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How to set goals that matter

It’s easy to get caught up in what you feel you “should” be achieving. But human behavior experts say the best goals are made with your own real values in mind.

Goal setting and life planning in a notebook

We all know the feeling of setting a goal, only to quickly run out of motivation. Let’s say you resolve to save up for a house deposit this year. After a couple of weeks of skipping your morning lattes and zealously tracking every dollar spent, you begin to feel your enthusiasm drying up. It feels too hard, so you push it out of your mind and start to avoid the things you’d need to do to achieve your goal.

What often follows is guilt, self-criticism and a sense of having failed. If only you had more willpower, more discipline to stick to your plans, you think.

But the real problem probably isn’t that you’re lazy and unmotivated. There are all sorts of deeper reasons why we all struggle to reach our goals. And one common reason often goes unexamined.

What if the problem isn’t the way you’re going about it – but the goal you’ve chosen itself? What if you’re chasing after something to fulfil an idea of what’s expected of you, but it’s not something that really matters to you personally, deep down?

What do you want – really?

In her book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, psychologist Dr Heidi Grant Halvorson says we find the strongest motivation and the most personal satisfaction from goals that we have genuinely chosen for ourselves.

This means not choosing goals because we feel like we “should” do something, or because someone else is doing it, or to earn the validation or approval of others. Goals that come from an authentic desire within ourselves are the most likely to spark the strongest drive.

“Self-chosen goals create a special kind of motivation called intrinsic motivation—the desire to do something for its own sake,” she writes. “When people are intrinsically motivated, they enjoy what they are doing more. They find it more interesting. They find that they are more creative, and they process information more deeply. They persist more in the face of difficulty. They perform better.”

In other words, when we choose goals that really matter to us, our motivation comes from within ourselves, not from external factors. Not only does it feel more energising, it also gives us a much better chance of success.

“This means not choosing goals because we feel like we ‘should’ do something, or to earn the validation or approval of others. Goals that come from an authentic desire within ourselves are the most likely to spark the strongest drive.”

Get to know your values

Human behaviour specialist Dr John Demartini says the key is to really get to know your deepest values, and to choose goals that line up with that. “When we set a goal with our highest values in mind, we see the greatest opportunity, and are inspired to do things that count,” he says.

If you set a goal that isn’t aligned with your true values, you’re much more likely to lose motivation and struggle to follow through. “Setting a goal that is low on your list of values becomes self-defeating since you will procrastinate, hesitate and frustrate yourself when you attempt to pursue it.

“For example, if you want to exercise more but health isn’t actually one of your real priorities, your chances of success are low. On the other hand if being a good parent is one of your highest values, a goal to spend more time with your kids has a much better chance of success.”

You might already know what your real values are. For many of us though, it can take a little self-reflection to really identify what matters to us. Demartini says there are clues in the things we already spend our time doing, what we fill our lives with and where we get our energy and meaning from.

Here are a few questions to think through that might reveal some patterns:

  • What inspires you most? What do the people who inspire you have in common?
  • How do you spend your time most, and what are you actually doing this for?
  • What energises you?
  • What do you visualise most about how you would love your life to be?
  • What do you most often talk to others about, or what do you keep wanting to bring the conversation to?
  • What do you love to learn or read about most?
  • What do you fill your personal space with, and what do these items really represent or mean?
  • What do you spend your money on?
  • What things do you achieve most easily? What are you most disciplined and reliable in?

What goals bring us real happiness?

Once you know what really matters to you, the goals you choose could be anything at all – they are yours, after all. However, Dr Heidi Grant Halvorson suggests the most positive goals are ones that feed the three essential human needs defined by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in their Self-Determination Theory of motivation.

Beyond our basic survival and safety needs, psychologists widely agree that all human beings seek:

  • Relatedness – The desire to love and be loved, to feel connected to others.
  • Competence – The pleasure of increasing your ability to make things happen in your life, like developing a new skill, learning something new, or growing as a person.
  • Autonomy – The need for freedom, to choose and organise your own experiences.

This means goals focused on things like strengthening your relationships, contributing to your community, helping others, learning new things, improving your health, and working on your personal growth and self-acceptance are all more likely to bring you lasting feelings of satisfaction and wellbeing.

In contrast, some goals will more often than not leave you feeling empty and dissatisfied, even if you do achieve them. “Here are the goals that aren’t going to help you achieve lasting wellbeing: becoming famous, seeking power over others, or polishing your public image,” Halvorson writes.

“Any goal that is related to obtaining other people’s validation and approval or external signs of self-worth isn’t going to do it for you.”

An action plan to reach your goals

Dr John Demartini shares a few tips for success:

  • Get clear on your end goal. Start with the end goal in mind, and work backwards to plan the action steps required to achieve it.
  • Break it down. Ask yourself: “What are the highest priority actions I can take today that will help me fulfil my goal?” Then, “What actions can I take to help me fulfil each of these bigger action steps?”
  • Break it down some more. Keep breaking each action step into smaller, more doable steps until a plan can be seen in your mind’s eye.
  • Prepare for obstacles. Think of what possible obstacles might arise and mitigate each of these with a plan that will either prevent or solve the obstacle.
  • Link each action step to your values. Ask yourself, ‘How will fulfilling each of these action steps help me fulfil my highest values?’ This will increase the probability of staying focused on these actions.

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