goalsWhen the captain of Manchester City, Vincent Kompany, held aloft the Premier League Champion’s trophy this year, his euphoria and joy were a sight to behold. What’s your equivalent? Have you experienced an exhilarating and emotional peak moment in your life? This post looks at the pros and cons of goals – what goals mean for you, why we set or avoid them, and tips on reaching them.

To infinity and beyond

Setting a goal can be aspirational and inspirational. These are the human ones, as opposed to the “low level ‘engagement’ ones” (James Williams).  Many organizations and individuals follow the well-worn path of having a clear purpose, a vision of where they want to be, and how they are going to get there. More often than not, employees have targets to reach goals and achieve success. Then stuff happens, unexpectedly and rapidly. Things change overnight and plans get revised or shelved. Without agile learning, unlearning and relearning, that’s increasingly a challenge in our volatile and uncertain world.

So, how each of us reaches goals in our job and career, varies. Setting goals are not the same as how you get there.

goalsOn the downside, many astronauts have struggled with life back on earth once reaching their ultimate goal of space travel or literally touching the Moon. Cricket has one of the highest suicide rates of any sport. The mundanity of life compared with those peak moments can be a cruel and deflating contrast. Stories of mental health issues and addictions are not unusual.

And the digital age is having an effect too. Author and ex-Google star, James Williams, makes the astute observation in a recent article that

…there’s a deep misalignment between the goals we set for ourselves and the goals that many of our informational technologies have for us.

He argues that these weapons of mass distraction are contributing increasingly to our sense of regret at not achieving our heartfelt human goals. Self-regulation becomes even more important if we want to rescue our attention.

In a media article (The Guardian, 5 May), Vincent Kompany talks about the challenge of winning back-to-back championships. He describes what mental toughness means in a nutshell.

Staying at the top is much harder. Because you have to fight human nature. Once you achieve a goal and you are on that high, you have to consciously pull yourself in to say: ‘I need to have the same hunger and desire as when I had nothing.’ That’s the hardest thing to do in life. That is getting challenged every single day once you win titles.

Try using GMR

A useful approach to stay on track or get back on it is to look at the relationship between Goals, Methods, and Resources. If you change any one of these, revisit the other two and revise accordingly. In career terms, for example, my goal might be to get promoted within a year. What can I do if my methods are not working?

  • Reset the goal (I’ll change my self-imposed deadline; I’ll leave and get to my goal with another employer; I’ll revisit why I want to get promoted);
  • Change the methods (research/networking/seize different opportunities);
  • Revise the resources (get a mentor/coach, allocate more time, give more focused attention).

The intentions behind setting targets and goals are often about monitoring and measuring progress, as well as varying degrees of carrot and stick motivation. It never worked for me as an employee. Aspirational goals can become wish lists and targets can become finger-in-the-air exercises. Even worse if they result in perverse and unethical behaviours with the ends justifying dodgy means. Neuroscience backs this up.

Your attitude to goals may depend on whether they are imposed by others or you have the freedom to set them for yourself. The goal may be inspiring but the target demoralising. SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) can be too restricting, stretch goals too demanding. They often evolve or emerge in light of growing self-awareness and changing external circumstances.

Set systems

Adam Alter of Big Think has an insightful video on the inherent weakness of goal-setting (“a broken process”). In essence, you’re in a state of failure until you reach your goal and it’s an anti-climax when you get there. Eyes on the prize grow weary. Fear of failure replaces hope of success. Repeat endlessly and you run the risk of diminishing your personal resources in a series of escalating and unfulfilling goals.


Alter’s alternative is to focus on the journey rather than the destination. In practice, you focus on what is achievable and fulfilling using personal systems. The Pomodoro technique is a good example where you give focused attention on a single issue for 25 minutes with no distractions followed by 5 minutes break to rest and re-energise. Bit by bit you reach your goal without over-fixating on it and getting ahead of yourself. Incremental successful steps build sustainable confidence.

Every football manager has a goal (sic) for the season, but they talk about only concentrating on the game in hand. Staying in the present, not allowing the disappointment or success of the past to affect today’s performance. It’s no surprise that mindfulness and meditation techniques are being adopted in the workplace.

The systems mindset is an effective antidote to the imposed and self-imposed pressure of setting and reaching goals. Try it if you struggle with the relentless demands of the workplace and if your motivation wanes in finding a career direction.

Scoring goals

Here are 12 coaching questions to help you think through what goals mean for you and avoid scoring an own goal:

  1. Do you set yourself significant goals? If yes, why?
  2. If no, what stops you?
  3. How do you set your goals?
  4. What is your success rate at achieving them?
  5. What gets in the way of success?
  6. Which is more important to you: the journey or achieving the goal?
  7. Initially, what does it feel like when you achieve a goal? And when the dust settles?
  8. What motivates or demotivates you about goals at work?
  9. What is the difference for you between a target, an objective, and a goal?
  10. Who sets your goals at work: you, others, or a collaboration?
  11. What would you change?
  12. In light of this post, what is your freshest thinking about goals? “And now I will …”

Share your tips here on setting and reaching goals in your job and career!