Goals Versus Themes – An Example

The last post on this website was on the subject of goals versus themes.  A goal I recently completed was to run a half marathon (21km).  I can say that the goal was 100% achieved.  I picked a race, trained for it and ran it on the day.  There were no major problems (apart from my sore feet) and this goal was particularly easy to achieve.  Why was the goal so successful?  Because this was my third time to run a half marathon and I had a very clear programme to follow which I had successfully used before.  I had a clear formula for success.  Each day of each week leading up to the event I had clear instructions on how much training I would have to do each day.  Once I followed the programme the result was never really in doubt.  I would be ready on the day of the race.

Successfully completing my goal to run a half marathon (21Km) – But What Next?

The half marathon goal was easy to achieve because the sub-goals or stepping stones were so clear.  I knew what I had to do each day.  The stepping stones were tried and tested and they worked before.

However when I look at other goals I have in life they are much harder to break down into quantifiable sub-goals.  For example I am writing a book at the moment.  The topic of the book is beekeeping in Ireland.  I simply don’t know how much effort or how long it will take me to write each chapter.  As with most projects we tackle I have never done this before – there is no exact formula for success.  In my opinion therefore it is pointless trying to set a goal to complete the book by a certain date.  I would be setting myself up for stress and failure to reach my goal.  What I have decided to do instead is to set a daily writing theme.  I have decided I am going to write/work on the book for 1 hour per day.  That is all I have to commit to for now.  There is no stress because there is no artificial deadline which I would fail to meet and start to feel like a failure.  I just focus on researching and writing the book in a stress free way.  I think this is an example where setting a specific time bound goal is a waste of time because as I have said the steps are not always clear and the work involved in the project is hard to quantify.

Going back to the half marathon example there is another important lesson.  I achieved the goal but is that it – job done and goal achieved? Is that all I get – a medal and memories of a beautiful day and crossing the finish line?  The reality is that the goal itself is not very useful.  The goal is just a stepping stone to a life of health and fitness.  Once I achieve the goal I have to continue on the theme of health and fitness or I will slide back to being unfit and overweight.  If I don’t continue exercising after the goal has been achieved then in 3 months I will be overweight and unfit once more. I will then be back to where I started which is not very useful.  The goal got me to where I am today as regards fitness but I now need to incorporate fitness into my life by making exercise and healthy eating a theme irrespective of whether I have a goal or not.  Alternatively I need a succession of goals to keep me motivated and exercising.  The goal is not the end but merely supports the theme of health and fitness.

The point I want to make in this article is that society stresses so much on working towards goals such as at New Year.  My life coach advised me to set one year, three year and five year goals but I don’t think this was very useful advice.  I am way behind on most of these goals because they were simply unrealistic.  I never look at them any more because they depress me and make me feel like I am not moving ahead in my life.  We need to recognise that goals can be useful stepping stones to success but they also have major weaknesses.  Inappropriate goals can stress us and make us feel like failures unnecessarily. Also achieving a goal is not the end but is a mere stepping stone.  Goals should fit into and support broader themes in our lives and move us in a direction we want our lives to go.


PS if you want to read more about practical ways to improve your life please check out my book ‘Experiments in Personal Change’. This book is about taking six key personal growth areas and experimenting with them in your life. The experiments are written in such a way as to make them actionable so that you can put them to the test and observe the results yourself. The information contained in the book is designed to be short and easily digestible. If you read this book and take action by trying out the experiments in your own life and reflect on the results, then you will gain knowledge that can change your life for the better.  Please see the link below:


Live by “Themes” Rather than “Goals”?

Is Goal Setting a Recipe for Failure?

Every time I set myself a goal I usually set myself up for failure.  I started out doing a PhD with the idea that it would take me three years and in the end it took me six years and a lot more time, money, sweat and tears.  I wrote a book about my experiences.  That seems quite typical in my life.  Another goal I had was to reach 86 Kgs weight by a certain date.  I started at about 110Kgs or more.  In the end I reached 86.7kgs (late) but never reached the 86Kgs.  I felt like I had failed at that goal when I really had won… If my theme was to live and eat healthily then I had clearly won.  Because I had set such a specific number and not reached it I had felt I had failed. My theme was health and fitness.

If I look at my first quarter 2017 goals I am way off track.  I am still working on the goals (which were supposed to be finished in 2016!) but they are just taking much longer and are much harder than planned.  I feel like I am getting nowhere!  How is your progress on your 2017 goals or your new year’s resolutions?  Are you off track or are things taking much longer than you expected?  I think many of the problems in goal setting go back to the planning fallacy which I discussed in an article on this website.  As human beings we just tend to be over-optimistic about how long things take and also over-optimistic on the benefits of achieving a goal.

On this website I have promoted a programme by the Goals Guy, Gary Ryan Blair, called the 100 Day Challenge.  I learned a lot from this programme and I enjoyed it and I still recommend it. However just be aware that there is also a downside to the programme as well.  If you fail to achieve your goals in 100 days (highly likely and happened to me) you are left feeling a bit like a looser…..that is not what anyone wants. You can be left a little stressed and unhappy – I missed my goals what is wrong with me?  The danger when you consistently fail to reach goals is that you will become despondent and give up trying every day.

Another big problem with goals is tunnel vision.  You get so focused on your goals that you don’t see opportunities staring you in the face.  You are not able to see or respond to new opportunities as they arise.  You are too focused on your goal.

I recently came across an idea from a guy called James Altucher.  I have probably mentioned him before on this website (by the way he produces a great monthly report, which I subscribe to, on new innovations/technology and how we can benefit).  I realise that so much of what I have written on this website is about goal setting and encouraging people to set goals.  But what if goal setting is a bit of a trap?  When I reflect on my own life I have never really achieved any goals I have set.  I mentioned that my PhD took double the time.  Also the benefits of attaining that goal have not materialised as expected.  Another goal I had set was to publish a self-help book.  I eventually achieved that goal too – much tougher and longer than anticipated.  I struggled on that book,  ‘Experiments in Personal Change’, for perhaps one and a half years.  However in the end very few people have read the book probably because I am not that good at marketing.  I am very happy with the book though and I am actually reading it again myself at the moment to find renewed inspiration for my own life.  That’s neat – read your own self-help book for advice!

Anyway to get back to the topic, the idea of setting themes instead of goals is interesting.  If I say that I am going to reach x weight by May 1st it kinda sets me up for failure.  Therefore decide what you want to do everyday and then do it.  I write every day – I am working on another book project.  But this time I don’t have a goal of when to finish the book – I just write everyday for at least one hour.  The book will be ready when its ready.  I also try to be creative every day – Altucher has an exercise to write 10 creative ideas every day on any topic you wish.  You are exercising and developing your own creative muscle.  I also meditate everyday – I want to train my mind to be present.  What is most important is that I act every day and then I let go of the results.  The results can take care of themselves.  My job is just to be present, show up to my own life and then to do/be present each and every day.

On reflection I agree with Altucher to a large extent.  I will opt from now on for themes with one or two very specific goals where it makes sense and is attainable.  There is no point putting myself  under pressure for nothing and ending up feeling like a failure when I am actually winning.