Is goal setting a waste of time?

ALEXANDRA CAIN
Last updated 13:19 04/07/2014

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OPINION: We're told from a young age we need to set goals if we want to achieve anything, and for a long time I believed that.

I had goals about what I wanted to do work-wise, I had goals about studying and I had personal goals.

But I haven't set any goals since my mid-20s. It got me thinking - has not setting goals set me back? Or can you still be successful without having some sort of defined purpose in mind?

The last time I had a goal was to complete a post-graduate qualification. Since then, I haven't had any sort of end-point in mind.

Don't get me wrong, I've done a lot over the past decade: starting my business, being given the opportunity to run the small business pages and to write this blog are some of the things of which I'm most proud.

But I didn't set any goals to do those things. I fell into them. Same with pretty much everything else I've done over the past decade. My approach is to just give things a go and if they work out, great, and if they don't, I'll find something else to do.

One of the reasons I shun goal setting is because it can set you up for failure. I learned this at a young age. For instance, I desperately wanted to do law at the University of Sydney when I finished school.

Except I missed out by a few marks. I ended up doing economics at Sydney instead, which is how I ended up as a finance journalist.

Best move I ever made as I absolutely love my career. But at the time I was bitterly disappointed I didn't get into law.

This taught me two things. The first is a mantra I have learned staves off dissatisfaction and leads to a happy approach to life: no expectations, no disappointments. If you don't have these grand hopes fantastic things will happen, you're not going to get knocked around when they don't materialise.

But if you appreciate the great things that happen on a day-by-day basis, you learn to live in the now and you end up grateful for small wins.

Second, it doesn't matter if you don't get what you want, or your dreams don't come true. Just make the most of what you have and don't get caught up in apparent failure. Move on to the next thing and try again. And accept what happens to you.

Alicia Cook, who runs a life coaching business called Having Cake has a refreshing approach for someone in the goal setting business about finding a purpose.

"Some people love having big, hairy, audacious goals, but they're not for everyone. There can be psychological drawbacks when you set goals and don't meet them."

Alicia agrees with me that it's not very useful if you set a goal, don't meet it and end up feeling like you're a failure. Instead, she says a better approach is using goals to challenge yourself or to focus your attention.

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I also asked Alicia about how to find goals you want to set. She suggests analysing your life and identifying aspects you're happy with and aspects you're not. You might be happy with your personal life, but not happy with your health.

So you could set a goal to walk four times a week for an hour.  It's an idea to choose something small and manageable, rather than something that's going to be tough to achieve.

If goal setting isn't your thing, Alicia says an alternative is to look at how you could build new habits to change your life. She explains habits as a mental energy-saving device consisting of: a cue, a routine and a reward. Once up and running, habits create space for your brain to focus on other parts of your life.

In her example, Alicia wanted to create a new habit of meditating daily. So she established a new routine to get up 20 minutes before her normal wake-up time, go downstairs and start meditating.

In her case, the cue was that she walked downstairs which then led to the routine (meditatation) - starting the day in a calm head space (the reward).

By doing this, she's been able to set up a new positive habit that makes her life a little better. It's a great alternative to having a goal that might turn out to be unrealistic.

Food for thought. I'm happy with my job and my life and content to take things as they come. But maybe I should put some thought into forming new habits and creating some dreams. And you never know what surprises are just around the corner.

- BusinessDay.com.au

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