A goal is…”the object of a person's ambition or effort; an aim or desired result. ... “

It’s January so most of us are probably busily setting our goals for the year ahead- holidays, career, wellbeing, fitness, food, life…

Most people are probably familiar with the idea that those goals we set should be “SMART” ie. very specific rather than vague, measurable in some concrete way, actually achievable (by us), relevant to our bigger life goals and aims, and timely. So far so good, right? Nothing new here…

So this week I took part in two cross fit classes, neither of which I thought I was able to do at all and both of which I did complete even though it pushed me way beyond what I was actually able to do.

Those two workouts pushed me to the point where I had to lie down on the ground for a good 5 minutes afterwards utterly unable to speak or move. And that made me think about goal setting in a different way.

And my conclusion is this: most of the goals on those January lists are too small.

I work with clients who dutifully set goals and work towards them. They are “A” students in the world of goal setting in life and work - but often those goals lack soul. They lack that ability to grab your attention at a visceral level. They have about as much romantic appeal as a list that starts "put the rubbish out".  And yes its about forging good habits and doing a little every day… but does it have to be so boring?

Cross fit works differently- The daily workout is the same for all from top elite athlete to the greenest newbies- so they work backwards. The goals start big and then if you have to scale them down, then you do that- using less weight, or graded intermediate exercises such as pull ups instead of muscle-ups. But everything else stays the same. So if the workout is 30 minutes of exercises that rotate around a circuit on the minute every minute - everyone does that. So its a “big” and totally crazy goal, every day.

How you then approach that workout is individual but almost everyone breaks it down in some way -so 10 pullups becomes 10in one go or 5+5 or 5+3+2 and everyone is different some like to get a big chunk done first off- some go hard at the start and then taper and some -like me- are more like the tortoise and just chip away steadily until its done.

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Pedagogically this model is a strong one: studies show consistently that challenging goals result in a much higher achievement level than having less challenging goals, do-your-best or no goals at all. It is also grounded in Vygotsky’s constructionist theory, and especially the “zone of proximal development” ie the zone which is beyond what someone can do, and which is only achievable with encouragement and a clear understanding of the task at hand, and that it can be achieved though hard work and effort.

In terms of mental resilience, confidence, self-esteem and strong mental health- this is a good approach too: the best way to improve mental health is to consistently challenge yourself and succeed. Its a growth mindset- I can’t do it now- but I will be able to do it sometime if I work hard- and that too permeates and infuses all aspects of mental wellbeing.

So where am I going with this? Goal setting is a complex topic as everyone is different- some people might self-identify as “list people” (you know who you are) and others have an almost allergic reaction to gaols and lists: the “chaotic creatives”. All have strengths and weaknesses and there are a myriad of personality metrics out there. The one I prefer and use is the Enneagram, in particular the narrative Enneagram, where 3s and perhaps 5s would probably never be seen in daylight without at least one list of tasks (and therefore also clear goals) to hand. But that leaves a great majority - 7 types of people- for whom traditional SMART goal setting is neither instinctive not often- successful.

If that’s you- if you identify with that majority of people for whom goal setting, lists and tasks is really hard work: try this. Tear up your goals this January and start out by tapping into those bigger, harder, more insanely ridiculous goals that make your soul sing. Then go do it- scaling it back if you need to.

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