat or linear when it comes to working towards big life goals. Showing up and doing whatever it is you need to do (even if it’s just writing one sentence) can feel like a daily grind. Mild discomfort usually infuses the whole process.

Accept that’s how it is. It will feel like a hard slog at times, but the rewards are worth it.

The long-term rewards that come from working on your goals far outweigh the superficial rewards that come from scrolling through social media, watching Netflix, etc.

Even if you don’t achieve what you originally set out to do, chances are you’ll still be better off than you were before. Why? Because you’ll have learnt a bunch of new skills and life lessons.

4. Stop external forces from sabotaging your goals

You really need to be careful who you share your goals with. Some people take great delight in stamping all over your goals and crushing your hopes and dreams.

For example, when I was 10 years old, I started attending drama classes outside of school. These classes were a lot of fun and quickly became the highlight of my week.

I remember thinking, “When I grow up, I want to run my own drama academy to help boost kids’ confidence!”.

I felt inspired by this idea, so I shared it with my primary school teacher. I was expecting him to say “Good for you Jane. What a great idea!” but he said with a smirk, “How do you think you’re going to do that?”

And then he grilled me with questions such as: “Where will you get the money from to set this up?”, “Who is going to come to your classes?”, “Where do you plan on running these classes?” and on and on he went. Ugh.

I was left feeling crushed.

So be careful who you share your goals with.

But nowadays, there’s a more powerful force that can mess your goals: social media.

If you’re constantly checking social media and looking at what other people are doing, that’s time and energy that you could have spent working towards your goals. But that’s only part of the story . . .

Social media exposes you to the best bits of people’s lives and a lot of outrage-inducing content. All of this noise messes with your goals by subtly shifting and changing your worldview, beliefs, attitudes, and what you view is important in life.

In his brilliant book Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy, ex-Google strategist and now Oxford-trained philosopher James Williams shares his own personal struggles with this. He states:

“. . . I felt that the attention-grabby techniques of technology design were playing a nontrivial role. I began to realize that my technologies were enabling habits in my life that led my actions over time to diverge from the identity and values by which I wanted to live. It wasn’t just that my life’s GPS was guiding me into the occasional wrong turn, but rather that it had programmed me a new destination in a far-off place that it did not behoove me to visit. It was a place that valued short-term over long-term rewards, simple over complex pleasures.”

He adds:

“In my own life I saw the pettiness [i.e., pursuing a low-level goal as though it was a higher, intrinsically valuable one], this imprudence, manifesting in the way the social comparison dynamics of social media platforms had trained me to prioritize mere “likes” or “favourites,” or to get as many “friends” or “connections” as possible, over pursuing other more meaningful relational aims. These dynamics had made me more competitive for other people’s attention and affirmation than I ever remember being: I found myself spending more and more time trying to come up with clever things to say in my social posts, not because I felt they were things worth saying but because I had come to value these attentional signals for their own sake. Social interaction had become a numbers game for me, and I was focused on “winning” – even though I had no idea what winning looked like. I just knew that the more of these rewarding little social validations I got, the more of them I wanted. I was hooked.

. . . I had lost the higher view of who I really was, or why I wanted to communicate with all these people in the first place.”

When you go on social media, you need to realise that there are thousands of highly intelligent people on the other side of the screen and it’s their job to figure out how to capture and exploit your attention.

In short, the values and goals of these big tech companies are not aligned with your values and goals. Facebook’s first research scientist Jeff Hammerbacher summed it up nicely when he said:

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads . . . and it sucks.”

Take a moment to think of the people who you really admire. How would you feel if you saw them spending huge amounts of time distracted and obsessed with social media?

I’ll leave you with this powerful quote from author Adam Gnade:

“Would you respect them [your biggest hero] as much if you saw them hunched over their phone all day like a boring zombie? No, you want them out there in the world doing heroic things, writing that great novel/song/whatever, saving the planet, standing up for the disenfranchised, or whatever else it was that made you love them in the first place. Let’s try to be as good as our heroes.”

Whatever it is you want to do in life, work out what you need to do to you get there (i.e., the crispy behaviours), and then roll up your sleeves and get started.