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Since today is the start of the second half of the year, it’s a good time to update your goals. How are you doing so far with the goals you set (or refreshed) at the beginning of the year? Are you making good progress? Are you drifting or stuck? Did you fail to set intelligent goals to begin with?
In my experience, choosing the right goals to begin with is incredibly important if you want to make real progress and enjoy that wonderful feeling of flow. So let me share some of my recent discoveries on how to set goals more consciously.
The Classical Approach
In the past I used to set goals with a focus on covering the different areas of my life. I’d set goals for my health, work/business, contribution, finances, social life, relationships, personal growth, spiritual path, etc. This worked okay for the most part, and I maintained this approach for many years. I even wrote some articles recommending this approach.
This wasn’t an approach I devised. It was basically something I inherited from various personal development books I read. The approach seemed sound, so I used it by default. Initially I couldn’t see anything wrong with it.
However, as I continued using this approach I often felt myself getting stuck or sidetracked. Sometimes I’d look at my goals, and while they seemed pretty intelligent on the surface, I felt like something was missing. I didn’t feel as motivated as I expected.
I kept tweaking the categories, but something was definitely off.
I experimented by letting go of goals for a while and just going with the flow, but that produced even worse results. I know some people are fans of that style, but it hasn’t worked well for me. I make much better progress — and I’m generally happier and more fulfilled — when I wield greater conscious control over the direction of my life.
Recently I’ve found an approach that works much better, so let me share that with you now.
Goals From Identity
Instead of thinking of goals as specific accomplishments I want to rack up in each part of my life, I began thinking of goals as a means of self-expression. Some part of my personality wants to be expressed, and a strong goal can help me focus that desire for self-expression. As this expression manifests in reality, the result is a feeling of satisfaction or fulfillment.
For example, some part of me obviously loves to learn, grow, and explore. I love traveling, especially to new places. I love meeting new people and having new experiences. This desire is deeply rooted in me, but it’s not limited to any particular category like health or career development.
Another part of me loves to teach. I find it rewarding to write, speak, and otherwise communicate in ways that help people grow. This desire isn’t limited to one particular area in terms of what I enjoy teaching, so I may help people improve their health, relationships, career path, etc. That’s one reason I write and speak about so many different topics and refuse to limit myself to one specific niche. Furthermore, I don’t constrain this form of self-expression to my career path. I freely share guidance with friends in my personal life just as I do this work professionally. I don’t turn off this aspect of my personality at the end of the workday.
I began thinking of simple labels I could use for these different aspects of my personality where I seem to have a strong need for self-expression. Eventually I came up with the following list:
- The Explorer – The part of me that loves to learn, grow, and explore. This part loves traveling, making new friends, and new experiences.
- The Guide – The part of me that loves to teach and help people grow. This part especially loves to express himself through writing and speaking.
- The A-Player – The part of me that enjoys being effective, efficient, and successful. He’s competent and confident. He doesn’t need praise or acknowledgement to function well, and negative criticism just bounces off of him. He trusts himself. And he especially likes to connect and work with other A-players.
- The Member – The part of me that loves to connect with interesting people, to volunteer, to be social, and to belong. This part of me served as President of a non-profit association, was active in Toastmasters, was a member of the Transformational Leadership Council, administered multiple successful discussion forums, and hosted public meet-ups in different cities.
- The Champion – The part of me that loves to eat healthy, exercise regularly, and pop out of bed well before dawn. This part loves to keep training to become stronger, faster, smarter. He ensures that I have abundant physical and mental energy.
- The Master – The part of me that loves to be in control. He has a strong need for order, structure, and neatness. He stays calm under pressure and is very good at managing his emotions. This part especially loves D/s play. He welcomes responsibility and likes to be in charge.
This is a work in progress, so the list isn’t complete, but I like what I have so far. For the sake of simplicity, I think I’ll limit this list to a maximum of seven items.
Now instead of setting goals with the classical approach, I use this identity-based approach. I begin by deepening my understanding of the parts of me that crave expression. Then I set goals to give a voice to those desires.
For example, The Explorer will be going to New York City this month. The Guide will be speaking at a number of events this year (and he’s writing this blog post). The Champion is currently starting on Week 5 of the Insanity workout program (which is insanely challenging) — he’s been pretty happy lately since I’m bouncing around with extra energy and a higher than usual metabolism.
The Member has been feeling dissatisfied lately. I had a very social time traveling through Europe for a month, but after returning home to Vegas, I slacked off and let my social life become a bit dry. This feeling of dissatisfaction tells me it’s time for some fresh goals and pursuits to express this aspect of my personality. It would also be nice to express this aspect more evenly instead of yo-yo’ing so much between super social times and slower times.
Some goals are inspired by just one aspect of my personality, while other goals are suggested by multiple aspects. The key here is that every aspect needs at least one current goal to express itself.
Sometimes these personality aspects align somewhat with the categories from the classical coverage approach, but they aren’t so limited. For instance, The Champion often aligns with health goals, but that same personality aspect can push me to raise my standards in my social life as well. And The Explorer can also get involved in setting health goals, such as by suggesting new 30-day trials.
I think the main thing missing from my list above would be the part of me that loves caring, intimacy, cuddling, not harming animals, etc. I haven’t come up with a good label for that part yet, but when I do, I’ll include it as well, and I’ll make sure I have some goals to express that part of my personality more fully. What I have above is just a first draft, so I’ll probably refactor it significantly in the weeks ahead. But even though it’s a bit rough, I wanted to share it now instead of waiting till it’s perfect. An imperfect idea shared immediately is generally superior to a perfect idea delayed indefinitely.
It would be ideal for the personality aspects to exhibit loose coupling and strong coherence. Loose coupling means that there’s little overlap between each aspect. Strong coherence means that they’re very crisply defined without too much fuzziness at the edges. We may not be able to achieve such rigidity with personality aspects that are integrated into our neural nets, but if we can come up with abstractions that adhere to these standards as much as possible, it can assist us greatly in understanding how to set more congruent goals.
Often the mere act of deciding to pay more attention to a particular aspect of self-expression is enough to kick-start it and get some fresh energy moving. For instance, when I decided it was time to open up and start being more social while I’m in Vegas, a friend texted me and said he and some other people I know are in town for a week. We’re having dinner tomorrow. It might sound a bit hokey to say this, but I do believe there are aspects of ourselves that are superconsciously connected somehow. When we energetically open ourselves to new experiences, we may receive compatible invitations and opportunities even when it appears that we haven’t taken action yet. I think that deciding to move forward is a valid form of action itself though, one that the universe seems to acknowledge with positive feedback at times.
Another benefit of using this approach is that you can bring more aspects of your personality to bear on your existing goals and activities. I normally play disc golf with friends each weekend while I’m in town. Disc golf has been a fun hobby of mine for years. To me it’s a time to have fun and joke around, but I normally don’t take the game itself too seriously. Within the context of personality expression, however, I realized that I could likely play better if I really tried to play my very best, which some aspects of my personality would really like to see (A-Player, Champion, Master). So I went out last Saturday and tried to bring my A-game to the experience, while still having fun and joking around as usual. I ended up tying my personal best score on that course, a score that I made years ago and have never matched until now. I actually feel that I have a good shot of beating it, perhaps even this summer. Interestingly, my friends seemed to rise to a greater level of skill as well. They played extremely well and got significantly better than usual scores too. Between the three of us, we scored five 2s (getting the disc in the basket in only 2 throws), which is pretty amazing for our group. Normally we can go a whole game without anyone scoring a 2. The best part is that we all seemed to have a really good time. To me the experience felt richer and more exciting than usual.
In the past I told myself that disc golf was just a recreational activity, something I do on the side for fun. I wasn’t interested in pushing myself to play my best. A sloppy throw here and there wasn’t a big deal to me. But my personality apparently enjoys it when I try to do my best anyway. Even a strictly recreational/fun activity can be made richer and more satisfying by inviting more of myself into the experience.
Consider how you can apply this idea to some activity in your own life. How can you inject more of your personality into your work, play, relationships, etc?
Losing the Cage
One advantage to this approach is that you won’t ignore significant aspects of your personality, which is easy to do with the classical coverage-based approach.
A problem I had in the past was not paying enough attention to my need for exploration and fresh experiences. This part was especially squashed when I was broke, and it also felt caged when I was married. Four years ago I had never been outside the USA. Now my passport is halfway filled up with stamps. This type of change is very fulfilling.
In the past I would still set some travel goals, but they were usually my lowest priority goals. Career and contribution and relationships were always more important, and travel was just an optional tack-on entertainment category, often listed as “Travel/Fun.”
As I began pushing myself to do more traveling, I realized it wasn’t a diversion or an escape for me. It was an immersive growth experience, and I found it deeply satisfying most of the time. This helped me to stop treating this category of goals as something optional and recreational. I realized that this is an important aspect of my personality that needs to be expressed. Otherwise I just don’t feel like I’m really being me. Now I’m finally treating this aspect of my personality with a high degree of respect, at least on the same footing as any other types of goals.
I think you’ll find it immensely satisfying when you finally start expressing a part of your personality that’s previously been caged or squashed. That’s definitely been the case for me.
It’s easy to verbally acknowledge an aspect of your personality that you recognize. It takes little effort to say, “I like to travel too.” But it’s another thing to set specific goals in this area (travel to where? when are you leaving?) and to begin working on these goals seriously, as if your life depended on it. I’d say you’re not really serious till your flight is booked.
Also note that your strongest goals will satisfy multiple aspects of your personality. Last year I decided to do more public speaking, and this was an easy goal to accomplish because it aligns so well with aspects of my personality that desire expression. The Explorer gets to travel. The Guide gets to teach. The Member gets to connect with new people. The A-Player gets to thoroughly prepare. The Champion enjoys the challenge. And The Master loves to direct the audience to stretch themselves (with their permission of course).
Own Your Goals
If you were to come up with a similar list of personality aspects for yourself, what would you include? I encourage you to brainstorm a first stab at such a list right now. How well do you know yourself?
Note that you don’t need to list every little piece of your personality. Try to only list the strongest and most pervasive aspects, the ones that keep trying to express themselves again and again — and when they aren’t being expressed, you feel trapped, stuck, or depressed.
Do your best to generalize these aspects as much as possible. For instance, if you like coffee and you need to drink it every day, is it because you like to indulge in the sensual experience of it? Do you do it for social reasons? Do you crave the stimulation of the caffeine? Any or all of these could be aspects of your personality looking for expression.
Notice what you catch yourself doing in your spare moments. What aspects of your personality might you be trying to express?
When you really take ownership of your personality… when you can look at your list and say, “Yup, that’s me!” then I think you’ll find it much easier to claim full ownership of the goals that arise from this approach. You’ll finally be setting goals that are truly you — not your parents’ goals for you, not society’s goals for you, and not merely some marketing-implanted desire for the latest iStuff.
A major benefit to this approach is that it will help you set more holistic, intelligently integrated goals. You’ll develop a better understanding of which goals are wise choices for you, and which aren’t.
The Guide is now satisfied. 🙂