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!

What if you don't need more self-discipline or willpower to succeed?

What if  you needed more compassion and more indepth, detailed insights about yourself? Often we are very critical, harsh and disappointed with ourselves if we fail to do what we intented to do, if we fail to change a habit or form a new habit. Often our inner critic chimes in very loudly, berating us for lack of willpower, lack of self-discipline, self-control.

And you might also think that being harsh on yourself is necessary, because if you start being to nice to yourself, nothing will get done or nothing will change. Dr Kelly McGonicgal from Stanford tells us that actually the opposite is true. Research studies show that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. While being kind and supportive to yourself, especially in the face of failure- is associated with more motivation and better self-control.

So instead of berating yourself (or others!) what can you do to increase the likelihood that you will succeed in making the change you long for?

Two steps will help you with that.

Step 1: Compassionately research your ‘failures’
Retrace your steps and kindly ask yourself: what happened love?  Research what happened and what got in the way.  Research the thoughts in your head, research your actions and research what you did not do or say to yourself. Also research the ‘circumstances’:  what was supportive or hampering in them?
Maybe fear came up, maybe the critical voices in your head got hold of you, maybe your goal/the step you defined was just too big. Or you tried to make a change in very difficult circumstances (e.g. starting a diet the day before Christmas). Or maybe you had unrealistic expectations of what you need to succeed.

Which brings us to step 2.

Step 2: What do you need to increase the likelihood to succeed?
We often hold ourselves to some unrealistic expectation: When I decide to do it, I should just be able to start doing it and follow through with whatever I set my mind to. Let me tell you a secret: for most people this does not work - just like it most likely won’t work like this for you! So instead of berating yourself, ask yourself what do I need, what would be helpful?
Build yourself a support system based on your strengths and needs.  So maybe what will help you is building in sources of accountability (no that is not weak, that is smart!) Maybe you need to spend some time to really connect to why this is important for you, maybe you need to change something in your environment to make it more supportive, maybe you first need to work on your fear and the critics in your head.

How do you respond to outer and inner expectations?
Gretchen Rubin developed framework to help you understand how you respond to inner expectations  (such as a new year’s resolution) and how you respond to outer expectations, like a work deadline. Knowing your tendency can give you ideas for the supportive structure you can build for yourself to help you execute your plan or build a habit. Instead of relying on the illusive power of self-discipline. Although the framework is not scientifically validated, it immediately had intuitive appeal when I read the book  “The four tendencies”  a couple of years ago. It gave me a helpful lens and framework to look at myself and others I interact with.

The four tendency framework:

According to a representative sample, the distribution of the tendencies is 41% Obligers, 24% Questioners, 19% Upholders, and 17% Rebels.

Take the quiz here to see what your tendency is.  (I am a Questioner by the way )

And based on your tendency different things might be helpful for you if you are trying to build a habit or make a change.

So for example:
•    If you are an Upholder you want to know very clearly what should be done, want to know in advance so you can plan and you probably want to create a schedule or routine around it.
•    If you are a Questioner you need to research or ask about why it is important to do. Or can you reframe an outer expectations to something that is important for you?
•    Obligers are able to meet outer expectations readily, but find it hard to do things when there is no outer expectation. The solution: build in sources of external accountability.
•    Rebels need the freedom to do something their own way. Having to do stuff will only get you into resistance mode. Reframing the task as a choice, game or challenge might tap into your spirit of freedom.

Here is a great article that summarizes the book including tips on how to build on the strengths of your tendency and how to avoid pitfalls.

Wishing you lot’s of self compassion and insights!