Is goal-setting really just a waste of time?

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Q: Aaron, First Mate, 35:

“2016 was a terrible year for me. I had lots of goals, the biggest of which was moving up to Captain, but none of it went the way I planned. The boat I was on sold unexpectedly and the boss didn’t honour our holiday and final month payout. I was forced into taking another Mate job quickly so I could keep up with my mortgage payments. My exercise regime fell apart, I didn’t get any further with learning French as I left France, and I didn’t have time to sit my final oral exam. All in all, I can look back on my 2016 goals I wrote in January and I didn’t achieve one of them! I always see so much about goal setting at this time of year, but it just feels like a waste to spend all that time focussing on your goals when things can change out of your control anyway, and you end up feeling pretty miserable that the year was a write-off even though it wasn’t your fault.”

A: The Crew Coach:

This is the second email I’ve received this week about goal-setting, and I’ve just published a blog on how to do it more effectively, which you should definitely check out. However, what I want to focus on in this blog is what you mentioned about the role of chance in scuppering your plans, but even more importantly, on how concentrating on the wins can transform how you feel about your life.

Human beings have a built-in negativity bias. This is assumed to be because throughout history when humans were easily killed by tigers and plagues, the cautious, more negative people assumed the worst and ran away from trouble. In being cautious and fearful, they survived, where the more positive ‘she’ll be right mate’ types often didn’t. (Except, apparently, in Australia ? )

Over time, this ‘survival of the most negative’ effect has left our brains with a very strong negativity bias, which puts a tremendous amount more emphasis on what went wrong than what went right. This is why we remember an insult from 10 years ago very vividly, but have entirely forgotten a lovely compliment from last Tuesday. It’s also why the media focuses disproportionately on all the bad things going on in the world, because the bad news cycle feeds our hardwired instinct to seek out, concentrate on, and internalise the bad things that are happening around us.

How to Escape the Negativity Bias Trap

What does this have to do with you? Well it sounds like you did get dealt a pretty shabby hand last year. Yet I also read in your description of what went wrong that you’re probably suffering from a natural case of negativity bias. In reality, you did amazingly this year in the face of adversity, and you have a lot to be proud of. You managed to use your skill and contacts to find another job straight away, you didn’t default on your mortgage payments, and you were being great on exercise until an unexpected change to your routine made that impossible. You’re ready to take your oral exam the minute you have time, and the French language is still there (in all its splendid confusingness) for you to pick up again whenver you are ready.

Focus on the wins

I can understand why you’re frustrated, looking at a piece of paper full of goals from last year that you didn’t achieve. But what I want you to do now, is pick up a fresh piece of paper, and write down all your wins from 2016. It might be the things I mentioned, it might be that you made some great friends, or patched up a relationship with a family member. You might have learnt a new sport, a few new skills on deck, or cut down on drinking. Write down everything you can think of, and you’ll soon see that you actually had a huge amount of success this year, and that 2016 certainly wasn’t a write-off as you say. I’d thoroughly recommend that you continue writing down your wins throughout the year, as it will give you a much more positive perception of your progress and achievements. It can also be helpful to log your efforts, rather than just outcomes, as only effort is truly under your control.

How to immunise yourself against things changing

Speaking of plans changing, one other practical tip for goal setting is to create back-up plans for your goals. For instance, when you sit down to do your 2017 goals, you could factor in what you might do if you lose your job unexpectedly, or make a plan for what to do if you can’t make your next oral exam date. Interestingly, those who have already factored in alternate ways of reaching goals are less stressed and perform much better, simply because their brain is more relaxed and prepared.

As I mentioned last week, don’t split your attention too many ways with your goals; pick no more than three to focus on at any time. If you reach them before the year is out, pick the next three on your list and get going on them.

Last but not least, set yourself up for success by identifying a group of like minded people to help keep you accountable to taking action and achieving your goals. I have an exciting option I’ll be making soon that could help you with this so watch this space – and in the meantime, I wish you all the very best of luck reaching your goals and recognising your wins in 2017.

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Alison Rentoul

Alison Rentoul

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