Want to Change? Stop Setting Goals.

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One of the most widespread ideas in the world of personal development is SMART goal-setting – it seems to have seeped into every self-help, business development and corporate training program out there. Just in case you’ve somehow managed to avoid attending these workshops – or more likely slept through them – SMART is an acronym for a set of criteria that people are encouraged to use to get really clear on the outcome they’re aiming for when they’re setting goals, because this increase your success in achieving your goals. The SMART criteria are as follows:

  • Make your goals Specific
  • Make your goals Measurable
  • Make your goals Achievable
  • Make your goals Realistic
  • Give your goals a Target Date

While the principal behind SMART goals is really powerful, only three of the criteria are useful for getting clear on your outcome. Criteria’s 3 and 4 (Achievable and Realistic) seem entirely redundant to me. The jury’s still out on what’s achievable and realistic. There are new stories of people pushing that boundary all the time. In my experience, most people don’t come near to using their full potential and don’t even try to set goals that push the boundaries of what’s realistic. More importantly, these criteria don’t cover some of the most important things to think about when you’re deciding what you want. In my experience, they get people tangled up in thinking about “how” they’ll get there, even before they’ve fully clarified what they want and where “there” is. This means that they settle for something that seems more achievable, rather than going after what they really want because they can’t yet see a way to get what they really want.

If you’ve ever found that you struggle with motivating yourself to stick with your goals, if you’ve ever wished you could relax and enjoy the process of working towards your goal more, if you’ve ever found that when you get your goal it doesn’t feel as good as you thought it would, or if you’ve ever found yourself sabotaging your own efforts to get your goals, then these are the puzzle pieces you’ve been missing.

Focus on Changes, Instead of Goals

I don’t really like to use the word goals. When I ask people what their goals are, they tell me about things they want to HAVE and list things they want to DO. They usually leave out the most important key to both happiness and success… who they want to BE. From a success point of view, if you want to change what you’re HAVING and DOING, you’re going to need to change who you’re BEING. And from a happiness point of view, who you’re BEING is all that matters. Alot of the time goals become big “to do” lists and we end up abandoning ship once the goal is achieved, and ultimately end up boomeranging back to where we started – like when someone achieves their goal weight, ticks the box and then gradually lets all their old unhealthy habits return until their goal weight is a distant memory.

So the distinction I want to make is to start talking about changes instead of goals. The concept of making changes encourages us to include consideration for how we want to BE different. And changes tend to be more sustainable – when I ask you what changes you want to make, you’re likely to tell me about how you want things to be different for the rest of your life, as opposed to just reaching a short-term destination.

So how can you make successful and sustainable changes?

You need to make SMARTEST Changes. By asking yourself a few powerful questions at the outset, as you’re thinking through the changes you want to make, you’ll dramatically increase your success in making those changes. In fact, there are times when I’ve been able to help clients to get their changes in just 1 or 2 sessions, just by talking through the SMARTEST criteria together. So think of a change you want to make in your life, and let’s go through the SMARTEST Changes criteria together…

8 Secrets to Making SMARTEST Changes

1. Shackles Off. The first thing you need to ask yourself is “How do I feel when I think of having that change in my life?” Are you excited about it? Do you feel good when you think of having that change? If you notice some anxiety or fear, check whether it’s confining fear (which tends to come with a feeling of disgust and even anger), or is it liberating fear (which has a sense of excitement with it). If this change is really important to you, there will be some fear. If it wasn’t important, you wouldn’t care enough to feel afraid. But the sort of fear you get when you move towards what’s important to you feels liberating, like a prisoner imagining taking their shackles off, and it’s paired with a strong sense of excitement. If it doesn’t feel liberating, then perhaps you’re trying to make a change that you think you SHOULD do, rather than one that’s really important to you.

If you focus your energy on making changes that feel “shackles off” instead of forcing yourself to do what you think you “should,” you’ll be much more able to motivate yourself to stick with your changes and to enjoy the process of working on your changes – two big factors in getting you both success and happiness in the changes you’re making.

2. My Business. There are 3 types of business: my business, other people’s business and God’s business. One of the biggest reasons why people are unsuccessful in making the changes they set out to make is because they’re concentrating on trying to change stuff they don’t really have control over – a.k.a. other people’s business and/or God’s business.

Have you ever had somebody try to change you? Just like with anybody else, it probably just caused you to dig in your heals and become even more stubborn, didn’t it? It makes sense to focus on the changes where you have the greatest leverage – your business. The only thing we have 100% control over and 100% ability to change is our own thoughts, feelings and behavior. So ask yourself, “Is this change about my business?”

The paradox in all of this is that, when you focus on changing yourself, rather than trying to change other people or situations, you develop the mental, emotional and behavioral flexibility that will give you the greatest power to influence other people and situations. Makes sense, doesn’t it? As they say, “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always gotten.” You’re much more likely to change your relationships and circumstances if you’re willing to try something different.

3. Aligned. If the changes you decide to work on are aligned with your true heart’s desires, and fit with the “eagle vision” of your overall life’s purpose and values, you’ll be much, much more successful at getting the changes you want… and you’ll have a sense of happiness and fulfillment as you work on them. When we’re doing what we love, we’re naturally motivated, feel energized and alive, and this translates into getting more done, and being able to stick with the changes we want when the going gets tough. When we’re working on changes that are out of alignment with our purpose, values and desires, we end up struggling with ourselves every step of the way, and often sabotage our own efforts. Ask yourself, “Is this change aligned with my life purpose and what’s really important to me in life?”

4. Resistance. Resistance is a sign that we’re growing physically, mentally or emotionally. If your “change” is really a change, it’ll take you outside of your comfort zone and you’ll feel some internal resistance. This is because the mind-body initially resists anything unfamiliar – because familiarity is easier and safer. But familiarity won’t enable you to grow, and to have, do and be more.

If you don’t feel any internal resistance at all, perhaps your change isn’t extending your comfort zone and giving you opportunity to grow. If your change doesn’t really stretch you, you probably won’t feel energized to make the change happen. But when you give yourself a challenging change to make, you trigger eustress, a positive form of stress that’s been proven to increase productivity and performance significantly. We perform much better when we’re stretching ourselves a bit. Ask yourself, “Is this change going to require me to grow?”

5. Towards. Because we like what’s familiar, we unconsciously gravitate towards bringing what’s familiar into our lives. This is the reason why we often recreate past patterns – because they keep us in familiar territory. And because we like familiarity so much, we’re often only motivated to change our lives when we experience discomfort or pain. So the trigger for deciding to change is usually a recognition of something we don’t want.

But whatever you’re focusing on is what you’re getting familiar with. So when you’re thinking about a change you want to make, if you’re focusing on what you don’t want, that’s what you’re getting familiar with – and that’s what you’ll unconsciously and automatically seek to repeat. In order to get familiar with the changes you want, so that you’ll unconsciously and automatically gravitate towards those outcomes, you need to focus on what you want, not what you don’t want. If you’ve phrased your outcome as wanting to get away from something you don’t want, ask yourself “What do I want instead?”

6. Ecological. Ecology is the idea that, as individuals, we all participate in a variety of environments or systems, and we can’t not impact on our environment. Everything we do has a ripple effect, impacting on other people, our relationships with them, and our environment. Everything is connected.

One of the biggest challenges you’ll experience, as you go about starting to make changes, is that other people will often resist your changes – because, remember: we like familiarity. If you anticipate how your changes might impact other people, you’ll be more equipped to deal with potential resistance from them. Also, if you consider how the changes you’re wanting to make will impact on the various areas of your life and the various roles you play, you’ll be able to weed out potential sources of internal conflict, guilt and self-sabotage.

Ask yourself a few questions, in order to consider the ecology of making the changes you want to make: “What will the impact be on other areas of my life, if I’m successful in making these changes in this area of my life? What impact will it have on other people who are important to me, if I make these changes? What impact will it have on my broader community/ the world? Are there any potential negative consequences that I would want to avoid? What positive payback have I been getting out of my current behaviour? How can I preserve this positive payback in the changes I’m wanting to make?”

7. Specific. The more specific you are in describing the changes you want to make, the more familiar you’ll be with having the outcomes you desire, and the faster you’ll bring those new outcomes into your experience. Often we’re quite vague in describing the changes we want to make – especially if we’re talking about changes in who we’re BEING.

You can get more specific, and familiar with your outcome, by asking yourself, “How will I know when I’ve successfully made that change?” When you answer this question, you give yourself a really clear, tangible idea of what your desired result will be like. Another really powerful way to get familiar with having the results you want (and therefore accelerate getting those results in reality) is to mentally project yourself into the future, to the time when you’ve already made your changes, and to ask yourself, “What do I see around me? What do I hear? What physical sensations do I have in my body? What am I saying to myself? What emotions am I feeling?”

8. Time Frame. The last thing to do is to give yourself a time frame for making the changes you want to make. Giving yourself a time frame will help you to prioritize taking action. We tend to pay more attention to the tasks that we perceive to be urgent and if you have no specific time frame for making your change, you’ll probably just keep putting it off for “oneday.” Parkinson’s Law says that our work will expand to fit the time allotted to it. If you don’t give yourself a deadline or limit to the time available to make the change, you’ll take the rest of your life.

Set a time frame to motivate yourself to take daily action to work on your changes, and to be as efficient as possible. Ask yourself, “What would be a reasonable time frame to give myself for making this change?” and then diarize two specific dates: the first date should be a mid-review date and the second date is your ultimate deadline or final review date. Don’t get too rigid about your time frame. Your time frame is only there to create the illusion of urgency so that you’ll prioritize it and make your changes as efficiently as possible. If you don’t make your change within your time frame, be willing to give yourself an additional time frame, rather than using the time frame to tell yourself you’re a failure and make yourself feel like giving up. You can only fail if you’re unwilling to shift your deadline. Given enough time, you can learn to have, do or be anything.

Your next small step

By now, using the SMARTEST criteria, your description of the changes you want to make will have evolved significantly, and you’ll be much clearer about what you really want. You’ll find that your next steps in making your change a reality are already becoming clear to you. So to start bringing your changes into your reality, brainstorm all the steps that might be required to make your changes, including the questions you’ll need to research answers to, and then ask yourself, “What’s my next step to making my changes a reality?” Then go out and do it, and you’ll find that you’ll get your changes in no time at all – and you’ll relish the process of getting them.

Photo by Jesse Millan