A goal-getter for the better

March 25, 2020

“I’m feeling like myself again,” I exhaustedly exclaim as I huff and puff up another hill.

“That’s great, but what exactly do you mean?” my mom asks as she, too, huffs and puffs up a hill, although not the same one as me. We are on a “walk and talk” – a walking phone call. It’s the best we can do living 500 miles apart.

“Well, I’ve been doing so much work over the years, and while I’ve grown, learned, and feel more authentic than ever, there’s been something missing – goals. My life for over a decade was dictated by a goal. Even when I was burned out and miserable swimming, I still had goals. I still had purpose and something to pursue – even if I lacked the passion and energy to achieve. I’ve tried to force goals upon myself since retiring but to no avail. I thought maybe I didn’t need them. I’ve even set goals, but they just didn’t feel meaningful. 

But now I have goals that mean something to me. I feel alive again. That competitor is back. I’m back.”

A new focus

Since retiring from swimming, I’ve dedicated myself to personal development – studying psychology, performance, and mastery and diving into practices for self-awareness, holistic living, healing, mindfulness, and more. I’ve tested and applied what I’ve learned to myself and taught it to clients. 

After going through basic background information and intentions, one of the first questions I ask a new client is “What are your goals – personally and professionally?” The answer is usually something along the lines of “I want to improve my performance.” “I want to get a promotion.” “I want to feel more confident in myself.” “I don’t want to be so stressed and anxious.”

While these goals fall short of the SMART goal criteria, they mean something to the individual’s who share them. They’re enough to drive my client to seek coaching and opportunities to learn, grow, achieve. 

Desires of the human race

According to Steven Reiss, Psychology and Psychiatry professor emeritus at the Ohio State University, there are 16 basic desires or essential needs that motivate all humans. His studies of over 6,000 individuals, identified curiosity (the need to gain knowledge) and social status (the need for social significance) as two of the 16. 

Pursuing goals serves our most basic human needs and desires. They serve as motivation and a source of significance.

I don’t know about you, but goals satisfy both of these needs for me. In pursuing goals, I am challenged to learn new things, whether that is a new skill or nugget of knowledge. As I achieve my goals, I feel significant, personally and socially. I celebrate my successes with those who I am closest with, making me feel like I am actually a contributing member of society! 

Goals also tap into human’s desire for power – not the type of power you might initially think of like social power or wealth – rather the type defined by Reiss – the control of will. Well set goals (ones that are challenging but achievable) require me to push myself out of my comfort zone. When everything inside of me says, “Stop! Danger! This is too hard and risky, turn around!” I choose to control myself and charge forward. 

Where to begin

Perhaps, you’re lacking goals and wondering where to begin. 

Here are three steps I took to begin setting goals when I was unsure of where to begin. 

Identify the barrier

If you’re unsure or having a hard time identifying your goals, ask yourself, “what’s holding me back?” 

It’s easy to think you lack passion or purpose in pursuit of goals. However, frequently, it’s not what you don’t have holding you back; it’s what you have – fear, doubt, memory of past failure, poor environment, limiting beliefs, lack of confidence, etc. 

For me, it was fear. 

The goals I wanted to achieve were the ones that scared me the most. I had a decision to make. Either I was going to continue championing my client’s in pursuit of their goals, while feeling unsatisfied with myself. Or I was going to practice what I preach – identify fears and move through them. 

Ask yourself: What holds you back from setting goals that matter to you?

Identify the focus

Sometimes the problem is not a lack of goals but too many goals. You’re distracted by the 30 things you are working towards. 

I know I was. Between running two companies, coaching, speaking, volunteering, and mentoring young athletes, I was trying to juggle too many goals and too many tasks.

I had to narrow it down to my top priorities.

“Do few things, but do them exceptionally well.” – Amit Roo

The best goals are ones that stress you (in a good way!). Great goals push you to develop new skills and knowledge (curiosity) and test your willpower and abilities (power) so you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment at completion (social satisfaction). Pursuing these types of goals requires significant concentration, perseverance, willpower, and energy, which is why you need to focus on just a few. 

Ask yourself: Which of your goals matter to you the most? Are there goals you are pursuing that are distracting you from achieving something more important or impactful?

For more information on how to identify your most important goals, check out my guide to goal setting.

Take action

Have you ever said, “I don’t know what I want, so let me think about it more”? Or maybe for you, it’s doing more research or talking to more people.

These are excuses – ones that I’ve made many times. When facing the goals that really mattered to me (the ones that brought up fear and anxiety), I would make excuses as to why I shouldn’t pursue those yet. 

Lack of knowledge.

Lack of experience.

Lack of time.

The truth is that if the goal is challenging enough, we will always be starting from a place of lacking. We have to experiment, fail, and learn in pursuit of our goals. If a goal does not require those three things, we should not be pursuing it in the first place. It’s too easy. 

Ask yourself: What is an excuse I’ve been making? What is one small step forward I can take today to gain clarity in pursuit of my goals?

You don’t have to know the destination. You don’t even have to have a defined goal. Just take a step towards where you think you might want to go. Then, celebrate yourself for making progress. 

You might just find it’s the step you need to start feeling like yourself again, too. 

Your turn! Comment below on your experience with goals. What challenges do you face when setting goals? How does having a goal impact how you feel?

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