There are so many big goals to choose from: whether to be rich, loved, famous, private, accomplished, relaxed, revered, successful or just plain happy. Whether to have a life partner, remain independent, have children or run a menagerie. Become fit, slob out, lose weight, take it easy.
Most management and self-improvement texts that we have seen recommend a seductively simple process:
- Choose your big goals (anything you like!)
- Break them down into smaller sub-goals that you can act on
- Act on the sub-goals
- Be persistent
While we can’t quibble with steps 2, 3 and 4, many people find step 1, choosing your big goals, incredibly difficult. It’s made worse by a business/cultural imperative that we naturally know what our big goals are: the implication is that this step is easy. It’s not.
It’s not actually necessary to choose, we could simply accept whatever happens to us – and that seems to be fine for some people. But the subtext for someone who expresses concern about work/life balance is that they are not actually following their own deeper desires. So how do we find out what these are?
We can start with what we don’t want, which for some of us may be a slightly easier task. And since we are talking about goals that will be realised in future, picturing good and bad outcomes in a future world is a more straightforward approach. Both of these aspects are neatly illustrated by the famous saying:
- no-one ever said on their deathbed: “I wish I had spent more time at the office”
What gives this saying so much impact is that it resonates with the inner feelings of many business people: they know they don’t want to spend all their lives at work, but find themselves doing exactly that in the short term.
When we are having difficulty deciding on our big goals we can dive in and improve our understanding by creating future scenarios and noticing how we react to them:
- create a variety of different future scenarios, either positive or negative
- make the scenarios as vivid as possible in terms of specific things that are happening, what they look, sound and feel like
- notice your reaction, positive or negative, and how strong it is
- be extremely wary and mistrustful about how you think you should feel. Although our culture promotes achievement, fame, and riches, the key thing is to notice what’s important to you personally at a deep level
- when a negative scenario (like the deathbed scene above) creates a strong reaction, convert it into possible positives and test them out too
This exercise may not generate the ‘elevator pitch’ story of our life goals, but it will generate some crucial insights about what works for us.