Goals vs Areas of Focus

We have been told for years that goals are the road to success. There's been everything from reputable research through to pop psychology explaining why goals are so important. The snap shot summary is:

  • Without a clear idea of where you are going, it's unlikely you will get there.
  • Setting goals that are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time Bound) makes it much more likely that the goal will be attained.
  • The goal by itself means nothing. Successful people also take massive action toward their goals.

I know many people who are great goal setters. It works really well for them. Goals help them get motivated and focussed and they regularly exceed the targets they set for themselves. But goals don't work for everyone, or in all situations.

More recently there has been a significant body of research suggesting that goals have a dark side and may not be as useful, productive or relevant as previously thought. Some of the factors include:

  • If a goal is not reached exactly (like it ran late or didn't quite reach the specific target), some people find that extremely frustrating and demotivating. They subsequently lose a lot of energy in self criticism due to the unmet goal.
  • In many circumstances, quality of work is sacrificed for reaching the target. While the numbers are achieved, how they are achieved is not always desirable. Some people will cut corners, act unethically, or neglect other important focus because for them the idea of not reaching the goal is worse than doing it poorly.
  • Specific goals can sucker individuals and organisations into an way of operating that is inflexible and unresponsive to changing conditions. Essentially they become too focussed on achieving the goal and their perception narrows.
  • There are other interesting organisational impacts emerging. If you are keen to know more you might like to check out this paper.

On top of this there are personalities and situations that don't lend themselves to goal setting. In these circumstances, goals can be counter productive. For example:

  • I, like many others have a strong negative reaction to being told what to do. At my worst even if it's me telling me what to do, and I think it's a good idea, my default reaction is resistance. When I set goals for myself, it's actually negatively motivating, and I have to play all sorts of mental games with myself to make progress.
  • If you don't know enough about what you are trying to achieve, it is very difficult to make meaningful SMART goals. The plane build I wrote about last week is like that. I don't know enough to be able to meaningfully estimate the time it will take to complete a component.
  • Sometimes a broad, soft focus is the most appropriate response to circumstances (I'll say more about this in a future article). If the operating conditions are highly dynamic, a narrow, specific focus can get you into a world of trouble.
  • Some goals are about creating new habits or just getting more focussed. Consistency over time, just showing up and taking action are more effective than driving for something specific.

That's where Areas of Focus come in. Rather than setting a specific goal an area of focus simply determines where you will focus your energy and attention. For those of us that don't like to be told what to do the softer focus brings greater energy and enthusiasm to related tasks. 

If you are a habitual and successful goal setter, I certainly wouldn't recommend you change what you are doing, but if you have not found goals to be useful, you might like to choose an area of focus.

Ask yourself - Where can I most fruitfully direct my energy and attention? Why is this area of focus important right now? Am I clear about what the vision is for this area of focus? Who else needs to be involved and how can I make it clear to them?

Once your area of focus is decided, the same rules apply as for goals - turn up and take massive action. That's the secret ingredient that makes stuff possible. If you want a great and inspiring example of massive action to get a result check out Jack Andraka, a teenager who is making significant progress in cancer research. The volume of work he has undertaken is impressive.