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The trouble with goals (and what to try instead)

If you focus on what you do with your days, the years take care of themselves.


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Sheryl Garratt

5 months ago | 6 min read
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So how are those New Year’s resolutions going?

Why goals aren’t always the best way to make lasting changes. Photo by Rowan Freeman on Unsplash

When I first trained as a life coach, it was all about goals.

Setting them, attaining them, then setting some more in a relentless cycle of achievement. This is effective for some people, and certainly better than bumbling aimlessly through life with no direction at all. But the trouble with goals is that they’re all about the end point, not the journey.

I noticed that achieving their goals wasn’t making my clients happy in their daily lives.

Indeed, they would often talk about happiness as something that had to be earned, or deferred until they got below a certain weight/earned £100k/got a top 10 single/achieved a million followers on Instagram/finished their novel/whatever the latest goal was.

Then, when they got there, they’d enjoy a brief celebration before setting new, bigger goals and starting the striving all over again. It all seemed a bit joyless. They weren’t enjoying the process: the weeks, months or even years it took to get where they wanted to go. And surely that’s the point?

Goals are often external and arbitrary.

Fixating on a specific figure rarely makes sense to me. Why would life be significantly better if you earned £100k rather than £99k?

Why would you be happier or different at size 8 than at 10, 12, or indeed 20? And what use is a huge social media following if it doesn’t result in authentic connection, real fans or sales?

Goals also often focus on faults and flaws that need to be fixed. There is nothing wrong wanting to make changes, or with being ambitious and wanting more.

But deep change starts with loving and accepting yourself as you are, then building on that. Not with constantly pushing and critiquing and telling yourself you can’t rest, be happy or be satisfied with your life until you’ve passed some new milestone of achievement or self-improvement.

Despite all my training, I realised that goal-setting wasn’t really working for me, either. Every January, I’d write out lots of grand resolutions that were just about attainable in a year. Yet by December, I’d have achieved very few of them.

They were too big and overwhelming. They were often things I felt I should do, rather than my real heart’s desires. And for me the dark, cold January nights in the UK have never felt the right time for a fresh start.

So I stopped making New Year resolutions.

I now plan out my year after my birthday in March, when spring is in the air and I’m feeling much more rested and energetic.

For me, January and February are a time for rest and renewal, for early nights and curling up with a good book rather than launching new ventures.

If you start January motivated and ready, go for it. If not, choose a time that makes sense to you, and reset then: choose the start of the financial year in April or the academic year in September, your birthday, or some other marker that’s right for you.

Instead of starting with goals, go time travelling.

I approach goal-setting somewhat differently now.

And it starts with some time travel. Instead of listing things I want to achieve and setting targets and dates, I start by getting clear on the life I really want, and creating a powerful vision of my future, of my ideal life. (If you want some of the questions I use, download my free writing prompts here.)

I also like to imagine looking back on my life, in extreme old age. At the end of my life, what will I most regret not doing or trying? What will I wish I’d done more of? And less of?

Once I have a clear vision of the future I want, and what’s really important to me, I ask a question: who do I need to become, to make that future happen?

What skills do I need to develop? What habits and routines? Who do I need to spend more time with? What do I need to change?

I end up with goals and intentions that come much more from the heart and soul than the head.

Spending precious time with my elderly mum and making sure I have meaningful time with my son were never things that figured in my lists of grand NY resolutions, for instance. But they are key to me now, and I plan my year around them.

Instead of setting lofty goals, focus on what you do daily.

These more organic intentions rarely have numbers attached.

They’re not about striving to pass rigid milestones by certain dates, and feeling like you’ve failed if you don’t get there. Or if you do get there, immediately setting new goals to strive for.

These days, I’m more interested in attaining financial freedom than on hitting an exact annual earnings target. On feeling fit, healthy and full of energy rather than getting to a set weight or dress size. On having a regular creative practice rather than counting only the output.

If you focus on who you need to become to get there, on the habits and routines you need to build, the bigger goals tend to take care of themselves.

For years, ‘Write a new book’ was on my annual list of resolutions, for instance.

And I’d kid myself I was still going to do it right up to November, when thousands of people draft out a book in the annual NaNoWriMo event. But I never did. Mainly because I didn’t schedule in regular time to work on it. Or even to think about it.

Writing has always been a part of my life, and it is always a part of any ideal future I imagine for myself. Yet I wasn’t doing it in an organised way. So instead of setting the same goal again, I asked a question.

Who do I need to become to produce more books?

The answer was pretty obvious.I needed to become someone who writes, every day. So I built habits and routines to support that, found groups and connected with friends who would hold me accountable, and started experimenting on what worked for me.

Then I focussed my efforts not on finishing a book but on simply showing up every morning and writing for at least an hour.

This year, as well as coaching full-time, I’ve written a non-fiction book, Making It! , for creatives who want to grow their business or career.

I’ve also produced a weekly blog post, and 26 issues of my newsletter, The Creative Companion. There were features for newspapers and magazines, and I contributed chapters to several books about creativity. And it all came from writing almost every day, from 8am-9am.

Sometimes I do more, but rarely less. There’s no decision-making involved, no dithering or procrastination. It’s just what I do now, who I am.

This isn’t always fun.

There are mornings when I’d rather stay in bed, when the words just won’t come, when I just don’t feel like it. But I also get a quiet contentment from writing regularly, from consistently doing the thing that makes me feel more.. me.

Even on a bad day, it feels a lot better than procrastination. And I know that better writing days will come, if I just keep showing up, morning after morning.

Sometimes I just don’t get up to work, and that’s OK too. Not writing a book, year after year, felt like a massive failure. Not writing for one day feels much less catastrophic. I just pick it up again the day after, and carry on.

This the way to achieve the future you want.

You think about who you need to become, then you put habits and routines in place to create that.

Want to run a marathon? Start with a short daily run, or even a walk if you haven’t exercised in a while.

Want to play arenas? Send your press pack to five new venues or booking agents every week, to get more gigs. Or approach a new media outlet every week, to raise your profile. Or even just form a band, and start rehearsing regularly.

Want to lose weight? Swap one unhealthy habit for a better one: replacing sugary canned drinks with water, for instance. Then, when that comes naturally, try something else.

Want to earn more money from your creative work? Block out regular time to approach new retailers, clients, galleries. Or experiment with a new income stream every month or quarter.

If you focus on what you do with your days, the years take care of themselves.

Sheryl Garratt is a writer, and a coach helping experienced creatives of all kinds get the success they want, making work they truly love. If you’re ready to grow your creative business, I have a FREE 10-day course giving you 10 steps to success — with less stress. Sign up for it here.

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Sheryl Garratt

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The Creative Life: Coaching for creatives

Sheryl Garratt is a coach helping experienced creatives get the success they want, making work they love. Find her at www.thecreativelife.net


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