The Big Secret About Goal Setting

Goals are tools, not golden calves.

I was facilitating a senior level discussion in a medical technology company, and they were grappling with the issue of the role of R&D and how to “fill the pipeline” with new products that would keep them competitive. As one top exec proposed some aggressive goals for the number of new products created and developed within the next 18 months, another equally top exec challenged “Why set goals for R&D? What difference will it make? What will anyone do differently because some committee gave them a number like that to produce?”

It is not unusual to find many people jaded at best about the value of goal-setting, given the stress created by what are often perceived as artificial expectations decreed from on high.

There is always the dilemma of trying to set targets low enough to be realistic, but high enough to be galvanizing, exciting, and challenging.

This is a topic for endless business books and motivation pundits. I just want to highlight one perspective I’ve found very useful over the years: The value of goals is not in the future they describe, but the change in perception of reality they foster, in the present.

What we focus on changes what we notice. Our brain filters information, seeing one thing in a situation instead of something else, based on what we identify with, what we have our attention on. In one meeting optometrists notice who is wearing eyeglasses, affirmative action advocates notice the ratio of minorities in the group, and interior designers notice the color schemes.

Similarly, if you stop for a minute and give yourself permission to imagine five years from now, if your life could be as fabulously spectacular as you could possibly imagine, what might a weekend afternoon be like? Reading great reviews of your best-selling book? Sailing the ocean in your own boat? Feeling relaxed, inspired, and having great fun with plenty of free time to read, play with kids, explore new hobbies…?

Now imagine how good it could be ten minutes from now. Likely there will be different images that you will generate or perceive.

Both are exercises in fantasy. Each will give instructions to our mind to search for information that will be relevant to the pictures. Which is better? Depends on whether you’d like to start noticing sailing magazines, ideas for a book, or creative ways to have more discretionary time. That information is all around you, all the time. But if you’re not wired up to perceive it with a focus that opens you to it, you’ll think it doesn’t exist.

The reason for long-term goals is the permission they give us to identify with the greatest optimistic picture of ourselves and our world we can so it changes our filtered perceptions. We need to have believable images to identify with; and the more time we give ourselves, the more realistic they may seem. The future never shows up—have you noticed?—it’s always today! But playing with it as a working blueprint can be a remarkably useful tool to see things (and how to do and have them) that you never saw before, right now. The most innovative companies are the ones with the biggest goals.

The future is an illusion, but a handy one.

–David Allen

This essay appeared in David Allen’s Productive Living Newsletter. Subscribe for free here.

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