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“One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. ‘Which road do I take?’ she asked. ‘Where do you want to go?’ was his response. ‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered. ‘Then,’ said the cat, ‘it doesn’t matter.” Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
A few years ago, when my son was a toddler and I was still chasing unicorns, hoping to find the answer to becoming the perfect mother, I read an article called What kind of parent are you: carpenter or gardener? The title intrigued me, as I was hoping to find another personality test that would confirm my adequacy in the realm of parenthood. But instead of getting validation, I learned that the carpenter parent is someone who believes that s/he can shape the child into doing the right things, getting the right skills, practicing the right activities, which in turn will develop the child into a certain kind of socially acceptable and successful adult. The gardener on the other hand is not using precision as superpower, but instead, creates a safe space for the child to explore. S/he nurtures good values, offers opportunities to explore and provides a diverse and rich ecosystem where the child can use her uniqueness and develop in the direction s/he chooses.
There was something about this analogy that strongly resonated with me. I kept asking myself if I was a carpenter or a gardener, in the way I was doing things, approaching new projects, leading and coaching people.
In a certain way, I was clearly a carpenter. I liked planning, details, precision, clarity about where I was going. A part of me loved that reassuring feeling of certainty that came with crossing items off my to-do list. I wanted efficiency and maximum productivity. But while I was so focused on following the plan and getting results, I forgot about enjoying the process. Like someone who’s so focused on chopping carrots with the fastest technique, that she doesn’t realize there are no carrots in the recipe. She picked the wrong recipe.
For a long time, I also had the wrong recipe in front of me. And I knew that if I wanted to be less of a carpenter and more of a gardener, I needed to get comfortable with cooking without a recipe. Master the foundational skills and improvise with seasonal ingredients. So I started to think about how to plan my life and my future so I could feel more relaxed, but still get a sense of direction and that reassuring feeling that I am doing the right things.
What Is a Goal and Why Do We Need It?
Everything we do in life moves us a bit closer towards an uncertain future. Like Marc Randolph, the co-founder of Netflix often says, nobody knows anything. The only way to succeed at one thing is by trying many things. Some things will fail, others will work, and then you know what to do more of. OK, but how do you know what things to try in the first place? Where do you even start? Well, that’s why you need goals. Without having a goal and the desire to reach a certain outcome, your life is adrift. You go with the flow day after day, spend your time without a clear purpose, in a reactive state. Life is what happens to you. Having a goal, sets you up to be proactive and act with purpose.
Elliot Berkman, at the Centre of Translational Neuroscience from the University of Oregon, defines a goal as being "a detour from the path of least resistance". It’s a desired outcome that only happens with intentional action and it requires you to do something different.
When you have no goals and your life just happens to you, it involves little friction. On the contrary, doing something towards a goal, involves resistance by definition.
There will be friction and you will need to get out of your comfort zone, otherwise you would already be able to do that thing. If you want to run a marathon for the first time, you need to do something different to be able to achieve that. You need to push yourself. On the other hand, if you want to watch a movie on Netflix, you don’t need to do anything extra, there is no resistance.
As a result of years of research and lab experiments on self-regulation, Berkman and his colleagues found that there are two elements inherent in any goal: the will and the way. The will is the why and links to your motivation to do the necessary work to achieve that outcome. You need to be honest with yourself and understand what motivates you to put the extra work. Also, why now? Why is it important for me to run the marathon? Is it intrinsic motivation, a personal dream, or is it because all my friends are running marathons and I think it’s cool?
The second element, the way, is the how of the behavior change. What skills and capacity do I need in order to run the marathon? Did I already run a semi-marathon, so I know I am physically fit and I have a good training discipline? How will my new training plan be different? How much additional time will this require? Do I have that time? What will I need to change in my diet, and is that doable given my busy work schedule? The how requires you to ask all these practical questions and make sure you will create the right environment and schedule, for the work to happen. If you just have the will but no plan, you can already be sure you will fail. But the reverse is also true. If you have the perfect plan but no intrinsic motivation, you will not be able to sustain the effort over time.
Goals are an important part of our life, they give us meaning and a reason to get up in the morning. But it’s more about the journey and the pursuit, and less about the destination.
Yes, when we reach our goal, we live a short moment of enjoyment. But the preparation and the pursuit is the most important part, so ideally, we want to enjoy that part as well. It is the process of pursuing the goal that makes us better and not the actual achievement, which comes and goes in the blink of an eye.
Things to Keep in Mind
In one of his podcast episodes, Andrew Huberman unpacks the neuroscience behind goal settings and says that we, as humans, are unique at setting goals in two ways: 1. We can imagine the future and therefore we can play with different time scales: short term, medium term, long term, lifetime goals and 2. we can juggle multiple goals at the same time: at work, at home, in our relationships. This comes of course with advantages and disadvantages.
While it’s helpful to be able to imagine the future and build plans, the fact that we can plan too many things at the same time, makes us less effective in achieving the results we want.
For example, we might have a conflict between a professional growth goal that requires more travelling and a family goal of spending more quality time with your kids. So you need to be aware of these conflicts and make sure your goals are realistic.
If you have an interest in neuroscience, I recommend you listen to the full episode, as it explains in great detail about the areas of the brain responsible for goal pursuit and which neural circuits get activated in goal setting.
There are 8 best practices that I found most useful:
1. Don’t set too many goals at the same time. It’s better to have one goal per quarter and focus on that, then set 10 goals for the year and constantly juggle between them.
2. Write down your goals. The act of handwriting helps your brain process new knowledge.
3. Set goals that are challenging but possible (not too easy, not impossible, just follow the Goldilocks principle). Think about video games and how each level is slightly more difficult than the previous one. This is how you improve your skills.
4. Be specific about time: how much time will you spend overall to achieve the goal and then how much time will you allocate daily toward that goal?
5. To activate your motivation and get into action mode, focus on one point for 30-60 seconds before you start an activity. Research shows that when we focus on one point, we can achieve our immediate goal easier and with less effort.
6. Visualize failure and what will happen if you don’t achieve that goal. The brain and body are much better at moving away from fearful things than towards things we want.
7. Random intermittent rewards are the best strategy to keep you motivated. Flip a coin after you completed an action – heads, you get a reward, tails you don’t.
8. Assess progress towards a goal on a weekly basis.
Why I Use Visual Goals
Some goals are straightforward and help us navigate from point A to point B. We might figure out a new process or do something different to overcome an unexpected challenge, but we feel in control. When we talk about life goals, things get a bit more complicated. There is so much uncertainty, so many unpredictable things that can happen on the road and there is no way we can anticipate the future. In a way, managing life goals looks more like managing creative work.
In their book Gamestorming: a Playbook for Innovators, Rule-breakers and Changemakers, the authors talk about the concept of fuzzy goals. In any creative project, the goal is not to incrementally improve on the past, but to generate something new, not seen before. And by definition, if you aim for something not seen before, you must be ready to embrace the unknown. It’s a journey of discovery and using your imagination.
Personal reproduction from Gamestorming
It took me some time to realize that when it came to personal goals, they were more fuzzy than clear, and the road ahead was with ups and downs. Instead of a detailed step by step plan, I felt I needed a sense of direction. That’s how I ended up creating my own vision board, each image visualizing the outcome I was hoping for.
To be clear, I don’t believe in the idea of manifesting, as in “think about something or visualize it long enough and your wish will come true”. I stopped chasing unicorns many years ago. If we want anything to happen in our lives, we need to understand the process of getting there. We need to act towards that goal and do stuff. Just do the work.
But I do believe that once you know what you want, you clarified the why and the how, having a powerful image associated with that goal, will act as a reminder of the direction you committed to. It’s like an accountability check in with yourself.
Ok, so where does the vision board come into play? A vision board is not a replacement of your goals list, but it complements it in a powerful way. More than 50% of our brain’s surface deals with processing visual information. Visualizing your end goal, increases clarity and activates your sense of commitment. By choosing the right images that embed your core values and show you the final destination, you get a boost of motivation that helps you move into action. A vision board is more of an accountability tool than a step by step how to guide. A vision board is an anchor.
But the reason why it cannot entirely replace your written goals, links back to neuroscience. When things get fuzzy and there is no clear detail about how we get there, a simple visualization makes our brain relax, thinking we already achieved the goal. It undermines the effort we need to put into achieving something and distorts our reality. Your how, the detailed plan, needs to be in place, otherwise your brain will have difficulties figuring out what the next action should be.
Where Should You Start?
We often get caught in doing mode and we forget to zoom out and think about what is truly important for us. To me, my core values remain my the North Star, wherever I am and whatever I do. My values guide my behavior in every situation and they help me stay aligned with my authentic self. They guide my actions and push me forward.
If you want to read more about how to identify your core values, you can read this article or subscribe to a future session of my workshop on Understand Your Core Values.
After reviewing your core values, zoom out on your entire life and look at the main areas you’re involved in. An exercise I often do in my change strategy sessions is called the wheel of life and it helps people put things in perspective and regain a sense of control when things become too hectic.
When we spend our days in a certain routine, we get up, we eat breakfast, we prepare the kids for school, we work hectic and stressful jobs, we juggle multiple after-work activities, we have family obligations to meet and birthday parties to attend, it’s easy to postpone that needed reflection time that helps us put things in perspective.
I encourage you to make time for that. You can download a Wheel of Life template here, lock yourself in a quite room where nobody can disturb you for 30 minutes. If you already did a similar exercise in the past, it’s a good idea to do a refresh, as things might have changed in your life and that will impact what you want to focus on.
Once you selected one or two areas of focus, set one or two goals for each. Remember why these are important to you and how you plan to get there. Make them specific, measurable, time bound and challenging, but not impossible to achieve. Review the 8 tips I mentioned earlier.
So now you should have one page with these elements:
1. My values
2. The 2 areas of my life I want to focus on
3. My goals for the next year/ months
It’s time to get creative and make a vision board that will support you in achieving your goals. The idea is to make it as familiar and close to your heart as possible, so by looking at it, you will get a the right balance of motivation and accountability. It doesn’t matter which tool you use to create it. I use Miro, but you can build it in a PowerPoint or Keynote. It’s just putting the relevant pictures next to each other and then print them. You can also get more creative and use clippings from magazines if you’re into DIY and crafts. I am more pragmatic and I keep it simple. I stick to pictures.
This was my vision board in 2023.
As we approach the end of the year and I look at this, I get a feeling of satisfaction and pride. I just feel good about what I did and who I was this year. I looked at these pictures every day for the last 300+ days and whenever I felt I was side tracking, I had short conversations with myself (don't worry, I checked with a therapist and it's OK to talk to yourself!). When I felt an impulse to buy something new, I went back to my goal of saving more this year and asked myself: do I really need it? What happens if I don’t buy this? When I noticed I had some busy days and didn’t write anything, I asked myself: can I write a small paragraph about anything at all? Every single picture on this board was a reminder of who I want to be as a person, so it helped me keep my promise to myself and pushed me to do one small step forward.
I wasn't always the most disciplined person, and I had some bad days when I just gave myself some lack. But week after week, this visual board was a reality check that helped me stay aligned with who I wanted to be.
I ate healthier, I followed my weekly running routine, I spent more time with friends, I felt more present, and encouraged myself to let go, to play and to relax more often.
But it wasn’t all perfect and there are a few things I will change for next year.
What I Will Do Differently
The first thing I will change is the number of goals. I had too many, in too many areas of my life. One thing I learned in the last few years is that when we get clarity on our core values, this will guide our behavior in the right way. They set the foundation of our character. I don’t need to set a specific goal to spend more quality time with my family, when love is my first guiding value. I will make those choices that feel right and I will make time for the people I love. I don’t need to set goals for those things that already became who I am. Maybe I don’t need a “healthy eating” goal, since I know that we mostly eat homecooked meals and we have a balanced diet. I don’t want to have five work related goals, but just two.
Reduce and simplify will be my guiding principle for next year. I will choose less goals, less pictures and focus on the essential. I will follow Greg McKeown’s effortless principles. I will work more on my habits, and amplify my positive behaviors. Ultimately, I want to enjoy every moment, every day and feel present and relaxed.
If there is one take away for me this year, is how good that state feels. That feeling of being comfortable with the uncomfortable and knowing that in any situation, as stressful as it might be, I can still be calm, confident and present.