Before you set goals.... do this first

With the end of the year approaching lots of people are busy with setting their goals for the coming year. Maybe you have to make a personal development plan for 2021 at work, or maybe you want to set some goals yourself for the year ahead. And maybe you are someone who makes New Year’s resolutions. Setting goals is really powerful when you want to achieve things. It will often take you far!

The desire or longing behind your goals

Often we are unaware that when we set goals we unconsciously long for a certain feeling. There is a unconscious expectation behind your goal about how you will feel once you have reached that goal. You want to get promoted because you expect that you will feel good in a certain way. You want to lose weight because you expect that you will feel different and better. Think about it. What do you expect this promotion will bring you? What will it enable you to do, that you cannot do now? How do you expect to feel? This is the real desire behind your goal.


When you make your desire for this feeling dependant on reaching this goal in the future, there are two major risks.

How do I know this? From my own experience.

In 2011 I was working on finishing my dissertation. Looking back I can clearly see what happened back then.

In the last year of my PhD research I was working so very very hard towards this One Big Goal. Finishing my dissertation and obtaining my PhD degree. While I was working incredibly hard, I kept myself going by holding on to this image of this beautiful moment in the near future. The moment I would submit my dissertation to the committee. Then I finally would have reached this goal I had been working towards for such a long time.  Unconsciously I expected that once I had finished my dissertation, I would feel fantastic, would feel euphoric, feel successful, happy, full of energy! In short: I expected some sort of drum rolling moment – a moment of total happiness and feeling fantastic. In the mean while, during this last year in the build-up towards this moment, I felt anything but fantastic. In this last year I ignored my boundaries so heavily, just to reach this goal within the set timeframe. But what kept me going was this beautiful prospect of having finished my dissertation. I was so close to reaching my goal.

Finally, the day came. I had completed my dissertation. My supervisors did not have any remarks, everything was checked for spelling errors.  My dissertation was ready to send out to the manuscript committee that would assess whether it was good enough to defend. I put the manuscripts in the envelopes and put them in the mail. And then…. Nothing. No drum rolling, no euphoria. This moment was one big disillusion. Also, in the following days this feeling I had longed for, did not come. Because I had to work straight on. No break, no possibility to take time off. I had to immediately start preparing for all the new subjects I was going to teach in my new role as assistant professor.

Before you set goals, do this first

Suppose you want to get a promotion within your organisation. Possibly you want this because it will enable you to exert influence and change things in the organisation. Which will make you feel like you are really making a difference for the organisation and its clients. So you will feel that what your are doing is meaningful, really matters. Then you can ask yourself the following questions:

When you do this, the feeling you are longing for is not something that will only become possible once you have reached this goal. This feeling will be present already on your way towards this goal. This way you’ll  enjoy what you are doing so much more. And there will be so much less risk that you will ignore your boundaries or your values.

 My story -continued

A couple of months after submitting my dissertation I fell ill. A burnout. I had worked too long on willpower instead of joy and ignored my boundaries for far too long.  And I still had to defend my dissertation. Also something I had been looking forward to for a very long time.

 Because of my burnout I felt really insecure, and decided to prepare my defence with help of a coach. I trusted that I would be able to answer the questions during the defence- so I trusted the quality of my research and my dissertation. Is still trusted my qualities as a researcher. But I felt not myself because of this burnout. I feared a black out, I feared not being able to concentrate during the defence. I also had chosen deliberately not to postpone my defence. I really wanted to conclude this journey and be able to celebrate this achievement.

My coach asked me, what are you looking forward to? How do you want to feel? That was really clear for me. “I want to celebrate this achievement, I want to share the work of these last years with my family, friends and colleagues. I want it to feel like a party. I want to really enjoy the defence, from the beginning to the end. So not only enjoying the moment I would be handed my PhD Degree.

Together my coach and I explored what I could do to feel calm and to feel joyful during the defence. AT the start of my defence I stood waiting before the public, waiting for the professors to enter. In these first few minutes I deliberately looked at two loved ones, because I knew looking at them would make me feel calmer. I then went on and scanned every row and every seat that was taken, to really take in who had come to celebrate this moment with me. I made eye contact with people, I smiled, I was surprised by who had showed up to share and celebrate this moment with me. I started the defence feeling calm and with a smile on my face. I really enjoyed the defence. Yes, I even enjoyed the difficult questions from the professors. I felt I was flying really high! The pictures of my defence show a radiant, smiling me.

Before you make New Year’s resolutions or set goals for 2021, ask yourself two things:

Go and do that!


Wishing you a beautiful end of the year and a great start of 2021!