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  • WSL Leadership

Want better goals? Stop setting goals.

We often have a surprising amount of optimism when we think about our future selves—surprising in that it’s probably unwarranted. We believe our future self will make excellent decisions or respond better to a situation or generally be wiser than our past self. The past self may have made some crappy decisions, got thrown off track, reacted poorly, and generally muddled through things. Despite how overly optimistic we are about our future selves and how slightly critical we are about our past selves, we still only influence the present.

The intention we bring to influence the present to set our future self up for success is something we talk about all the time but do with varying degrees of success: goal setting.

There are shelves and shelves of books and articles to tell you how to do goal setting the right way. Some are trash (like SMART goals - sorry true believers, if a goal is attainable/achievable, then you’re just scheduling). Some are better but still problematic (stretch goals for the win - almost, unless you don’t want to buy into the biased culture of constantly going beyond).

The one-degree changers/atomic habit crew tell us that making a small change now and following through with it will land us at a radically different place. As someone who taught many many people to steer a canoe, a one-degree change will indeed take you somewhere different over time. Still, in the meantime, it’s far more likely that you’ll swing wildly back and forth for a long time while gradually decreasing the twists and turns in your path into more of a semblance of a straight line. Once you have that figured out, you may be wondering where it was were you wanting to go again.

It might not seem like it, but I am a fan of goal setting. There are tricks to overcome our biases about future self (make a plan in advance for when your future self screws everything up) and ways to encourage follow-through (sharing it but not blasting it out so much that we feel it’s accomplished already). The heart of goal setting is choosing the right goal, and the right supports to make it happen. Maybe SMART goals or stretch goals, or one-degree goals work for you. If so, great! Go make the world a better place.

Maybe you’ve always had your 3-5-10 year goals at the ready, and maybe they haven’t worked out even once. If the nuances of goal setting get you down and you haven’t found a way to make them work for you, stop setting goals. Just stop.

Right now is an excellent time for you to stop setting goals.

Instead (I think you knew there’d be an “instead”), get more clear on where you are right now. Let the future self and past self go and learn more about your present self. What is it that drives you, rankles you, makes you shine, makes you clam up? What does past self tell you about your habits, patterns, energy-sucks and energizers? What does your vision of future self tell you about how you want to be leading your life (not what you want to be doing -- how you want to be doing anything). What questions are you trying to answer, and what questions have you not even asked yourself yet?

Set yourself free from the striving and judgment of goal setting and look both minutely closely and from 10,000 feet at where you are, who you are and how you operate right now.

You might end up with more precise goals and paths to achieve them. You might end up with the freedom to take a different course altogether. Who knows? No matter how smart or stretchy you are or what one-degree difference you point at, you need to know where you are starting to make progress.

Giving up goal setting will give you space to more vitally inhabit who you are right now. Take some time with it. The present is the only moment where you have influence. It is also the only time when you can actualize your power. Taking some time to get attuned to the power you have will help you use it more wisely in the ever-unfolding present.

What goals can you let go of right now? How can you learn more about yourself instead?

The answers to these questions will be another step in the direction of wise leadership.


[Looking for more tools to support your leadership? Check out this Emotionally Intelligent Conflict Management Checklist I made. I think you might like it, and use it.]

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