• Goal Setting — Too Many, Not Enough?


The Overachiever

I set a number of personal and professional goals late last year. It is not a positive, I’m finding. I have set myself goals for as long as I can remember. My perception of me is that I am an overachiever. At times I also convinced myself I’m an imposter and one day someone will tap me on the shoulder and tell me I shouldn’t be here.

These perceptions are certainly a key driver in everything I have done in my life. Whether it be academic or athletic or social skills, I know I’m not adept in any area. Most of my childhood and early adulthood was beset by these thoughts. On one hand I was not good enough. On the other hand a virtually unconscious part of me knew there was a life to explore; a world beyond my small town upbringing.

The Underachiever

But I also dreamed of something more. For complex reasons related to my family environment, my education was wasted. I left education at the age of 16 and went into basic employment. I disappointed my mother. A former teacher saw me shopping one day and told me with curled lip he always knew I would throw it all away. His prejudice was in full flow, he had convinced himself I was working in the shop.

It wasn’t long before my inner self started to set higher goals. A lot of the time not even clear goals, just a vague sense that there was something bigger to achieve. Yet I still bounced around from working in a bank, to an administrative role in a meat packing company, to being a postman. I received the odd lecture from adults about throwing it all away.

Goal Setting — Time To Get Busy

Something clicked one day and I decided to get a “real job” with a real company. That led to a twenty five year corporate career where I took like a fish to water to the functional skills, and also the political skills. I’m not a conventional career politician, I think I’ve employed a reverse psychology of being very direct. That directness, the anti-political, together with unconventional opinions and of course delivering the goods, worked.

I set high goals through this period. Just doing my job didn’t satisfy my capacity to explore. I set up a small business and ran it in parallel with my first serious job. Coaching a minority sport, eventually coaching at national and European championship level, was another activity. I was involved in motorsport for many years, building motorcycles and being part of a team racing in the UK and USA. The ghost of my wasted education laid to rest by completing an executive MBA.

Being fully occupied has been a constant to me, hence all the side projects. It isn’t a case of “running away from something” or any associated avoidance or blocking psychology. My mind needs to be fully stretched, it doesn’t do half-throttle. Flat out, or catatonic.

Goal Setting — In A More Ambiguous Context

A move into entrepreneurial life with a startup didn’t really stretch me that far. Challenging and sometimes scary, yes. But not an intellectual stretch. So I decided to study organizational psychology with a view to becoming an executive coach. I was already coaching, but in my usual style, if there was a higher standard to train to, I was going to do it. There I was running a business which was enduring growth pains. In my spare time I was coaching at leading business schools and working with senior executives.

I’m running a small to medium sized business now, with operations in most major markets in the world. It’s growing rapidly, so I’m sticking to the knitting and most of the coaching is on hold for a time. But the goal setting and need to attain the best standard is still with me, whatever the pursuit.

Too Many Inputs?

I avidly consume media daily. Even though I dropped social media some while ago, there’s still a lot of content to consume. Each morning I read The Time and Financial Times newspapers. Later in the day the fake news of the New York Times is read, together with the Wall Street Journal. I’ll also skim the Guardian and Daily Mail, I want to understand the full spectrum of my world.

I’ll read Medium too and pick out two or three decent blog posts. While on the move I will listen to one of my podcast favourites. It will be business, sport or politics I’m listening to. I listen to Radio 4 while getting ready for work.

A lot of input goes into my introvert brain for processing. As well as a society in media overload, we are also in the age of goal setting and self improvement. All of the above media contain a lot self-improvement and health and wellbeing articles. “Five reasons to do this”. “Your mobile phone is killing you”. “Tomatoes are good”. “Tomatoes are bad”. “The morning routines of the world’s most famous billionaires”. It’s endless. I’m not sure what brought this blanket self-loathing down onto society at large. But we aren’t keen on ourselves.

Thorough Or Obssessed?

It’s confusing too. One publication tells you this prevents dementia, the next that it causes dementia. As for my coffee consumption, I’m not sure to drink a bucket of it, or run a mile at the sight of a barista.

The culture does play into my weakness though. I avidly consume a lot of this media and it appeals to my curious nature, as well as the side of me that tells me I’m not good enough. So I will read an article on riding 100 mile cycle events and before long I’m training for one. On a very expensive cycle of course, I can’t ride an average one, as it might hinder me. The bespoke carbon fibre of the frame tubes will definitely offset my lower then average V02 maximum, no question.

I’ll read about the low carb, high fat diet and then apply the regime to the letter for month after month. My wife pointed out to me in this period that I had eight books on the subject on my Kindle. I didn’t think much of that, until I reflected. I don’t do passing interest in a subject, I do it all or nothing.

Too Many Goals

At the start of December I made a comprehensive list of physical and mental wellbeing goals and improvements I wanted to achieve this year. You will note even my New Year’s resolutions aren’t related to the calendar. I listed 24 areas. That’s not me being obsessive, that’s me examining every area. It never seems over ambitious simply to want to improve in every area.

I am winning on 12 of the areas and behind on the others. Me being me, that’s in the failure zone. I even blogged about it here and interestingly referred to winning and losing.

The other dimension of my life is in business. I’m busier than I’ve ever been in my life. Like my personal life, my business life has many goals and sub-goals. These are shared with other stakeholders too, so I can’t slip behind. Plus I have my own goals, the ones I haven’t articulated with others, that are of course even more stretching.

Why do I think I can deliver and over-deliver in my business life as well as improve in 24 personal and wellbeing related areas? Because I’ve always been that way.

Fewer Goals, More Achievement?

I’m having a weekend away in the Mediterranean and currently sit on a sunny balcony typing this. Slowing down a little, if only for four days, allows some reflection to take place. Of course I don’t need to improve 24 things. I have narrowed them down to three. Trying to sleep more, even an extra 30 minutes a night will help. I will exercise 3–4 times a week, just do whatever I like. No goals to cycle in long events, or lift 150kg. Just exercise. To be sure to take time out to do something for the inner self: reading, music, writing, meditation.

I meditated for a period while on my last long holiday and really enjoyed it. The minute I was back into the flow of normal life, it went by the wayside. Getting up, I’m too busy to spend ten minutes with the app. Or I’m too tired. I either exercise, read the newspaper or work. I’m too busy to meditate. How self unaware is that? With less things on my list, perhaps balance will return. History says not, but it’s worth a try. If I have fewer and less specific goals, maybe I will make lasting improvements. I wanted to type “wins” to close the previous sentence, but realised that might be the wrong approach.

Practical Application

Writing this blog post is helpful. While writing it, I have been delivering on one of my three areas to improve on. Typing “three areas” relaxes me. Typing “24 areas” spikes my stress a little. I know when I’m back in the business on Tuesday that it will be flat out. Indeed it will be flat out for the rest of the month. I believe thinning out personal goals may really help me. Perhaps I can achieve even more by doing less. My best friend always says to me “everything in moderation”. I nod, while thinking “yeah, right”. I won’t ever do things in moderation. But maybe fewer things will make me more effective.

Here’s to fewer goals.

Originally published at Frith Street Post.