How to Set Boundaries: 14 Proven Practices

Many people struggle with setting and enforcing boundaries. It requires knowing their preferences and breaking points. It means being willing to assert their desires and needs. This is hard for many people, either due to their upbringing or personality—or both.

There are many advantages that come with getting good at this. For example, it can help us protect our emotional wellbeing, grow as a person, develop greater self-respect and confidence, protect our time and energy, avoid burnout, earn respect from others, and prevent unnecessary relationship conflicts.

When we set boundaries, we’re helping others interact more effectively with us. Sometimes we’re setting lines for ourselves that we resolve not to cross. We’re getting clear on what we’ll accept or tolerate.

Boundaries help us function effectively. They allow us to enjoy our life and work while also giving us a sense of control over our lives.

When we don’t set and enforce boundaries properly and consistently, we’re more prone to anxiety, frustration, and resentment. We get overcommitted, perhaps falling into overwork, workaholism, exhaustion, or burnout.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Get Better at Setting Boundaries: 14 Proven Practices

Thankfully, there are many things we can do to get better at this. Here are 14 proven practices for setting and enforcing boundaries:

1. Recognize that setting and maintaining boundaries can benefit our lives greatly, including our work and our leadership. Given all the benefits, it’s well worth the effort. Also, it gets easier over time.

2. Realize that setting and enforcing boundaries is not just good for us but for everyone involved. Why? Because it creates clarity and generates mutual respect.

3. Avoid falling into the trap of overestimating the resistance that will come from setting boundaries. Our brains are good at generating fear and anticipating worst-case scenarios. Often, the reality is not nearly as bad as we fear when we get into worrying mode.

4. Stay focused on the higher purpose of setting boundaries instead of the down-side of the temporary awkwardness. When we set boundaries, it’s usually for a good and important reason such as protecting our wellbeing or reserving our time for our top priorities. In this light, it’s well worth a little temporary pain or awkwardness.

5. Evaluate our current boundaries to identify areas that need improvement. In particular, look for situations that often result in discomfort or resentment.

6. Take an inventory of boundary crossings that have happened. Thinking about these instances, focus especially on the people, the situations, and how they make us feel.

7. Determine new boundaries that we want to set and recommit to or update old boundaries. Our core values and current goals and priorities should inform these decisions. If we’re new to setting boundaries or have struggled with it in the past, we’re wise to start small and build out from there.

8. Communicate boundaries clearly. Sometimes, the problem is that we’re expecting people to read our minds and just know our boundaries. It’s a recipe for frustration and failure. Sometimes, we may want to explain our rationale so the person has context (e.g., “I’m fully booked now so I can’t help with that”). In other cases, we can leave it with a declaratory statement (“I can’t take that on”) or even just a simple “No.”

“No is a complete sentence.”
-Anne Lamott, writer

9. Be consistent in communicating and enforcing boundaries. This is key. It’s where the rubber meets the road. Without consistency, others are likely to get confused or forget, and that may take us back to square one. Better to do the hard work upfront and in the early stages until things start to take on a life of their own.

10. Develop our assertiveness, including getting better at saying “no” and saying it more often. We can focus on saying no to requests and opportunities that don’t align with our values or advance our priorities. We can avoid spending time with negative people who drag us down with their criticism, complaints, neediness, or narcissism. And we can decline opportunities or requests, so we don’t end up doing all the work ourselves (versus delegating things to others).

“The difference between successful people and really successful people
is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
-Warren Buffett, chair and CEO, Berkshire Hathaway

11. Be kind but firm. Ideally, we come across as thoughtful and considerate while still assertive and clear. Sometimes, a little humor helps.

12. Get clear about who we are, what we value, and how we work best. When we’ve done this inner work, it allows us to set and enforce boundaries.

13. Set boundaries on our work time. For example, we can set a maximum number of hours we’ll work each week. We can limit email to certain hours, with rare exceptions only as needed. It helps to plan ahead—and be sure to identify and focus on our most important tasks.

14. Place boundaries around our emotional commitment to others. Boundaries aren’t just about our time. They’re also about the focus of our attention and emotions. It’s a trap to feel responsible for other people’s choices or their happiness or outcomes.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Conclusion

Of course, setting and enforcing boundaries isn’t a one-and-done deal. It’s an ongoing process that requires reflection and course corrections. As we proceed with it, we must keep making judgments about when to be strict and when to make exceptions based on new information.

As we choose our boundaries, we should bear in mind that other people will make different choices about their boundaries. What works for us may not work for others. So, we should respect other people’s boundaries even as we fight for our own.

Also, it’s a mistake to think about boundaries only in the negative—only as things that we and others can’t do. Why? Because when we get good at setting and enforcing boundaries, it sets us up for all the positive things we actually want to do and experience. By setting limits, we gain freedom. We free up our time and energy to live life on our terms.

“Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how you use it.
You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.”

-Anna Taylor, author

 

Tools for You

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Related Traps

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Boundaries

  • “Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” -Josh Billings, American humorist
  • “Givers need to set limits because takers rarely do.” -Rachel Wolchin, author

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

+++++++++++++++++

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Stop Avoiding Things: 17 Practices

Struggle with avoidance? We all avoid things sometimes. It’s natural.

Do you tend to bypass that difficult task? Put things off until later—or never? Steer clear of that difficult somebody? Change that uncomfortable subject? Put off that hard conversation? Sidestep that brewing conflict? Maybe you put off going to the doctor to get that concerning symptom checked out.

It’s like your life is a game of dodgeball. When things get thrown your way, you dodge, duck, dip, and dive.

If you’re like others, perhaps you avoid things not only via your behavior but also in terms of your thoughts and feelings.

Avoidance is natural, a coping mechanism. But it can become maladaptive when it’s overused or used in the wrong circumstances.

Many people avoid too many things and too often. Sometimes it isn’t a conscious choice per se. It’s stimulus-response. Challenge-avoid.

The problem is that things often end up getting worse because of it. And it can become programmed behavior, a habit of sorts, affecting many things in your life, from your performance and leadership to your relationships and self-respect.

Avoidance may make things easier now, but over time things tend to fester, becoming much worse over time. For example, it can lead to even more anxiety and concern because you’ve allowed things to deteriorate further. Avoidance can also be frustrating to others, like spouse or colleague, and make things worse for them too, leading to new conflicts.

In the end, avoiding something leaves the core problem unaddressed. Avoidance can become a way of life, a bad habit pattern, a vicious circle.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Stop Avoiding Things: 17 Practices

Given all these damaging consequences, the question arises: What can you do about it?

Here are 17 ways you can break the bad habit of avoiding things:

1. Start by noticing your avoidance behaviors. If you start looking for them, you can bring them into your consciousness and begin addressing them intentionally. Such mindfulness is an important first step.

2. Seek the root cause of your avoidance behavior. What’s the deeper why behind it? Continue asking why until you’ve hit paydirt and there are no more deeper reasons. There are many possible reasons. Perhaps it just feels easier to avoid things than to deal with them? Maybe you’re afraid of looking bad or failing so you decide to avoid it instead? Perhaps you believe you can avoid the anxiety associated with people or things if you avoid them?

3. Process your emotions. Giving yourself an emotional outlet will help you refrain from maladaptive avoidance. Resist the temptation to bottle your feelings up. Find ways to release them instead. Talk through your feelings or try journaling. Get some exercise to change your physiological state.

4. Divide the problem you’re avoiding into smaller, more manageable chunks. That way, you’ll see that it’s not as intimidating.

5. Start with an easy task or small encounter to get momentum. This can also help you develop confidence.

6. Look for ways to boost your motivation for a better result, one that would leave avoidance in the dust. For example, consider all the ways that avoidance is holding you back from personal or professional excellence (e.g., by harming your relationships or impeding your progress toward goals). Or give yourself small rewards for addressing things.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

7. Reframe a situation to note the positives and refrain from focusing only on the negatives. For example, turn a problem you’re dreading into a puzzle you’re curious about solving.

8. Quiet your negative self-talk. Give yourself some grace and don’t let avoidance become yet another reason to beat yourself up. Practice self-compassion and replace your negative self-talk with a more charitable interpretation (e.g., we’re all a work in progress).

9. Practice your communication skills. This will help prepare you to deal more effectively with tough situations as they arise. With good communication skills, you’ll be able to advocate for yourself more assertively, and you’ll be able to engage in what author Susan Scott calls “fierce conversations.”

10. Set a deadline for taking action. Commit to addressing it by a certain date and time so it doesn’t keep slipping into a squishy future that somehow never arrives.

11. Build action habits. Through consistent actions, you change your identity to a “doer.” You change your self-concept to someone who addresses things upfront instead of avoiding them. (See my article on “The Incredible Benefits of Being Action-Oriented.”)

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage.
If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

-Dale Carnegie, writer and lecturer

12. Recognize that addressing something you’ve been avoiding can make you feel powerful. It can give you a sense of agency and accomplishment. Maybe it leads to momentum or greater confidence. Bear in mind that challenges can help you grow. They give you a chance to learn about yourself and others, all while developing your capabilities. With a growth mindset, you can view things that you previously avoided as opportunities for personal development and capacity-building.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

13. Work on your problem-solving skills. If you get in the habit of creatively exploring ways to solve challenges instead of avoiding them, you’ll build a valuable capacity for it and also your confidence when it comes to facing up to challenging situations in the future. You can do this alone or with a trusted friend or colleague. It may help to write down some ideas to prime your brain and serve as a reminder.

14. Develop your tolerance and flexibility. Build your tolerance of difficult emotions while acknowledging that there are some situations that may be too taxing for you, at least for now. If you have rigid ideas about the ways things need to unfold, it can make you anxious. Work on embracing the unexpected and appreciating the different ways people approach things—and all the different ways things can get addressed.

15. Work on improving your coping skills and strategies. Try deep breathing and self-monitoring. Engage your “observer: (practice watching your thoughts and developing your awareness of feelings, emotions, impulses, and recurring behaviors). Or get in the habit of moving from the metaphorical dance floor and getting on the balcony in difficult situations, as Harvard leadership expert Ronald Heifetz advises. That means stepping back from the action and observing what’s going on from a higher perspective. Check in with your feelings. Get curious about the situation and ask yourself gentle, possibility-opening questions (e.g., “How might I address this? What would my best self do in this situation?”).

16. Resist your urge to avoid when it appears. Commit to being the kind of person who deals with things and not falling into the trap of avoidance.

17. Get support. Ask for help from a friend, mentor, coach, accountability partner, small group, and/or therapist.

Which of these practices will you try?

 Wishing you well with it!

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Addressing Avoidance

  • “Avoidance coping causes anxiety to snowball because when people use avoidance coping they typically end up experiencing more of the very thing they were trying to escape.” -Dr. Alice Boyes, PhD, author, The Anxiety Toolkit
  • “Avoidance is the best short-term strategy to escape conflict, and the best long-term strategy to ensure suffering.” -Brendon Burchard, author
  • “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.” -Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

+++++++++++++++++

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Get Better at Asking for Help: 10 Tips

Many of us have a hard time asking for help.

Maybe we pride ourselves on being independent. Self-sufficient. A Lone Ranger.

There’s value in being self-sufficient, but when we’re too proud to ask for help it can be costly. It can keep us stuck in hardship and delay our advances, or lead to overwork and burnout. And it can inhibit close relationships with family and friends.

“Going it alone in times of hardship is never a good idea.”
-Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

Asking for help is an important skill that can aid us in all our endeavors, from living and loving to leading and learning. We’re wise to get good at it.

 

How to Get Better at Asking for Help: 10 Tips

Here are 10 things you can do to develop the useful skill of asking for help:

1. Notice that nobody succeeds without the help of others. Where would you be without the help of parents, teachers, coaches, teammates, colleagues, mentors, and friends?

2. Recognize that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. It means you’re committed to your goals and confident enough to show some vulnerability.

3. Realize that the alternative (not asking for help) means continuing your frustration and suffering.

4. Understand that your fears about asking for help are misplaced. Even the worst-case scenario probably isn’t so bad. Perhaps the person refuses to help or can’t right now. Maybe you feel a bit awkward or disappointed for five seconds. So what?

5. Recall that most people like to help others. It makes them feel good to contribute. Think about how you felt when you were asked for help. (1)

“How have you felt when you have helped others? I think we can agree that’s one of the great feelings, right?
Why would you deprive others of the same feeling?”

-Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life

6. Stop waiting so long to ask. Consider how much time you’ve already spent on the issue, whether it’s something you’re good at addressing, and whether there are better uses of your time and energy.

7. Trust others to set boundaries for themselves. They can always decline or chat further about the extent of help they may provide.

8. Tally the potential benefits of getting help. Maybe you’ll get fresh ideas or greater clarity about how to proceed. And in the process you may very well deepen your relationship with the person contributing.

9. Start small when trying this out and build from there. This will make it more manageable and less likely that you’ll abandon it.

10. Be open with others that it’s hard for you to ask for help, but you’re trying to get better. This will make it easier to ask when the time comes.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Tools for You

 

Related Traps

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Seeking Help

  • “If I can leave you with only one piece of advice to increase your probability of creating an earned life, it is this: Ask for help. You need it more than you know.” -Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life
  • “Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.” -Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined
  • “Economists call it the warm glow of giving, and psychologists call it the helper’s high. Recent neuroscience evidence shows that giving actually activates the reward and meaning centers in our brains, which send us pleasure and purpose signals when we act for the benefit of others. These benefits are not limited to giving money: they also show up for giving time.” -Adam Grant, Give and Take

 

References

(1) According to a 2022 study by researchers Xuan Zhao and Nicholas Epley published in Psychological Science, “Those needing help consistently underestimated others’ willingness to help, underestimated how positively helpers would feel, and overestimated how inconvenienced helpers would feel…. Undervaluing prosociality could create a misplaced barrier to asking for help when needed.” (Source: Zhao, X., & Epley, N. (2022). Surprisingly Happy to Have Helped: Underestimating Prosociality Creates a Misplaced Barrier to Asking for Help. Psychological Science33(10), 1708–1731.) There’s also research noting that helping others may promote feelings of happiness, increase social connection and self-esteem, lower stress levels and blood pressure, and promote longevity. (Source: Oliver Scott Curry, Lee A. Rowland, Caspar J. Van Lissa, Sally Zlotowitz, John McAlaney, Harvey Whitehouse, Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 76, 2018, 320–329.)

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

+++++++++++++++++

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Be More Action-Oriented

One of the biggest mistakes many people make is waiting too long before taking action. Not having enough of an action orientation.

What good are dreams, visions, and plans if we don’t act on them? To live well, we must get good at taking action. We have to stop hesitating. We have to stop waiting too long before acting.

 

12 Benefits of Being Action-Oriented

There are many benefits of being action-oriented. For example, it:

  1. helps us learn and develop
  2. builds our confidence 
  3. helps develop our courage 
  4. changes our self-identity to someone with greater power and agency
  5. helps us learn about ourselves
  6. expands our sense of possibility
  7. builds momentum
  8. positions us as a doer and leader—and people respond to that.
  9. yields better results over time and increases our probability of success
  10. invites serendipity
  11. gives us more chances at breakthroughs
  12. helps us avoid the cost of regret for not trying

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Be More Action-Oriented: Five Key Factors

While there are many benefits to being action-oriented, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It requires five key factors:

 

1. Motivation.

We must tap into our desire for a better future and summon our drive to achieve. Yes, that means getting off the couch and getting to work.

 

2. Courage.

Becoming more action-oriented requires a willingness to act in spite of our fears. It requires a willingness to go for it despite the obstacles and risks.

 

3. A willingness to pounce when opportunities arise.

Becoming more action-oriented means becoming more willing to strike, even when the picture isn’t fully clear. We must tap into our warrior spirit.

 

4. A growth mindset.

According to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, a growth mindset is a belief that we can develop our intelligence, abilities, and talents. If we have a fixed mindset, by contrast, we believe those things are static, and we’ll be preoccupied with the prospect of looking bad or being wrong and thus less likely to take action.

 

5. Clarity about what we want and where we’re going.

We can fuel our action orientation with a compelling vision of success, an inspiring dream of a better future.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Conclusion

When we move from hesitation mode to an action orientation, powerful forces start swirling.

Also, isn’t it more fun to be in the game than on the sidelines, not knowing the ultimate outcome but engaging in the pursuit and struggle?

Truth be told, we never really know the perfect time for things, so we might as well get started sooner rather than later. Where does waiting get us?

What are you waiting for?

Image source: Adobe Stock

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Do you have enough of an action orientation?
  2. Or are you hesitating too much?
  3. What more will you do to start taking bold action?

 

Tools for You

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Postscript: Quotations on Being Action-Oriented

  • “The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.” -Meister Eckhart, German mystic
  • “An ounce of action can crush a ton of fear.” -Tim Fargo, author, angel investor, and entrepreneur
  • “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” -Dale Carnegie , writer and lecturer
  • “Often the difference between a successful man and a failure is not one’s better abilities or ideas, but the courage that one has to bet on his ideas, to take a calculated risk—and to act.” -Maxwell Maltz, surgeon and author
  • “Action is the foundational key to all success.” -Pablo Picasso, Spanish painter and sculptor
  • “The path to success is to take massive, determined action.” -Tony Robbins, author
  • “The world has the habit of making room for the man whose actions show that he knows where he is going.” -Napoleon Hill, author
  • “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.” -Wayne Gretzky, legendary hockey player
  • “Do not wait till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.” -William B. Sprague, clergyman and biographer
  • “I think the number one advice I can give is: you just have to start it. Just get your feet in the water and do it. I learned a lot from just trying it out.” -Yoshikazu Tanaka, Japanese entrepreneur

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

+++++++++++++++++

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Goal-Pursuit: Best Practices

Goal Pursuit: Best Practices

Article Summary:

This article addresses best practices in goal-pursuit, broken down into four areas: mindset, people, techniques, and systems. It’s the fourth article in a four-part series on goals.

+++

Many of us are no strangers to setting goals. We’ve been doing it for a long time.

But how are we doing when it comes to goal attainment? Do we know?

Many of us fall short of our goals fairly often. Sometimes the problem is in the goal-setting process. (See my article, “Goal-Setting Practices: Beyond SMART Goals.”) But in other cases, the problem is in our goal-pursuit process—something very few of us have learned about.

This article outlines best practices in pursuing goals. These practices are important not only because they can dramatically boost our chances of achieving our goals but also because the goal-pursuit process can boost our happiness. In her book, The How of Happiness, researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky notes the following:

“…the process of working toward a goal, participating in a valued and challenging activity, is as important to well-being as its attainment…. Working toward a meaningful life goal is one of the most important strategies for becoming lastingly happier.

 

How to Pursue Goals: Best Practices

It’s one thing to determine which goals to set and another thing to determine how best to go about pursuing our goals. What does the research tell us about effective goal-pursuit? Here are the findings, broken down into four principal areas: 1. mindset, 2. people, 3. techniques, and 4. systems.

1. Goal-Pursuit Mindset

Here are things we can do to ensure we have a productive mindset for our goal-pursuit efforts:

Reflect on the importance of the goal.
This should include how our goal relates to our purpose, core values, and vision of the good life. Doing so will help us achieve more clarity and boost our motivation, both of which are essential. We’re wise to revisit this during the process, especially if our motivation begins to fade.

Visualize success or failure, depending on our motivation level.
Visualization can help us in our goal-pursuit, but whether and how it does so depend on our motivation level—specifically whether we’re already motivated to do the things necessary to achieve the goal or not.

  • If we’re already motivated to do the things necessary to achieve a goal, then yes, spending some time (e.g., one to five minutes) visualizing the scenario of achieving our goal can be helpful because it focuses our mind on a successful result.
  • But if we’re not already motivated to do the things necessary to achieve a goal, then such visualization probably won’t be helpful. Instead, we should spend some time (again, one to five minutes) visualizing failure to achieve our goal and what that would feel like. In that scenario, we’re essentially scaring ourselves into doing the work necessary in order to avoid the pain and regret of failure. This works because it recruits certain elements of our autonomic nervous system and creates shifts in the release of hormones like epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, and dopamine.

Focus on who we wish to become through our goal-pursuit, not just on what we want to achieve.
If we become the kind of person who makes healthy food choices or who exercises daily, those behaviors become automatic. We don’t have to keep engaging our willpower. If we focus only on what we want to achieve, we risk a letdown when we’ve achieved our goal. We essentially put ourselves on an endless goal-pursuit treadmill. And we’re never satisfied there with who or where we are. We just keep running. Instead, we’re wise to gain clarity on what success, happiness, and a good life actually mean to us.

The most effective way to change your habits is to focus not on what you want to achieve, but on who you wish to become…. Your identity emerges out of your habits. Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.”
-James Clear, author

Anticipate setbacks.
Don’t expect goal-pursuit to run smoothly all the time. Adopt a mindset of vigilance. We’re all imperfect and we all encounter changing contexts and new challenges. If or when there’s a roadblock or letdown, commit to getting back on track right away.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

2. The People Factor in Goal-Pursuit

Here are things we can do to make sure we’re connecting with people effectively as we pursue our goals:

Identify people who can help us achieve our goals.
Goal-pursuit is not a solo endeavor. Sometimes we can save a lot of time and hassle by getting input or encouragement from people who have walked a similar path.

Recruit someone to hold us accountable for consistent work toward our goals.
When we pair up with others or have a trainer, coach, or mentor to guide us through the process, we boost our chances of sticking with the process. Group support is one of the reasons groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and others are so effective. According to the research, it doesn’t help as much to tell people broadly about our goal, such as by announcing it publicly on social media. Why? Because the positive feedback we get from others tends to dissipate quickly. Better to have a consistent accountability partner or support group.

Surround ourselves with people who support our goal-pursuit (or who have similar goals).
There’s strength and safety in numbers. And there’s value in becoming part of a group or community of people committed to goal-pursuit. We’re social beings, so we don’t want others to view us as someone who lets others down or who doesn’t honor commitments.

 

3. Goal-Pursuit Techniques

Here are techniques to employ when pursuing our goals:

Devise strategies to make pursuing our goal(s) more enjoyable.
For example, are there any parts of our goal-pursuit process that we can engage in with a friend? Can we do the work in an enjoyable setting and at a time in which we can focus without interruption? Can we find ways to employ our strengths and passions when pursuing our goals—and get help from people who have strengths in areas where we need help?

Employ “implementation intentions.”
It’s important to engage in planning and map out our time with a clear roadmap. According to the research, using “implementation intentions”—specific plans attached to our goals that spell out when and where we’ll do things—can more than double the probability of achieving challenging goals. (1) Hundreds of studies in the research literature have demonstrated the efficacy of implementation intentions.

Part of the value here is anticipating obstacles and thinking about ways to overcome them. Since our motivation is usually highest when we’re setting a goal, this approach can keep us from abandoning our goal when things get difficult. The formula for an implementation intention is as follows:

I will (BEHAVIOR) at (TIME) in (PLACE).

Here’s an example: “I will exercise for 30 minutes at the gym during my lunch break.” In a study of 248 people and their exercise habits reported in the British Journal of Health Psychology, researchers placed the people into three groups: a control group (asked to track how often they exercised), a “motivation” group (asked to track their workouts and to learn from the researchers about the benefits of exercise), and a “plan” group (who got the same presentation as the second group but were also asked to formulate implementation intentions for when and where they’d exercise).

The results: a much higher percentage of people in the third group exercised at least once a week (91% vs. 38% in the control group and 35% in the motivation group).

Recommendation: write down our plans by hand. Why? Doing so engages our neural circuitry and embeds knowledge in our nervous system. It’s ideal to have a measurable amount of time we’ll spend each week in our goal pursuits (e.g., go to the gym X times per week for at least 45 minutes each time).

Write out our top-priority goal each day on a new Post-it note and place it in a different spot each day.
This will help keep it top of mind. If we write out one reminder and place it in the same place for weeks, we’ll stop noticing it. It becomes almost invisible. The key is not only daily reinforcement but also variety.

Break more challenging and complex goals down into smaller chunks of sequential milestones or sub-goals.
This can help us avoid the prospect of losing motivation along the way. Motivation tends to be high at the beginning, with the excitement of launching, and near the end, when the finish line is in sight, but often flags in the middle.

Reward ourselves for successful completion of some (but not all) milestones along the way toward our ultimate goal. With this approach, we avoid the trap of using achievement of the goal itself as the only reward. Tip: try “random intermittent reinforcement.” Essentially, randomly determining whether we get such a mini-reward along the way is better than giving ourselves a reward for each milestone. Here we’re borrowing a tactic from casinos, which use random reinforcements to keep people gambling at the slot machines. Essentially, we’re keeping ourselves primed for reward-seeking—albeit through productive behavior.

Review progress and make adjustments as we go.
If need be, we can adjust our goals. Some goals become obsolete as things change around us. In other cases, we should stop pursuing a goal—and perhaps start pursuing a different one.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

4. Goal-Pursuit Systems

We’re wise to develop systems and habits that increase the likelihood of goal attainment instead of simply setting goals and trying to reach them.

Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results…. Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress. A handful of problems arise when you spend too much time thinking about your goals and not enough time designing your systems….
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems
.”
-James Clear, Atomic Habits

Here are things we can do to build systems and foster habits that contribute to our goal-pursuit efforts:

Use a daily log to track progress toward our goals.
As the saying goes, we don’t get what we don’t measure. It’s not only measurement that makes this effective but also progress. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and her colleagues spent many years studying the psychological experiences and performance of people doing complex and creative work in organizations. Through this work, they identified the power of small wins and what they call the “progress principle”:

Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.”
-Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, “The Power of Small Wins,” Harvard Business Review, May 2011

In an attempt to discover what leads to a positive inner work life (a favorable set of emotions, perceptions, and motivations), they compared the events from workers’ best days at work to those on their worst days. Their finding:

The results were startlingly clear: the single most important contributor to positive inner work life was simply making progress on meaningful work. This is the progress principle. In fact, 76% of our participants’ very best days involved making progress. This dwarfed any other kind of event mentioned in the diaries on those days.”

For the progress principle to work, they found, the work must be meaningful in some way to the workers—not necessarily in the sense of lofty aims but rather in the sense of working on valuable products or services for customers or otherwise “contributing to something worthwhile.” What characterized their worst days at work? When workers experienced setbacks or had their progress blocked. (2)

According to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, “Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them.”

Employ reliable mechanisms to help ourselves stick with the goal-pursuit process.
Such mechanisms will come in handy if our motivation flags or if we fall into the procrastination trap. There are many possibilities. For example, we can commit to sending weekly progress reports to a friend or colleague. According to research, people who did this achieved a significantly higher percentage of their objectives.

With a “don’t break the chain” approach, we can keep a tally of how many days in a row we’ve followed our plan, and we have to start over if we miss a day. This approach gives positive reinforcement for consistent effort and negative feedback when we fall short. Example: we can take a large calendar with the entire year on one page and hang it on a wall. For each day that we accomplish our predetermined tasks, we place a big red “X” over that day on the calendar.

With a “precommitment” approach, we promise a friend that we’ll give them money for each day we miss our targets. The idea is to give ourselves strong incentives to continue with the daily work.

With a “measure backward” approach, we take stock of progress at the end of each week on key metrics relevant to our goal, showing our progress and making us want to avoid the pain of falling short.

And with the “paper clip method,” we place two jars on our desk: one filled with paper clips and another that’s empty. Whenever we take a distinctive step toward our goal, we take one paper clip out of the full jar and place it into the empty one. We keep going until we’ve achieved our goal.

Prime our environment to promote habits of goal-pursuit.
Too often, our environment works against our goal-pursuit, for example, via distractions and temptations that waste our time. (That can include some of the people around us.) James Clear calls our environment the “invisible hand” that shapes our behavior. “Create an environment,” he advises, “where doing the right thing is as easy as possible.” Example: set out our workout clothes the night before so we’re primed to exercise in the morning.

Leverage technology to help us automate our goal-pursuit.
We can use technology to automate things that we do, or should do, repeatedly (e.g., automatic deposits in our savings accounts). Also, we can use our digital calendar to ensure we’re focusing on the right things at the right time, building goal-pursuit activities into our schedule and benefiting from the digital reminders. We can also use tools like focus/silent mode, habit trackers, and streaks on our digital devices.

Eliminate the triggers that get in the way of our goal-pursuit.
We can remove the television and other devices from the bedroom and turn off smartphone notifications. Also, we can delete apps or games from our devices, and we can stop putting junk snacks in the pantry.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Which of these goal-pursuit practices are you already employing?
  2. Which new ones will you try?
  3. How else can you improve your goal-pursuit efforts?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles and Resources

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Goal-Pursuit

  • “Success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.” -James Clear, author
  • “We are kept from our goal not by obstacles but by a clear path to a lesser goal.” -Robert Brault, author
  • “What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” -Zig Ziglar, author, salesperson, and speaker
  • “…every organization, if it wants to create a sense of alignment and focus, must have a single top priority within a given period of time.” -Patrick Lencioni, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business

 

References

(1) Gollwitzer, P.M., and Brandstatter, V. (1997). Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(1), 186.

(2) The negative effects of those blocks on progress were, according to the research, “two to three times stronger than the positive effects of progress.”

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Goal-Setting Best Practices: Beyond SMART Goals

Goals

Article Summary:

This article addresses best practices in goal-setting, including criteria for setting goals, a framework for evaluating a draft set of goals, and a goal-setting checklist. It’s the third article in a four-part series on goals.

+++

Goals are common in our life and work. But that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Far from it.

How many goals have we missed over the years? For most people, it’s many. What’s going on?

Here we address what the research says about best practices in goal-setting and offer new criteria to use in goal-setting in two areas: first, in terms of setting individual goals and, second, in terms of evaluating a draft set of goals for quality and coherence.

In our previous articles in this series, we covered “The Benefits of Setting and Pursuing Goals” and “The Most Common Mistakes in Goal-Setting and Goal-Pursuit.” (Our focus is on individual goals—whether personal, professional, or otherwise—and not on goal-setting for teams or organizations, though much of what’s offered here applies in those cases too.)

First we take a quick look at existing goal-setting frameworks.

 

SMART Goals and Other Frameworks

There are different approaches to goal-setting in the literature and in practice. For example, researcher Edwin A. Locke identified five factors (clarity, challenge, commitment, feedback, and complexity), while University of Washington psychologist Frank L. Smoll identified three essential features of effective goal-setting (the “A-B-C of goals”: achievable, believable, and committed). In an MIT Sloan Management Review article, Donald Sull and Charles Sull recommend setting “FAST goals”: frequently discussed, ambitious, specific, and transparent.

The most famous formulation, of course, is “SMART goals,” developed by consultant George T. Doran, who proposed the SMART framework in a 1981 Management Review (AMA Forum) article. Here’s how Doran originally defined this approach:

  • Specific: target a specific area for improvement.
  • Measurable: quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.
  • Assignable: specify who will do it. (Note that many people these days use “achievable” or “attainable” instead of “assignable.”)
  • Realistic: state which results can realistically be achieved, given available resources. (Some people use “relevant” here.)
  • Time-related: specify when the result(s) can be achieved. (Or “time-bound.”)

SMART goals are useful but insufficient. It’s a popular and memorable framework but missing several essential elements that are important for setting goals. Also, it doesn’t address how our goals may or may not hang well together. We address both facets of goal-setting in turn below.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Criteria to Use in Setting Each Individual Goal

We begin with goal-setting criteria. Here are 7 criteria we should use in setting our individual goals:

1. Important to us
Set goals we can commit to wholeheartedly, knowing they’ll summon our dedication and resolve because they matter to us. We can even begin with the question: What’s most important to achieve now (or in the time period of our choosing, whether it’s the next quarter or year)?

2. Authentic
According to psychology researchers Ken Sheldon and Andrew Elliot, we’re happier, healthier, and more hard-working when we’re pursuing goals that are authentic to us and determined by us, not by others. In other words, our goals should be “self-concordant”: consistent with our core values and deeply held interests. A bonus: we experience bigger boosts in happiness when we achieve such goals. (1)

The more that we choose our goals based on our values and principles,
the more we enter into a positive cycle of energy, success, and satisfaction
.”
-Neil Farber, Canadian contemporary artist

3. Purposeful
We must be clear about the why behind our goals: Why do we want to achieve our goals? What benefits can we expect when we succeed? Ideally, our goals flow naturally from our personal purpose, core values, and vision of the good life.

4. Intrinsically motivating
Intrinsic motivation is the inner drive we have to do things out of our interest, enjoyment, or inherent satisfaction, rather than the desire for a reward (extrinsic motivation). According to researchers, intrinsic motivation is generally more potent than extrinsic motivation. When we work on things that are intrinsically motivating, it tends to involve us deeply and feel personally rewarding, pleasurable, and meaningful.

According to researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky in her book, The How of Happiness, “Numerous psychological studies have shown that across a variety of cultures, people whose primary life goals are intrinsically rewarding obtain more satisfaction and pleasure from their pursuits.” (2) Why? Such activities are enjoyable and inspiring to us, making us more likely to invest in and persevere and succeed at them. Also, they’re more likely to fulfill our core needs, such as autonomy, competence, and relatedness (see self-determination theory).

How of Happiness

If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes.
-Andrew Carnegie, Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist

5. Clear and measurable
A big problem with many goals is that they lack clarity and specificity. This dilutes the accountability factor. The clearer we are about what we seek to achieve, the more motivated we’ll be in our pursuit. And goals must be measurable. As the saying goes, we don’t get what we don’t measure.

6. Time-bound
If we don’t indicate the target date for accomplishment, we risk letting progress slip indefinitely and losing motivation. Effectively, our goals have no teeth. There’s no better motivator than a hard deadline.

7. Challenging but achievable
If a goal is too easy to achieve, it won’t inspire a sense of urgency and awaken the arousal systems in our brains. But we should avoid making a goal too arduous, because we’re unlikely to reach it if we don’t think we can. If we believe we might be able to achieve a difficult goal if we put in a lot of effort, that’s a good sign. (3)

It’s also good sometimes to have “stretch goals”—or what authors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras call “big, hairy, audacious goals” or “BHAGs.” These are goals that would really take our breath away if we were able to achieve them. But again, feasibility is important.

Stretch goals can be crushing if people don’t believe they’re achievable.
-John Doerr, Measure What Matters

 

Criteria for Assessing a Draft Set of Goals

There’s no shortage of criteria for individual goals out there, but it’s rare to see frameworks for how to assess a draft set of goals and whether they’re appropriate as a collection. Here are three criteria to use for that important analysis. The set of goals should be:

A. Highly selective
As we set goals, we must continually ask: Is this the right priority now? What’s the “opportunity cost”—the cost of the time and energy that could be spent in other pursuits? Ideally, we have only a few goals we’re focused on during a certain period—or a handful at most.

Psychologists note the problem of “goal competition” in which our goals can compete with one another for our time and attention. Essentially, the biggest barrier to one goal may be our other goals.

We tend to be too ambitious and set too many goals. By limiting our goals to the bare essentials, we help focus our energies. (See my article, “The Problem with Lack of Focus—And How to Fix It.”) When in doubt, reduce the number of goals. Less is more.

We must realize—and act on the realization—that if we try to focus on everything, we focus on nothing.”
-John Doerr, Measure What Matters

 

B. Complementary
We must ensure that our chosen goals hang well together. We want them to add up to a powerful whole. And we should ensure that they don’t work at cross-purposes. Ideally, we look forward to our vision of the good life and think about what goals would move us in that direction.

 

C. Prioritized
We should arrange our goals in order of importance, from most important to least. Doing that will help us know which one to focus on if our goals end up competing for our time or resources.

Also, it’s extremely valuable to have total clarity about what our top-priority goal is. When people fail to achieve their goals, one common reason is overwhelm. There’s great power in having a singular focus—a rallying aim. There’s power in drawing a dividing line between what matters most and, well, everything else. If we don’t identify our top goal, we risk dilution and diffusion.

 

Goal-Setting Checklist

(See my online tool: Goal-Setting Template.)

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Conclusion

Since we’re so accustomed to goal-setting, we may take it for granted and believe we’ve got it down. But if we had a true scorecard for all the goals we set, it would probably reveal a high percentage of abandoned or downgraded goals.

By using these 7 criteria for setting individual goals and 3 criteria for assessing our draft collection of goals, we can dramatically up our goals game.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. How are you doing in terms of these goal-setting criteria?
  2. What changes do you need to make in your goals?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles and Resources

 

Appendix: OKRs

Many organizations nowadays use a management framework and goal-setting system called “Objectives and Key Results” (OKRs). This method was pioneered at Intel and is used by many organizations, including Alphabet/Google, Coursera, Disney, Exxon, the Gates Foundation, Intuit, MyFitnessPal, Nuna, and Remind (and many people, including Bono, the lead singer of U2, in his efforts to fight extreme poverty and preventable disease via the ONE Campaign).

In this OKR framework, the objectives are the concrete things we seek to achieve. In his book, Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs, legendary venture capitalist John Doerr recommends that objectives are “significant, concrete, action-oriented, and (ideally) inspirational.” He notes that they’re a “vaccine against fuzzy thinking—and fuzzy execution.”

The key results indicate how we can reach the chosen objectives. Doerr recommends ensuring that KRs are specific, time-bound, aggressive yet realistic, measurable, and verifiable.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Setting Goals

  • “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” -Michelangelo, Italian sculptor and painter
  • “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars.” -Les Brown, speaker and former member of the Ohio House of Representatives

 

References

(1) Sheldon, K.M., and Elliot, A.J. (1999). Goal striving, need satisfaction, and longitudinal well-being: The self-concordance model. Journal Personality and Social Psychology, 76: 546-57.

(2) Also, according to a study of job satisfaction based on data from hundreds of workers, the ones who concentrated on intrinsic professional goals were significantly more satisfied with their jobs than those who didn’t. Source: Judge, T. A., Bono, J. E., Erez, A., & Locke, E. A. (2005). Core Self-Evaluations and Job and Life Satisfaction: The Role of Self-Concordance and Goal Attainment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(2), 257–268.

(3) More than a thousand studies have shown that setting goals that are challenging and specific (versus easy and vague goals) is linked to increased motivation, persistence, and task performance. According to decades of research on goals by psychologist Edwin A. Locke, a pioneer in the field, setting goals improves performance. Also, hard-to-achieve goals improve performance more than easy-to-achieve goals, and having specific targets in our goals improves their effectiveness. Source: Edwin A. Locke, Toward a theory of task motivation and incentives, Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, Volume 3, Issue 2, 1968, 157-189.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Most Common Mistakes in Goal-Setting and Goal-Pursuit

mistakes in goal-setting

Article Summary:

This article notes the most common mistakes in goal-setting and goal-pursuit. It’s the second article in a four-part series on goals.

+++

Though researchers have examined goals and goal-setting for more than a century, the practice of setting and pursuing goals is still widely misunderstood and often badly misapplied.

There are dangers of not getting it right. When we don’t set and pursue goals properly, we can experience frustration, stress, burnout, and disillusionment.* In this article, we’ll first address the most common mistakes in goal-setting and then turn to the most common mistakes in goal-pursuit.

 

The 8 Most Common Mistakes in Goal-Setting

There’s no shortage of advice and opinions on setting goals. Unfortunately, much of the advice gets some things wrong or falls short on at least a few key factors.

Given how little training we’re given in goal-setting (if any), perhaps it should be unsurprising that there are many things we’re missing. Here are eight common mistakes:

1. Not identifying and focusing on the most important goal.

2. Getting overwhelmed with too many goals.

When we have too many goals, it risks diluting our efforts. (More on this in my next article: “Goal-Setting: Best Practices.”)

3. Adopting other people’s goals.

We’re social creatures prone to extensive influence from others, but taking on the goals we think we should have or ones that others will admire can take us away from our own aspirations and aims. This mistake often results from the trap of caring too much about what others think.

…to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life—
the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

-Hunter S. Thompson, letter to his friend Hume Logan

4. Setting goals out of ego.

We may set goals from a place of wanting or needing to attain status or prestige from others if we achieve certain things they value. (This can lead us down the trap of excessive materialism, which can be a drain on our ultimate happiness because of “hedonic adaptation”—our tendency to return quickly to our baseline level of happiness even after experiencing major changes or events.)

5. Setting goals only in one area.

Many people leap right into goals about a promotion or target weight but overlook the importance of setting goals for their relationships, education, or community. Why not set goals in a few different key areas (perhaps choosing from these categories: quality of life, health, relationships, education, work, service, or finances), while also being careful not to have too many goals? Researchers have found that relationship goals tend to bring greater wellbeing than achievement goals.

6. Assuming that achieving our goals will make us happy.

Naturally, many positive emotions tend to accompany goal attainment, from satisfaction or relief to excitement or elation. But the effect is often more short-lived than we imagine. Most goal attainment only changes things temporarily, and we humans have a tendency to adapt quickly to the new normal (again, “hedonic adaptation”). There’s more to life than achieving goals.

It’s often the pursuit of the goal that really engages our motivation (writer Chris Guillebeau calls it the “happiness of pursuit”). Many people struggle with the doldrums or low motivation after achieving a big goal because their animating focus has suddenly disappeared. Also, lasting happiness is much more about close personal relationships, purpose, and contribution than it is about goal attainment or material status.

7. Thinking too much about the end result we’re after and not enough about whether we’re willing to endure the pain and sacrifice to achieve our goals.

Dreaming of marvelous scenarios of goal attainment is the easy part, but only a small fraction of the process. The real question is what we’re willing to do and give up to make our goals a reality.

The major reason for setting a goal is for what it makes you do to accomplish it.
This will always be a far greater value than what you get.

-Jim Rohn, entrepreneur and author

8. Focusing too much on the goal and not enough on developing the habits, systems, and practices needed to achieve the goal and measure our progress along the way.

We can dream or visualize all we want, but in the end we need to roll up our sleeves and get cracking with the sometimes boring but always important grind of goal-pursuit.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

The 6 Most Common Mistakes in Goal-Pursuit

What do many people get wrong when it comes to pursuing their goals? A lot. Here are six common mistakes:

1. Lowering goals if we fail to achieve them.

It may be tempting to lower the bar after hitting the first hurdle, instead of redoubling our efforts. Ratcheting goals down should not be the knee-jerk response to roadblocks.

2. Letting our goals master us.

Sometimes all the time and energy we pour into accomplishing something devolves into an unhealthy fixation. When that happens, we can lose perspective, rationalize poor choices, and detach from our core values. Letting this happen can result in health and relationship problems or ethical failures and regrets.

3. Investing too much of our identity and self-worth in whether we achieve our goals.

There’s nothing wrong with being committed to our goals. Far from it. But if we judge our identity and worth by whether we always achieve our goals, we’re essentially placing our happiness in unreliable hands because we can’t control all the variables.

Sometimes we get ill, or face a family crisis or unexpected work challenge, or the market turns, or a recession or pandemic hits. At the end of the day, are we only goal-striving machines, or are we worthy of love and respect regardless of the fickle ups and downs of fate? (See my article, “Is Your Identity Too Wrapped Up in Your Work?”) In her book, The How of Happiness, researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky notes that “happiness will come from pursuing goals, and not necessarily from achieving them.”

We are not devastated by failing to obtain a goal.
We’re only devastated when our sense of self-esteem and self-worth are dependent upon achievement of that goal.

-William James, American philosopher and psychologist

4. Undermining our intrinsic motivation.

When we try to supercharge our motivation by seeking extrinsic rewards (like praise, awards, or fame), it can sap our interest and enthusiasm, according to researchers, by turning what we previously viewed as play into work.

5. Not updating our goals as we learn more about ourselves and as we grow and develop through life’s chapters.

New experiences and hard-earned wisdom come with each chapter of our lives. And our priorities are likely to change as we go through the seasons of life. Young people, according to the research, are more drawn to goals that involve experiencing novelty and gathering new information or knowledge. Meanwhile, older people tend to be more interested in emotionally meaningful goals and personal connections.

6. Losing steam in our goal-pursuit.

As humans, we often struggle with the future when it comes to our motivational hardwiring. When something is far off in time, and our immediate experience with things involves challenge and frustration, we tend to slack off—at least until the immediacy of a deadline or fear of failing can kick us into gear.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. How are things going with your goal-setting and goal-pursuit?
  2. Which of these mistakes, if any, have you made or are you making?
  3. What will you do about it, starting today?

 

Tools for You

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Common Mistakes with Goals

  • “Make sure your vision or goal is not an inflated image of yourself and therefore a concealed form of ego, such as wanting to become a movie star, a famous writer, or a wealthy entrepreneur. Also make sure your goal is not focused on having this or that, such as a mansion by the sea, your own company, or ten million dollars in the bank…. Instead of seeing yourself as a famous actor and writer and so on, see yourself inspiring countless people with your work and enriching their lives. Feel how that activity enriches or deepens not only your life but that of countless others.” -Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
  • “Career goals that once felt safe and certain can appear ludicrous… when examined in the light of more self-knowledge. Our work preferences and our life preferences do not stay the same, because we do not stay the same.” -David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

* There are even some situations in which goal-setting can work against us. For example, researchers have discovered that in tasks that require complex thinking (e.g., when we’re solving problems, engaging in creative work, or learning), goal-setting can sometimes backfire. One main reason is that the goal itself can take up so much space in our attention and working memory that we have less cognitive firepower left to generate new ideas and think through new solutions. Essentially, the goal can become a distraction.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Benefits of Setting and Pursuing Goals

Article Summary: 

This article defines goals and gives examples of different types of goals, followed by the benefits of setting and pursuing goals. It’s the first article in a four-part series on goals.

+++

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve. They’re the object of our ambition and effort.

There are many different types of goals, including the following:

(1) NB: approach goals and activity goals tend to induce more lasting happiness, according to the research.

We can also have goals in different areas, such as career, health, finances, and education.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

The Benefits of Setting and Pursuing Goals

When done well, setting and pursuing goals can help motivate individuals, workers, athletes, teams, and organizations to achieve at higher levels.

Goal-setting works by marshaling motivation and energy to work to achieve our aims. Without goals, we often fail to put in the effort needed to achieve at high levels. There are many potential benefits of goal-setting and goal-pursuit when done well.

Goal-setting can boost our motivation and our sense of purpose, direction, and control. It can help us link our daily behavior with the bigger picture of our important aspirations and dreams—giving us something to strive toward and look forward to.

“There is one thing which gives radiance to everything.
It is the idea of something around the corner.”
-G.K. Chesterton, English writer and philosopher

Goal-pursuit tends to bring structure and a sense of meaning (and, ideally, progress) to our days, while also giving us opportunities to take on new responsibilities, master new skills, and collaborate with others. It challenges us to get organized, use our time effectively, strategize, evaluate, and overcome obstacles.

According to researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky in her book, The How of Happiness, one of the characteristics of the happiest people is that they tend to be deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions. Having goals is strongly associated not only with happiness but also with overall life satisfaction. She notes that people who strive for something that’s personally significant to them are far happier than those who don’t have compelling dreams or aspirations.

What’s more, we experience a boost in confidence when we set challenging goals and achieve them. Setting and pursuing goals can boost our energy and lead to greater work engagement, satisfaction, and enjoyment as well as higher productivity and performance. Researchers have established a strong connection between goal-setting and the probability of success.

“Goals are the fuel in the furnace of achievement.”
-Brian Tracy, Canadian-American author and speaker

There are also many benefits of goal-setting and goal-pursuit for teams and organizations. For example, goals can focus us on what matters most, help us find ways to measure progress toward those things, foster alignment, and motivate us to stretch beyond our normal bounds and into the territory of higher performance.

“I’m convinced that if structured goal setting and continuous communication were to be widely deployed, with rigor and imagination, we could see exponentially greater productivity and innovation throughout society.”
-John Doerr, Measure What Matters

 

Tools for You

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on the Benefits of Goals

  • “If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes.” -Andrew Carnegie, Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist
  • “Goals allow you to control the direction of change in your favor.” -Brian Tracy, Canadian-American author and speaker
  • “What keeps me going is goals.” -Muhammad Ali, champion boxer
  • “I visualize where I want to be and what kind of person and player I want to become. I approach the game or goal with the end in mind. I know exactly where I want to go, and I focus on getting there. As I reach those goals, I gain a little more confidence.” -Michael Jordan, legendary basketball champion
  • “An aim in life is the only fortune worth finding.” -Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish novelist
  • “It is the goals that we pursue that will shape and determine the kind of self that we are to become…. Without a consistent set of goals, it is difficult to develop a coherent self.” -Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Hungarian-American psychologist and author

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Craft a Vision of the Good Life

Article Summary: 

What is a vision of the good life? Why is it hard to create one? What are the benefits of having a vision of the good life? How to craft a vision of the good life?

+++

Working hard but lacking energy and motivation?
Busy but feeling depleted?
Not sure what you want anymore—or what direction to take?
Feeling overcommitted, juggling too many things?

These are common feelings these days, even among high achievers and committed parents and citizens. The problem is that, if we let them go for too long, things can start unraveling. We begin to see a gap between where we are now and where we’d like to be. And then the gap grows.

These are signs that we’re lacking a clear vision for our lives—or that we’ve lost sight of it. Sometimes, we find ourselves living someone else’s vision.

“Ester asked why people are sad.
‘That’s simple,’ says the old man. ‘They are the prisoners of their personal history. Everyone believes that the main aim in life is to follow a plan. They never ask if that plan is theirs or if it was created by another person. They accumulate experiences, memories, things, other people’s ideas, and it is more than they can possibly cope with. And that is why they forget their dreams.’” -Paolo Coelho, The Zahir

 

What Is a Vision of the Good Life?

A vision is a bold and vivid picture of a better future. Many organizations have a vision statement. But vision isn’t only for organizations. It’s for us too.

In the context of our lives, a vision of the good life should clearly describe who we want to become, what we want to do, and where we want to go. A vision of the good life is the dream destination of our lives.

“Vision is a clear mental picture of what could be, fueled by the conviction that it should be.”
-Pastor Andy Stanley, Visioneering

In essence, our vision statement is an authentic rendering of how our purpose and core values can play out in the world. A personal vision statement asks:

Who do we want to be?
What do we want to do and contribute in life?
Who do we want to share it with?

 

Why Vision Is Hard

Crafting a vision of the good life can be difficult for many. There are many obstacles that can get in the way.

For starters, we’re constrained by what researchers call “presentism”: Harvard University professor Daniel Gilbert notes that our “imagination cannot easily transcend the boundaries of the present…. Most of us have a tough time imagining a tomorrow that is terribly different from today.”

Many of us have what’s called “status quo bias”: a preference for maintaining our current state of affairs. There’s also the fear factor. It takes courage to confront obstacles and still envision a better future.

Another challenge is the trap of caring too much about what others think. This can direct us toward the vision of others and away from our own vision. Other traps that can get in the way include the complacency of drifting through our lives or settling for just okay.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Some people resist or struggle with the idea of having a vision of the good life because it sounds abstract and distant. But neither “vision” nor “good life” has to be complicated. A vision, as we’ve seen, is simply a picture of our desired future. And authors Richard Leider and David Shapiro define the good life simply and crisply:

“living in the place you belong, with the people you love, doing the right work—on purpose.”

Keep in mind that vision is different from purpose and goals. Our purpose is our reason for being, and we should think of it as timeless. Our goals are the objectives we want to accomplish, and they’re best thought of in shorter increments (e.g., today or this month or year). By contrast, our life vision is a vivid description of what we aspire to do with our lives. It’s best thought of over a lifetime (or at least a decade). (Obviously, people can choose to have a three-year vision, a five-year vision, etc. if they wish.)

 

The Benefits of Having a Vision

Having a vision of the good life can be catalytic. It can help us:

  • develop a clear sense of direction
  • get recentered when we feel lost
  • put our precious time and energy into what we really want
  • reclaim a sense of agency and control over our lives
  • know where to focus our attention and energy—and which detours to avoid
  • connect the dots between the different aspects of our lives
  • get back in the driver’s seat of our lives
  • make decisions and select which opportunities to pursue
  • set and enforce personal and professional boundaries
  • craft our goals, since they should flow naturally from our vision
  • get our motivation back, even during difficult times
  • boost our confidence
  • help us overcome doubt and fear
  • reduce our feelings of overwhelm because we’re clearer about what matters
  • get help from others because we have a clearer sense of what we want
  • live more proactively and intentionally
  • improve our performance

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

How to Craft a Vision of the Good Life

There are many ways to approach crafting a vision of the good life. Different approaches will work for different people. Here are some suggested approaches:

Begin by looking back to our childhood dreams. Many of us had dreams when we were younger—dreams, for example, of being an astronaut or an athlete, an author or a ballerina, a teacher or a firefighter. Many times, those dreams don’t so much point to the profession we actually choose as they do contain certain clues about our deeper make-up as a person—clues like wanting to explore, be active, create, make beauty, or help others.

Get in the habit of thinking more about the future we want, including who we want to be and how we’ll go about making it happen.

Think not just about big accomplishments but also about what we’d like everyday life to be like. Think about our normal days in the future. A vision of the good life isn’t only about aspiration and accomplishment. It’s also about peace and joy.

Look inward to capture our authentic essence. Our articulation of where we want to go should be grounded in who we are. Many people don’t look inward before projecting outward.

“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart.
Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.”

-Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist

Clarify not only the mental picture of our desired future but also how we seek to feel in that desired future. That can include the feeling we want to bring to that future as well as the feeling we want to get in it.

Reflect on our view of the good life. What would living a good life mean for us and those we love?

Ensure the vision covers the important areas of our lives. A well-designed vision paints a picture of our desired destination across all the important aspects of our lives: family, work, health, education, service, community, hobbies, travel, and perhaps more.

Think also about an audacious aspiration for our life—something that’s challenging but would be amazing if we could make it happen.

“Fortune favors the audacious.”
-Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus
Dutch Christian humanist, theologian, and philosopher

Now take inputs from the points above and turn them into a vision statement draft. Start with statements or bullet points, and then form them into a paragraph or a page or two about our vision of the good life. It works best when we think ahead and put ourselves in it, writing in the present tense, noting what kind of person we are, where we are, who we’re with, what we’re doing, etc.

Think about how we’d like to be remembered by loved ones and others at the end of our life. What would be a life we’d be proud of?

Get clear on what would provide the most value to the people we’re committed to serving. How are we best positioned to help, given our strengths and passions, and which groups or causes?

Get clear on the things that provide the most meaning in our lives and build those into our vision, including what’s important to us and what would be worth spending our time on. It’s a good sign if we’d do it even without getting paid for it.

Share an early draft with trusted friends and colleagues and seek their input—and help. Revise it based on their input, but only the input we wholeheartedly agreed with. After all, this is our vision of the good life, not theirs.

Consider working with a coach or mentor to help with the vision crafting process. Often, it’s helpful with an outside perspective.

(See the Appendix for other options if these approaches aren’t working for you.)

 

Criteria to Use in Crafting Our Vision

For some, the vision crafting process will be one of the most valuable things they ever do. Given that, we should have a high standard for the output and a good process for developing it intentionally.

As we craft a vision for our lives, we should ensure that it’s:

  1. Clear and vivid in its description
  2. Aligned with our true authentic essence, unique to us, including our purpose and core values
  3. Unbounded by the status quo
  4. Distant enough that we have to work toward it (a lifetime, or at least ten years in the future)
  5. Broad enough to encompass all the major aspects of our lives (including personal, professional, and relationships)
  6. Motivating and inspiring to us, flooding our heart with palpable emotion and fueling us with conviction

Our life vision should fill us with energy and raise our sights for what we can do with our days on Earth.

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.

 

Some Cautions about the Vision Process

There are many potential pitfalls in the vision crafting process, so some cautions are in order.

Though clear and vivid, our vision shouldn’t be prescriptive. It should be directional but not tactical, not interloping into how we will get there (the realm of strategy and tactics). Also avoid making it vague and generic. Someone who knows us well should recognize us clearly in our vision.

Our vision can change over the years, and that’s okay. But if we’ve done it well, it shouldn’t change too often. That would be jarring and confounding.

Our vision statement doesn’t have to be perfect. View it as a draft—as a work-in-process that can and should change over time.

Watch out for too much focus on ego or material possessions in our vision. We know those are false friends destined to disappoint in the final analysis. Better to focus instead on connection and contribution.

Our vision is worthless without action. What’s the point if it just sits in a drawer? We’re wise to read our vision statement regularly (e.g., every month or quarter) and get to work on making it come alive.

 

Making Our Vision a Reality

It’s unrealistic to expect that we’ll travel a linear path to realize our vision. Stuff happens. Circumstances change. But we’re wise to hold fast to our vision and keep working to bring it to life.

“A vision without a plan is a delusion.”
-Neil Kurtz, CEO of Golden Living

We’re especially wise to clarify what knowledge and skills we need to develop now to be able to live into that desired future—and then block out time to get them.

We should start taking action now on things that will bring us closer to our vision—and do that every day.

“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”
-Epictetus, ancient Greek Stoic philosopher

 

Conclusion

In the end, our lives are short. Many people find themselves late in life with deep regrets. Why not set a marker now for how we’ll live and then pursue it with abandon?

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Do you have a vision of the good life?
  2. To what extent are you clear about what a good life would be for you?
  3. Is it informing the choices you make and actions you take on a regular basis?
  4. Are you moving toward it?
  5. What’s stopping you?

 

Tools for You

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Related Articles

 

Appendix: Other Options for the Vision Process

The visioning process is challenging for many. What works for one person may not work well for another. With that in mind, here are some other options for the vision crafting process:

Start with a “mind map.” Take a blank sheet of paper and a pencil, then write the word “Vision” in the middle of the page. Then add words, phrases, or images all around the page with things that may be included in your envisioning of a good life. Don’t edit. Just write or draw.

Use a vision board. Gather an array of photos, images, inspirational quotes, or other symbolic representations of your idea of a good life. Place them on a large poster sheet that can be displayed prominently in your home or office as a visual reminder of what you’d like your life to be like.

Consider drawing your vision of the good life. (Some way want to start with this.) The point isn’t artistry but rather creative symbols that represent your deepest aspirations. Have fun with it. Aristotle observed that “the soul never thinks without a picture.”

Consider journaling as a place to start to gather ideas. Sometimes starting more informally with private thoughts can help break the logjam of self-consciousness.

Clarify how you define success in different areas of your life, including both personal and professional. Build the most salient aspects of your desired success into your vision of the good life.

Write a letter from the future. Imagine yourself at the end of your life, having lived a good life. Write a letter from that future version of you to the you of today, describing what life is like, who you’ve become and what you’ve done, and how it feels.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Vision

  • “There is no favorable wind for the sailor who doesn’t know where to go.” -Seneca, ancient Roman Stoic philosopher
  • “I’ve seen the promised land.” -Martin Luther King, Jr., minister, activist, and civil-rights leader
  • “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” -Proverbs 29:18
  • “I learned to organize my life around my dream, rather than try to force my dream into my chaotic life.” -Sonia Choquette, spiritual teacher and author
  • “See things as you would have them be instead of as they are.” -Robert Collier, author
  • “Connecting with one’s dreams releases one’s passion, energy, and excitement about life…. The key is uncovering your ideal self—the person you would like to be, including what you want in your life and work.” -Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, Resonant Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence
  • “…people stop dreaming because they got caught up in the hustle and bustle of surviving. And once we stop dreaming, we start to lead lives of quiet desperation, and little by little the passion and energy begin to disappear from our lives.” -Matthew Kelly, The Dream Manager
  • “All mean dream: but not equally. Those that dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” -T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph
  • “It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old. They grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.” -Gabriel Garcia Marquez, novelist
  • “The happiest people in life operate out of their imaginations and dreams, not their histories.” -Ed Mylett, The Power of One More
  • “Everyone is inspired by those who follow their dream.” -Maria Nemeth, Founder and Director, Academy for Coaching Excellence
  • “Be strong on vision, but flexible on detail.” -Jeff Bezos, founder and executive chairman, Amazon
  • “Despite the myth of the heroic visionary leader, there is little about developing and pursuing a vision that should be a solo endeavor.” -Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Power of Integrating Our Passions into Our Life and Work

In the world of personal development, passion is one of the things that’s most misunderstood. “Follow your passion” is common advice.

But is it right?

The answer may surprise you.

 

What Is a Passion?

Our passions are the things that consume us with palpable emotion over time. They’re the things we love so much that we’re willing to suffer for them. Researchers have defined passions as strong inclinations toward activities we value and like or love, and in which we invest our time and energy. (1)

Author and coach Curt Rosengren calls passion “the energy that comes from bringing more of you into what you do. In essence, passion comes from being who you are.” Our passions are connected with our intrinsic motivation (our impulse to do something because of the inherent satisfaction of doing so and not the desire for a reward for it)—and with our innate talents and abilities.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Not Feeling Passion at Work

We can have passions in different domains of our lives. What are the signs of passion at work? The signs include loving our work, wanting to talk often about what we like about our work, or finding ourselves working extra hours even when we don’t have to, mainly for the inherent satisfaction.

To what extent are people passionate about their work?

According to the data analysis team at Zippia, only 20% of U.S. workers are passionate about their job. Around the world, according to the 2013 State of the Global Workplace report by Gallup, only 13% of workers are passionate about their work.

 

 The Benefits of Integrating Our Passions into Our Life and Work

There are powerful benefits to integrating passions into our life and work, according to researchers. For example, doing so can:

  • boost our motivation and engagement
  • increase our productivity and persistence
  • enhance our focus and creativity
  • help us achieve our goals
  • motivate us to keep learning, growing, and developing in that area
  • help us be more resilient in the face of challenges
  • lead to more happiness and fulfillment
  • help us avoid burnout
  • lead to much higher job satisfaction, according to a meta-analysis that reviewed data from nearly a hundred different studies (2)
  • lead to better work performance, according to a meta-analysis of sixty studies conducted over the past six decades
“Passion is the driver of achievement in all fields.”
-Sir Ken Robinson, author and advisor on education in the arts

Passion is also contagious. People pick up on our enthusiasm, and it can inspire them to find and work in their areas of passion as well.

There’s also a flip side to this: there’s much lost when we don’t have passion for what we’re doing. When we’re not living and working with passion, we’re much more likely to lack enthusiasm and “phone it in.” Over time, this can put us on a downward trajectory.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Confusion about Passion

Passion can be tricky because it often gets confused with other things, including hobbies and interests. Passion is related to these things, but there are important differences.

  • A hobby is something we do for pleasure or relaxation and not as our main occupation.
  • An interest is a feeling of wanting to be involved in something or to learn more about it, or something that attracts and holds our attention.
  • A passion, as noted above, is something that consumes us with palpable emotion over time.

A key difference, then, between passions and hobbies and interests is the degree to which we’re emotionally invested in the activity. And this can change over time. A hobby can turn into a passion, and vice versa.

 

How to Know What Our Passions Are

To determine our passions, we can take assessments and/or observe our own experiences and ask ourselves questions like the following:

  1. What things bring me joy?
  2. Which subjects interest me the most, continually drawing me in?
  3. What would I keep doing enthusiastically even if I didn’t get paid for it?
  4. What am I continually curious about?
  5. What things do I get excited about doing or discovering?
  6. What fills me up with energy and makes me come alive?
  7. What activities do I lose myself in, losing track of time?
  8. What problem(s) do I feel compelled to solve?
  9. What am I curious about or fascinated with?
  10. Is there something I long to master?
  11. Is there a person, group, place, or cause that I feel compelled to help (e.g., youth, my hometown, endangered species, the planet)?
  12. What lit me up when I was a child?

We can also ask for feedback from others (e.g., family, friends, colleagues, mentors) about what they observe about our passions and how we can integrate them into our life and work.

Finally, we’re wise to experiment and explore possibilities—to try things.

 

Passion and Grit

Angela Duckworth, University of Pennsylvania Professor and co-founder of the Character Lab, notes that a passion isn’t about just obsession. It’s also about consistency over time—about how steadily we work on certain things with sustained and enduring devotion.

In her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, she writes that a passion isn’t just something we care about and enjoy intrinsically, but something we care about “in an abiding, loyal, steady way.” She ties passion to what she calls “grit,” which is a combination of “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.”

 

Passions Can Develop and Deepen over Time

Professor Duckworth notes that passions tend to be developed more than they’re discovered. In other words, there’s an important time dimension that tends to proceed with certain components, including interest, experimentation, discovery, development over time, practice, purpose, and persistence.

It begins, she notes, with interest—with intrinsically enjoying what we do. She notes that interests are typically “triggered by interactions with the outside world” and experimentation, and not discovered through introspection or analysis. Then, she writes, “what follows the initial discovery of an interest is a much lengthier and increasingly proactive period of interest development. Crucially, the initial triggering of a new interest must be followed by subsequent encounters that retrigger your attention—again and again and again.” In other words, the fire will go out if not tended to.

For the passion to blossom, it should be an activity that we practice—with “the daily discipline of trying to do things better than we did yesterday”—ideally leading to mastery.

For the passion to ripen, she reports, it should be connected to our purpose (our reason for being), with a conviction that our work matters. That means not only connecting to our personal interests but also to how we can serve or contribute to the wellbeing of others.

For us to maintain a passion, we must persevere with it through the inevitable challenges and setbacks.

In a nutshell, Duckworth recommends focusing not on following our passions but on fostering them intentionally and systematically over time.

“…here’s what science has to say: passion for your work is a little bit of discovery,
followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening.
-Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

How to Integrate Our Passions into Our Life and Work

It’s one thing to know what our passions are (which isn’t straightforward for everyone), while it’s another thing to integrate them into our life and work.

For one thing, there are practical challenges. We live in the real world, with bills and mortgages to pay and retirements to save for. So, for starters, many people have given up on this game from the get-go. That’s understandable, but it warrants a second look.

Here are 8 steps we can take to integrate our passions into our life and work:

  1. Of course, we must begin by knowing what our passions are. (See above.)
  2. Challenge beliefs that aren’t serving us well. For example, reconsider a belief that that it’s not realistic to have passion in our life or to be passionate about what we do for a living.
  3. Evaluate how much time we’re operating in the area of our passions. Are we in the passion zone frequently, or rarely?
  4. Set goals that align with our passions. For example, if we have a passion for learning, we can set a goal of reading one nonfiction book every month or taking a new course every year.
  5. Decide what actions we’ll take and habits we’ll adopt to operate more in the areas of our passions. For example, we can choose one or two things that we do regularly as part of our morning, mid-day, or evening routine. Calendarize them and evaluate how it’s going regularly.
  6. Determine what we’ll do to reduce the amount of time we’re working on things outside our passions.
  7. Find others who share our passions and engage with them often.
  8. Connect our passions with our purpose, including ways we can serve others.

In this process, it may also be helpful to have a coach or mentor because we may not have clarity about our passions or how we can use them more.

As we go forward, we must remember to be patient. It can take a while to right the ship.

 

Myths and Misconceptions about Passions

There are many myths and misconceptions about passions. For starters, the idea that following our passion(s) will automatically lead us to success is prevalent and even a bit of a cliché.

It’s not wrong, but it’s only partly true.

It’s not enough to follow our passions. In this competitive world, our passions need a business model. We need to do things that others are willing to pay us for. And not all passions are well-suited to being our primary occupation that brings in our required income.

Many people don’t know what their passion is—and they may be intimidated by the thought. For many of us, our passions don’t come to us in a flash that’s crystal clear and that instantly changes our lives. Many of the people Angela Duckworth interviewed told her they spent years exploring several different interests, and the core passion wasn’t recognizable at the beginning.

In his book, Deep Work, Georgetown University computer science professor and author Cal Newport notes the flawed thinking that “there are some rarified jobs” that fuel passion—”perhaps working in a nonprofit or starting a software company—while all others are soulless and bland.” He argues that we don’t need a rarefied job; rather, what we need is a rarefied approach to our work. More on that below.

Some people may not want to have their passion incorporated into their job, as it may risk soiling it or leading to burnout. Also, we don’t necessarily have ONE PASSION. We can have many, and they can change over time.

There’s also a lot of confusion about the interplay between passion and purpose. For starters, many people use these terms interchangeably. Big mistake. A passion, as we’ve seen, is something that consumes us with palpable emotion over time. By contrast, our purpose is why we’re here, our reason for being. Stanford University professor William Damon defines it as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond self.”

Ideally, we bring them closer together, tying our passions to our purpose and in the process redirecting our passions toward something more meaningful and significant.

“What ripens passion is the conviction that your work matters.
For most people, interest without purpose is nearly impossible to sustain for a lifetime.”

-Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Our passions, like pretty much anything in life, are at risk of dwindling over time. We can exhaust them or burn them out if we’re not careful. Two things can help here. The first is purpose. By connecting passions to purpose, we’ll attach them to a renewable source of energy. The second is novelty. Creatively finding new ways to use our passions—and with new people and different settings—will help keep the fire burning.

 

Mindsets about Passion

In his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport points out that “When it comes to creating work you love, following your passion is not particularly useful advice.” He explains:

“The conventional wisdom on career success—follow your passion—is seriously flawed. It not only fails to describe how most people actually end up with compelling careers, but for many people it can actually make things worse: leading to chronic job shifting and unrelenting angst when one’s reality inevitably falls shorts of the dream.”

The idea here is that if we have unrealistic standards about what work will be like, we’re likely to become disappointed and perhaps even cynical. Part of the problem, Newport notes, is that we have this fantasy of a perfectly right dream job waiting for us out there. We only need to find it. This is often naïve. People may have a dream job for a while, but things have a tendency to change, with new managers, organizational transformations, industry shifts, and changes in our own lives. Great work is more of a mindset and pursuit than it is a destination.

Newport distinguishes between two different mindsets about work. The first is the “passion mindset.” The idea here is that if we do what we love, the world will make us succeed. This mindset (which is common) is focused on what the world can offer us. The problem: it’s too simplistic, and it’s misleading.

The second is the “craftsman mindset” (a craftsman is skilled at a certain trade, perhaps working skillfully with his or her hands to make things with exquisite attention to quality and detail). This mindset is focused on what we can offer the world, not on what the world will do for us.

Newport urges us to adopt the craftsman mindset, not the passion mindset—and get good at something. Really good. And really good at something via developing “rare and valuable skills.” With this mindset, we can build up “career capital,” which will give us a strong base for crafting a career of great work that’s also generous with freedom and autonomy, ideally tied to a compelling purpose.

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.

 

Conclusion

In the end, it’s not so much about following our passions as it is about discovering, developing, and deepening them over time—and creatively integrating them into our life and work.

Ideally, we know not only our passions but also use our strengths (the things we’re good at, based on our innate talents, knowledge, and skills) to serve groups or causes we’re motivated to support in line with our core values. That’s a powerful approach to living honorably and living well.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. What are your passions?
  2. To what extent are you integrating your passions into your life and work (relationships, health, work, education, community, activities)?
  3. What more could you do?
  4. Is there anything preventing you from doing so and, if so, what will you do about it?
  5. What will you do differently, starting today?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Passions

  • “Allow yourself to be silently guided by that which you love the most.” -Rumi, 13th century poet and Sufi mystic
  • “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” -Steve Jobs, co-founder, Apple
  • “If there is any difference between you and me, it may simply be that I get up every day and have a chance to do what I love to do, every day. If you want to learn anything from me, this is the best advice I can give you.” -Warren Buffett, legendary investor
  • “Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.” -Oprah Winfrey, media entrepreneur, author, and philanthropist
  • “One of the huge mistakes people make is that they try to force an interest on themselves. You don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you.” -Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO, Amazon
  • “Paul and I, we never thought that we would make much money out of the thing. We just loved writing software.” -Bill Gates, co-founder, Microsoft
  • “I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for the joy, you can do it forever.” -Stephen King, writer
  • “People who are connected to their passion can be spotted from a mile away.” -Mark Shearer, Executive Vice President, Pitney Bowes

(1) In the academic literature, researchers distinguish between “obsessive passions” and “harmonious passions” in what’s called the “dualistic model of passion.” With obsessive passions, we’re consumed with an activity and have a hard time letting it go. It can lead to conflicts between this activity and other important things in our life—and potentially injury, burnout, or other adverse consequences (e.g., when we keep dancing even when we’re injured). The problem occurs because we tie things like self-esteem or social acceptance to the activity, so we persist at it rigidly and develop uncontrollable urges to continue engaging in it.

With harmonious passions, by contrast, we freely accept the activity as important to us and engage in it willingly but don’t attach contingencies to it and don’t feel compelled to continue it. We’re able to leave space for other important things in our lives. Such passions lead to higher work satisfaction and don’t lead to those kinds of conflicts—or to burnout. Source: Vallerand, Robert & Paquet, Yvan & Philippe, Frederick & Charest, Julie. (2010). On the Role of Passion for Work in Burnout: A Process Model. Journal of personality. 78. 289-312.

(2) Mark Allen Morris, “A Meta-Analytic Investigation of Vocational Interest-Based Job Fit, and Its Relationship to Job Satisfaction, Performance, and Turnover,” PhD dissertation, University of Houston, 2003.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!