Want to Change? Stop Setting Goals.

want to change

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

20 thoughts on “Want to Change? Stop Setting Goals.”

  1. Cath-

    very interesting post and slant re. CHANGE VS GOALs and I can understand where you are coming from. from my 10 + years experience in providing personal/profesional development consutling with respect to “goal setting” I can understand why you take the positon as CHANGE agent vs GOAL.

    My observation is that yes-you have to have the “attitudinal” mindset to actaully tackle your objectives (GOALS)-attitidue is absolutely paramount -but I alos firmly believe you also need to have the element of FAITH or BELIEF in one’s self or in God to actually achieve what you set out to do. Afterall you can have the best “CAHNGE” GOAl setting road mapbut if you don’t believe you will achieve it-guess what? You more likley will not acheive.

    Lastly-CHANGES/GOALS should be looked on as a life time committment, and as events circumstances change and affect our lives-so do the CHANGES/GOALS to reflect our current situation and reality at that moment). What you envisioned 3-6 months ago as prioirty objectives may not apply with your real economic, personal, and professional reality-thus as circumsances and or events change around you-you “may” need to tweak your CHANGE/GOAL meter to ensure what your objectives are mesh with your current situation.

    In other words, if buying a house NOW was on your to do GOAL list now, but your spouse/significant other no longer has the job that would be dependent upon your qaulifying to buy that house-obvioulsy the “house goal” should be shelved and revisited maybe in another 12 months or so.



    1. @Wayne, I think you raise two very important points – self-belief is a crucial part of moving forward. It’s what gives you the ignition and the perseverance to start and to keep going when the obstacles and challenges start popping up. And I love that you raise the importance of regularly reviewing your goals and being willing to change them as your circumstances change. In high-change times like these there will be new opportunities for getting what you want popping up around you all the time and it’s important to stay flexible in your strategy. Also, your desires and needs may change and since goal setting is ultimately about improving the quality of your life and they’re your goals anyway, give yourself the freedom to change them when you want.

      Thanks for adding this great pints, Wayne.


  2. Cath…finally, someone has the courage to call a spade a spade! The whole idea of goal setting is kind of like TO DO LISTS or JOB JARS. For most people they just keep piling up until there are too many jobs to do.

    I finally gave up the to do lists and goal setting this year and instead took the approach of making changes and focusing on the actions and activities that I need to do in order to get where I want down the road. It’s so simple and I notice that everything important gets done. Change is happening. I’m being productive not busy.

    Your change metrics are wonderful. I especially relate with aligning visions with values. If you do what you love and “head towards” it you will truly make headway and have a more abundant life. Change is about what we can do, not what we can make others do. Great perspective and thanks for speaking up.

    1. @simply stephen, The SMART goal setting method is a very left-brained way of managing change, and you’re right that it can focus on efficiency rather than focusing on what you value at the big picture level and staying open to different possible ways to get what you value in life. And you’re right – keeping it simple is usually best because then you’re less likely to feel burdened by the whole goal-setting process.

  3. Hey Cath, I really enjoyed reading this article.

    I especially like the part where you mentioned how being specific makes it easier for you to change your lifestyle.

    I completely agree, because I think that clarity provides you with a tremendous amount of extra power along with motivation. Because once you know exactly what you want from life and how you want to be in the future, your mind will automatically find the answer.

    Thanks for the article Cath, it is very detailed and thorough, I truly enjoyed the read.

    1. @Steven,Thanks! Actually, I think there are really only 2 things you ever need to do, to improve the quality of your life:
      1.) know what you want
      2.) deal with your own fear and resistance so you can be resourceful in creating what you want

      And in these abundant times where there’s so much information, diversity and opportunity, I think we all struggle a bit with the first part – deciding what we want. And fear gets in the way here too – when we’re afraid to want what we really want, then we tend not to invest time in imagining and doodling and developing our clear picture of what we want. And our mind always prefers familiarity and moves us towards what’s most familiar. So getting clear, specific and familiar with what we really want is much of the work done already.

      Rock on,

  4. I like your twist on an old theme Cath. I especially like how you tie success to change which is action as opposed to a state of being. People who envision action rather than states are more likely to succeed with the changes they want to make in their lives.

    1. @Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome, Not sure if I understand your meaning correctly – “states” has a particular meaning in NLP. I’m guessing that you mean that people who focus on the process instead of the destination, when it comes to making changes, tend to be more successful – that makes sense to me.

      When it comes to states, at least in the NLP definition of states, focusing on your desired state (in other words, how you’ll feel when you’ve made the change) is actually a very powerful way to check whether the changes you’ve decided to make are aligned with what you ultimately want (which is always a feeling), and a very good way to motivate yourself to do the crappy stuff that might need to get done, to get your results. Some people also talk about the law of attraction and all – feeling the way you’ll feel whe you have it, while you work on getting it, as a way of activating the law of attraction. While I don’t believe in the law of attraction, I’d say that, since what we all ultimately want is a particular feeling, cut out the middle man and start feeling the way you want to feel right now, while you’re working on changing your results. Because you can create all the feelings you want right now – you don’t have to wait for your circumstances to change to feel the way you want to feel. Make sense?

      1. @Cath Duncan,

        Ah, I meant “states” as in a “state of being” and I used it in opposition to actions.

        Far too many people focus on the first one when envisioning their future and therefore get nothing done because there’s no connection – no action – between the state of being in the moment and the state of being in the future.

        As for the whole feelings thing, I agree with you completely – we choose our emotions (for the most part) and so can choose to act like we want to be until it becomes habit and we are that emotion.

  5. Exciting concept, Cath. I use SMART in my workshops and I think it helps people focus on the things they want to accomplish. I love your idea of changing who you are, though, not just what you do. I am going to remind participants that if they truly want to make a lasting change, they need to reframe how they see themselves. Thanks for the inspiration.

    1. @Marcie Lovett, the beauty of goal setting is always about the way it changes our focus, and gives us the kind of focus that’ll help us get the changes we want. Significant change will always require changing who you’re being and how you’re thinking, and setting goals or intending specific changes can help with that.

      Did you find any of the other SMARTEST criteria useful?

  6. I absolutely love this post. There were so many wonderful points that I can hardly pick a favorite. I must say, though, that number 3 stood out in my mind. When we choose to align our goals with that which brings us joy…. watch out world!

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