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Identifying Personal Goals: Be Flexible

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

It was the 1988 Summer Olympics and I idolized the swimmer Janet Evans. You might remember her. She had short, dark hair, a big smile, was wicked fast in the freestyle, and won 3 gold medals that year.

I was 12 then and swam competitively for a local club. I loved Janet’s hair and envied how efficient it was for putting on a swim cap. My hair was long, always in knots, and it was a constant tug of war between me and the dumb cap. I just knew Janet’s hair was great, all the time.

I watched Janet step up to the gold medal podium, she was only 17, and listen to the national anthem play for her. She was humble and proud. I was in awe. I looked at my dad and said “I want to swim in the Olympics some day. I really do, dad.”

He looked at me puzzled. "Ok."

I never swam in the city finals, let alone in the Olympics. Back then, I spent more time thinking about my hair and trying to get out of practice. Hence, my dad’s puzzled look.

I quickly abandoned the sport by the time I was 14. I loved the idea of being an Olympic swimmer, the glory and pride of the national anthem being played for me. But was it a realistic goal? No.

Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. We’re all dreamers. And it doesn’t stop at age 14. For example, about 5 years ago I finally realized that I love the sound of getting a PhD far more than the work required.

We all love the idea of knowing a second language, learning a new instrument, becoming a yogi, or being instantly successful at fill in the blank. In the words of my mother, “If wishes were horses we’d all take a ride”.

But that’s just it – wishes aren’t goals. We are all good at declaring aspirations for something, and then after some time realizing it is a long shot. We either aren’t willing to put in the work, or realize it’s something we didn’t truly want in the first place. Our goals, often, fall by the wayside. Yet, we may also find that we can (and do!) achieve many of our goals. I wrote about that here.

That’s the interesting thing about goals. Some we achieve, some we don’t, and both contribute to our success.

This week rounds out a three-part series dedicated to positioning ourselves to answer the question “What do I want for my team, my leadership, my relationships, and even my life in 2021?” This work is inspired by the Chinese Proverb “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.”

We kicked off the series talking about Reflection. Last week was dedicated to Values and now this week we conclude with Goals. The debate about whether goals are worth setting is addressed as well as the importance of timing.

The Debate

There is no shortage of opinions on whether setting personal goals is a productive use of time. With a swift search you can read 5 Reasons Why Goal Setting Will Improve Your Performance and The Importance, Benefits, and Value of Goal Setting in the same line-up as Why Setting Goals Can Make You Less Successful and Why We Should All Give Up On Goals Already.

All of these articles, plus hundreds of others and various books, have informed opinions and site sound research. There is no debate there. However, all the information about goals can leave a person pretty confused. Here is my synopsis:

  • Setting personal goals creates focus and intention toward something you want to achieve.

  • People who write goals down and tell a friend about those goals are more likely to achieve them than people who do not do this.

  • Tough, specific goals get better results than easy ones.

  • Not meeting a goal is often interpreted as failure which results in a fear mind-set or apathy. For some, this results in avoiding goal setting entirely.

  • If we focus solely on the end result we want, we may be more likely to give up. For example, a couple bad days of eating may lead us to give up quickly on a weightloss goal. "Forget it. I'll never lose 20lbs." The outcome is ultimately too far out of reach. Rather, if we focus on healthy eating and exercise (the process to lose the 20lbs), progress will feel more attainable and we're more likely to stick with it.

The focus on outcome versus process is probably the loudest critique of goal setting. It makes sense. If we pre-occupy ourselves with the single result, we lose site of the experiences we have and the people we meet along the way. There is great learning and benefit in the process of achieving something.

And if we only focus on the single result, than we are really only focusing on the “wish” we all have at the end of our goal – the picture we have of ourselves on the Olympic podium, the version of ourselves in our head of having achieved our goal – successful, having crossed the finish line. And if we can’t accept and appreciate the process of meeting the goal, and all the learning, failure, and work that happens along the way, then our goal becomes just that – a wish, a dream. Instead, a goal is an endeavor. A pursuit.

Being fluid is where we will glean the most benefit. When setting goals, it is worth considering how you will respond when something changes or if circumstances result in not meeting the goal. Being prepared for and thinking that through in advance positions you to respond more effectively when your best intentions get interrupted.

Reframing out of a mind-set of failure and into a mind-set of learning is more productive. This is where flexing the Reflection muscle is valuable. Stop and ask, “What am I learning here?” or “What new information do I have that I didn’t have before?” Apply that learning, adjust the goal, and keep moving forward.


One undeniable aspect of goals is the energy, excitement, or resolve we have setting them. It is not uncommon to feel fully committed and strong at the start but then after some time, the energy wanes, attention is distracted, or we just plain forget.

In other cases, we may set a goal and do nothing. We delay, procrastinate, or just sit on it for some time. Then, we notice how time has passed and we get a spark of energy to act. We may cram all of our performance and activities into the last half of the time we allotted for that goal.

There are reasons for this. Daniel Pink, in his book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing writes “When we reach a midpoint, sometimes we slump, but other times we jump.”

In regard to slumps, he shares a variety of examples and research that highlight a natural point in which we lose energy after starting something. His explanations for topics are as far ranging as the “mid-life crisis” to why the least frequently lit candles on the menorah during Hanukkah are those in the middle. There are plenty of examples of how mid-points cause a drop in satisfaction, quality of work, or productivity and the reasons for it are as diverse as the examples.

He also writes of the “Uh-Oh Effect”. A point when we have a spark of action after a time of procrastination or delay. Pink writes about research conducted with teams who spend the beginning half of their time together spinning wheels but at the half-way point of their work together, become very productive.

This sounds like every committee I’ve been assigned to or group project I was a part of in graduate school.

Pink writes that this uh-oh “…injects a healthy dose of stress – Uh-oh, we’re running out of time! – that revives our motivation and reshapes our strategy.”

The point here is awareness. If you are someone who loses energy after setting a goal or procrastinates, know that this is a natural response, and it is ok. Prepare for this in advance and make a plan to temper the consequences.

The Bottom Line

Goals are worth setting but being flexible with the outcome is important. Notice the learning and progress that is made along the way. Write the goals down and tell someone about your desire to reach that goal. Better yet, think through and also write down what you will do when you feel that natural slump after time has passed. It is natural. Finally, be willing to change your goal. It will not mean you have failed. Rather, it will mean that you are adaptable and open to learning and growth.

This concludes the series Planting Trees Now. Combining all three of the topics - Reflection, Values, and Goals-will position us all to pursue what we want for 2021.

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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leadership and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm.

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