It is ironic that I've been thinking about how to set goals, work towards goals, achieve goals lately, when, for the first time in years and years, I haven't really had any goals. Perhaps the lack of defined goals has freed my mind up enough to mull over the strategies and tactics of goal attainment whilst I am free from endlessly obsessing about my most recent goal.
There is a plethora of literature on goal attainment, some of which is contradictory. One oft-quoted strategy used in many personal change programs is the idea that we should talk about our goals with other people, but, recent research has shown that the more people talk about a goal, the less likely they are to actually achieve that goal. It all comes down to something called “social reality.” If we blather about something endlessly, we actually come to believe we've already accomplished whatever it is we've been blathering about and we figure we can now sit back in complacency and comfort. This likely explains all the blatherers you've met in your life-time.
I read one blog post recently where the author thought that setting goals was counter-productive as it limited the experiences one had, and, in this particular bloggers experience, negative consequences ensued whether or not the goal was attained. Reaching a goal was anti-climatic, while failure led to depression. That whole philosophy seems cock-eyed to me. Of course, setting goals requires limiting your experiences. You can't achieve anything meaningful if you are dashing off in all directions trying to have as many experiences as possible. None of us have the time, energy, intelligence, or motivation for that. Reaching goals requires ruthless paring down of our activities so that our available time and energy is focused on those things that move us towards our goal. If your goal is to climb better, spending days mountain-biking (which might be fun) won't help.
Goal attainment requires not only being clear about what goal you are trying to reach but also choosing a goal that is all your own. It's no use deciding you want to be a “better climber” - a goal so vague that there is no hope of it's being reached - if you really don't like climbing that much, or only climb because your spouse or the people in your social circle climb, or because it seems cool and trendy in the media right now. We all end up doing whatever it is we really want to do, and if that isn't climbing, you won't find yourself out climbing much. Instead, you'll be lured out mountain-biking, or hiking, kayaking or skiing. None of which will contribute to an improvement in your climbing skills. It requires a great deal of self-knowledge to recognise which goals are all our own and which are influenced by other people or the media. We all want to believe that we are individualists who make our own decisions, but, sadly, most of us are not.
Vagueness also does not help. General goals like “I want to be better at x,y or z” are way too fuzzy to enable you to nail down where you now and where you need to be to reach your goal. If you want to be a “better climber” you need to identify exactly what that means – solid on 5.10 gear routes, grade 5 ice routes, 5.11 sport routes, or whatever. Only when you've explicitly worked out your goal can you assess your current skill level, identify gaps in your skill/knowledge and ability, and plan out activities to ramp up those skills.
We all know that working hard to reach our goals requires sacrifices, but we are rarely truly prepared to make those sacrifices. Sure, we might get up early in the morning, or stop eating junk food, but when it comes to the really difficult sacrifices we have to make, like cutting loose our current group of friends who do not sufficiently challenge us to meet our goals, we falter. These are the really tough sacrifices to make, and few of us have the courage to make them.
Choose your goals wisely, make sure they are both clearly defined and all your own. Pare your life down ruthlessly. Get rid of all the things you do that don't move you towards your goals, and focus on those that do. Be prepared to sacrifice everything including your relationships and your security, and, if you keep at it for 10 years or more, you might reach your goal.