I wonder, does it? Does achieving goals make us happy?
I wrote last time about new year’s resolutions and how I have an appalling success rate with them, but still somehow love setting them. I delude myself that this time will be different. Although to be fair, I am making progress 😊. In this post I explore some of the reasons why I think it's problematic, and how to make a change for the better.
Resolutions or goals?
Instead of resolutions, maybe we could describe them as goals. So, if we think new year’s resolutions don’t work, if we fall foul of Quitter’s Day, should we just set goals when we need to, when things we want to achieve come up?
Well, I have another confession. I struggle with the standard advice on goal setting too. It’s either, ‘set SMART goals and monitor your progress towards them’, or ‘set big fat hairy audacious massive goals’. Then visualise yourself achieving them. Feel, what will it mean to achieve your goals? What will you see, what will you hear, what will you feel?’ As a serial procrastinator, I can spend ages setting goals, working out plans, and not getting on with them.
I’m certain this works for many people. But I sit there unable to really create that strong feeling of success, achievement of those goals. Maybe I have no imagination? Maybe I don’t want it enough to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve those goals? I dunno, neither of those explanations feel right to me, and they also don’t serve me. I’ve concluded that these ideas are too airy fairy for me, they’re not practical or tangible enough to motivate me. Focusing on these explanations is also demotivating in itself, it feeds into the false belief that I’m inadequate, or don’t deserve to succeed with my goals. So I’ve ditched them as explanations.
I’m also motivated by deadlines, I’m very much a last minute person. Some may say that’s a bad sign, the sign of a procrastinator. Well, yes, there’s certainly some truth in that. But in his book Start Now, Get Perfect Later, Rob Moore introduces the idea of complex planning. Back in prehistoric times, it paid to stop and consider whether taking on that mammoth was a good idea before acting. Scientists have pointed out that without such complex planning, the human species would not have survived beyond prehistoric times. Such complex planning is therefore a useful tactic.
It was a standing joke between me and some friends for a while; we weren’t procrastinating, we were doing some complex planning. But joking apart, if we have a mammoth task in front of us, or a big decision to make, sometimes that thinking time is a crucial part of the process. As a mature student a few years back, I usually completed essays at 3.30 am the day before it was due in. My closest call was standing in line as the 12 noon deadline approached, hoping against hope that they wouldn’t shut the doors before I handed my work in. But I usually started the reading as soon as I knew the assignment. It was just the writing up I left till the last minute. All that reading time – now I know that was complex planning.
Conversely, I remember once at work that a manager asked me to do a task involving Excel spreadsheets at the last minute – as task she was supposed to have done, but had also left till the last minute. Because I didn’t have the complex planning time, I really struggled with getting this done on time, and felt majorly stressed about it. I can’t deny that writing undergraduate assignments at 3.30 am was stressful too, but somehow it didn’t seem as bad as that spreadsheet task. I believe this was because I knew I had it under control, knew that I’d get it done to a good enough standard, when I’d had all the thinking and reading time. I had no such belief when the whole thing had been dropped on me at the last minute.
Getting my degree though, that was a goal. I really wanted to achieve this. I don’t think I visualised what it would mean to me to get it. Maybe I believed that it would improve my career prospects, but that wasn’t the reason I wanted to do it. I just wanted to study for its own sake. I wanted to go to university. Open University study didn’t motivate me in the same way, I wanted the full undergraduate experience. A few years before, I had a job near the university campus, and would watch with envy when the students were flooding in to their classes while I was going to work. When I finally decided to apply and the university told me I’d have to do an access course first, I just ignored that advice and applied anyway, I wasn’t willing to waste any more time. And got in. I may have fantasised a little about swanning about in the cap and gown for the graduation ceremony, but I didn’t really go in for visualising success.
So I was frustrated with myself for such a long time about not being able to visualise success, and not making good progress towards my goals. I thought it was my fault. Maybe I didn’t deserve to achieve success, maybe I didn’t want it enough, maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough.
Achieving success - what then?
The other side of this emphasis on goals is, what happens when you achieve them? Does getting that graduate job make us happy? Does getting that promotion? A new car? The house we want for our family? Maybe. But often, only until the novelty wears off, and then we start asking ourselves what next? I saw an interview with Tyson Fury, the boxer, where he talked about his mental health. I’m not a fan of boxing, and my only prior experience of Tyson Fury was when he checked into a hotel in front of me and my husband. I didn’t recognise him, but my husband did. I had not heard good things about him, but this interview was in the middle of Russell Howard’s show on Sky, which is the only reason I caught it. I was totally surprised by Fury; he was not at all what I expected. But for the purposes of this post, the interesting thing is that he said once he’d achieved his goal of winning the world heavyweight titles, he crashed. He said he’d always been anxious, depressed, but while he had a goal of becoming the heavyweight champion of the world, put it to the back of his mind. Any traumas, losses, he didn’t have time to think about, he was too focused on achieving his goals.
He said his dad asked what was he going to do when he became champion? Fury said he could feel it coming, he’d probably be down for a couple of years. All his eggs were in one basket, to win this fight. He knew that after, he wasn’t going to have a goal any more. With nothing more to strive for, it all came crashing down. Fury felt he had nothing to live for and wanted to die.
Although I’ve never been suicidal, I do recognise that feeling of a crash when the goal is achieved. When I got my degree, when my three years at university were over, I remember being depressed too. I’d identified so strongly with being a student, and now I needed to get back into the world of work, what should I do? What was my identity now?
Achieving goals is not what makes us happy
So sure, goals are important. But achieving goals is not what makes us happy. As Shawn Achor has it, happiness comes before success. It’s about the journey, not the destination. It sounds like a cliché, but clichés only become clichés because they are true. If you’re not enjoying the journey, what makes you think you’ll enjoy the destination? What counts is the mindset, the approach, the little things. As I said in my last post, achieving goals is about implementation. It’s about systems and processes. It’s about monitoring and reviewing progress. It’s about overcoming difficulties and setbacks.
You can visualise success all you like, but if you don’t take action, if you don’t do the things you need to do to reach your goal on a daily basis, then that vision in a cap and gown will never materialise. Tyson Fury would not become world heavyweight champion without his training programme, without watching his diet for months before a fight, and yes, without getting his mindset right. I would not have got my degree without doing the reading, without spending time crafting my arguments into 3000 word essays, without getting them complete and handed in before the deadline. What made me happy was spending that time reading, gaining new information, working out what it meant, putting it together. (And what’s interesting is that now I use that process to write or share videos about what I’m reading and learning these days.)
One thing that works for me now is that I use systems and processes, many learned from the 12 week year by Brian Moran and Michael Lennington. It was a light bulb moment for me when I read about lead indicators and lag indicators. We tend to focus on lag indicators. Have we seen a weight loss on the scale? Have we succeeded in getting a new job? Have we won the world heavyweight championship? But what we need to focus on are the lead indicators. Have we followed our fitness and nutrition programme? Have we applied for enough new jobs? Have we practised our fight techniques every day?
That link between your actions every day and your goal is crucial. I’m sure it sounds obvious to those who have never had problems working towards their goals, who don’t bother with new year resolutions because they don’t need to. But for the rest of us mere mortals who set SMART goals, or even big fat hairy audacious goals, it’s less obvious; it was revelatory to me. By monitoring such lead indicators, we can give ourselves a better chance of reaching the goal. Moran and Lennington reckon about 80% success rate in implementation gives a strong likelihood of reaching the goal. But in the meantime, we also have the satisfaction of knowing that we’re working on them, focus on what we’re doing right, and making ourselves happy on the journey, not just the destination.
If you’re like me and have difficulty working towards your goals, maybe it's time for a rethink about your approach. Instead of agonising and planning and visualising to no avail, strip the process down. The goal is simple - you know if you want to lose weight, get a new job or promotion, be happy at work, have happier relationships. Focus instead on what do you need to do to get there. What is the process, and what systems do you need to put in place to ensure you follow that process? If you want to be happier at work, you need to take daily actions to make yourself happier. More about that next time, or take a look at these videos in the meantime.
Lindsay is the owner of Silvern Training. Before that she had a very varied working life, doing everything from admin, volunteering, sales, teaching, training, fundraising, management and chairing a board of charity trustees. Now wants to change the world of work by improving workplace cultures so that people can look forward to Monday mornings. Also likes to support individuals to speak up, be better listeners and to take action.