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Setting Good Goals

by Joy Livingwell

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Summary: Two methods for setting goals you're likely to achieve, and will like once you attain them.

Imagine you were shopping for a house, and told the realtor only this: "I do not want my house to have six rooms. It should not have a spiral staircase. And I hate stucco, so it shouldn't have that." What are the chances you'd get shown houses you wanted?

Sound silly? Lots of people set goals that way. "I want my wife to stop telling me what to do." When she stops nagging and starts talking about divorce, he keeps complaining. He achieved his goal, but it isn't what he wanted.

With goals that are vague or poorly thought out, it's easy to work hard to achieve an outcome that you dislike once you get it. Or you might succeed, but not notice that you did. Plenty of workaholics have that problem.

Societies make these mistakes too. Traffic jams make cars slower than the trolleys they replaced. Citizens overthrow oppressive governments, only to install worse ones. Automation reduces toil but throws millions out of work.

On the other hand, some people and groups do a great job of wanting things worth having, and getting what they want in ways that really work. This isn't magic. These people are doing something different that helps them succeed. You too can learn to set goals in ways that work.

What are goals?

A goal is simply an end result you want or choose to work toward. Some people distinguish between primary goals (what you want) and secondary goals (things you must do to create what you want).

Goals are most powerful when you love them passionately and they align with your values. Aligning your life, goals, actions, and values is one of the most powerful things you can do to achieve what you want.

Goal-setting is often a process of discovery. You may not know what you want. You may need to discover or create it, and you might change your mind along the way. Many people discover their deepest values late in life.

Effective goal-setting

Two methods of goal-setting work exceptionally well to help people get what they want and avoid problems. Holistic Management is a way of making better decisions that helps people achieve what they want more effectively. Neuro-Linguistic Programming is a way for people to become highly effective in any context. From their separate roots in land management and personal growth, both discovered some of the same key aspects of effectiveness:

Particularly in the area of goal-setting, the NLP and HM approaches complement each other. They are fairly different in how they work and what they're intended to achieve. While NLP assumes multiple goals or objectives, HM sets one holistic goal or vision. HM also separates what you want from how you achieve it. NLP has them dance, each influencing the other until both the goal and the process of achieving it work as a whole.

NLP goal-setting

This process was developed by studying people who were good at setting and achieving goals, and who were happy with the outcomes they got. It works for outcomes of any size.

You may find it helpful to have another person walk you through the process. Explaining the details of your goal to them will uncover any parts that are vague, undefined, or problematic.

What do you want?

How will you know when you achieve your goal?

Is your goal achievable?

Is achieving your goal within your control?

Are the costs and consequences of achieving your goal acceptable?

Do you have all the resources you need to achieve your goal?

By checking your goal carefully, by experiencing it from multiple points of view and from several points in time, you get extra information to help you plan and proceed. You can catch and solve potential problems in your imagination, where it's fast and free. And by rehearsing the future so vividly, you help yourself create the results you want.

Holistic Management goal-setting

HM is a way of making decisions that are sound financially, socially, and environmentally. Goal-setting is just one step of a larger process that helps people think through what they do, keep on course, and achieve the results they want.

While NLP goal-setting works on goals of every size, in Holistic Management, you set one goal for each whole. A whole might be a company, company division, ranch, family, or individual. Or it might be a community, watershed, region, nation, or even international. It includes the key stakeholders and decision-makers, plus the resources they have available. Wholes can contain other wholes that have their own separate goals — an individual in a company or a farm in a region, for instance.

A blueprint for what you want

A holistic goal is a long-term, overall blueprint for what you want to create. It has three parts:

What, not how

A holistic goal includes only what people want, not how to get it.

People in conflict almost always want similar things. Ranchers and environmentalists both want healthy, beautiful landscapes and sound economies that let them make good livings for their families. Palestinians and Jews both want peaceful communities to raise their children.

By leaving how out of the goal, people can concentrate on what they all want. Very often that's the key to resolving long-standing conflicts and finding a way forward that satisfies everybody.

Committing to the goal

The goal will work to the extent that the participants buy into it. This means that

Getting people to work together and set a goal is sometimes a long, arduous process, especially if they begin as enemies. It's tempting to shortchange this step, or try to impose a goal from the top. Don't do it! The people work that gets done at the beginning builds the foundation of understanding and trust needed for success.

If you absolutely can't get agreement about a goal, you or a group within the whole can set a temporary goal to work toward. Make sure you include as much as you can of the values and goals of the people who aren't participating yet. Then get those folks on board as soon as possible. Tony Tipton says, "I like having my 'enemies' in the planning group, because I learn the most from them and their concerns."

Testing actions and results

Once you form the goal, use it to test whether a particular action will take you toward or away from the results you want. For instance, a new job might pay better, but decrease your family's quality of life.

Sometimes I find it helpful to ignore my good intentions, and simply compare my behaviors and outcomes with my goals and values. Focusing on tangible outcomes helps me bypass any internal propaganda and make an accurate reality check. If I find incongruence, I adjust my behavior, values, or goal.

When people align their goals, values, and actions, amazing synergies often occur. Alignment often takes two or three years. At that point, people gain incredible energy and effectiveness, and move toward or achieve their goals very rapidly.

Setting goals holistically ensures that they are socially, financially, and ecologically sound, and that today's decision won't cause future harm.

Combining HM and NLP goal-setting

Holistic Management's strengths are its inclusiveness and a planning horizon broad enough to include people, money, land, and future generations. You use your holistic goal to test plans and evaluate results. "Will this proposed action take us toward our long-term vision, or away from it? Did the actions we already took work, or not?"

NLP's strengths are the extra information you get from checking and experiencing your goal from many different perspectives, and the process for test-driving your goal and the path that takes you there. You can fine-tune what you want and how to get it before you begin.

By using the NLP process to test-drive and improve your holistic goal, you can get the best of both worlds. You'll get to your goal more easily, you'll like it once you get it, and you'll have the satisfaction of knowing that your goal is good for you, your community, the landscape you depend on, and future generations.

—Joy Livingwell
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Joy Livingwell is a certified NLP Master Practitioner and an NLP developer. She took her first Holistic Management training in 1991. Contact her through

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