Three Mistakes We Make with Goal Setting and Ideas on How to Fix Them

Not long ago it dawned on me that for most of my life I have basically wandered aimlessly hoping my dreams would just come true. Meaning, I legitimately walked around like some Disney princess (often singing) hoping for the best case scenario to occur because – let’s be honest most of their lives just “worked out.” Mind you, I was wandering in the general direction I wanted to go but there was no specificity to my method. I discovered, as most millennials have, just going to college and getting a degree wasn’t enough. I convinced myself that I had goals, but they were far too ambiguous and rooted in the wrong motivations.

During my career – in a true blind leading the blind fashion – I’ve spent a great deal of my time working with employees of all ages identify and clarify their goals. It wasn’t until about 2 years ago that I had a personal ‘aha’ moment that has helped me make monumental movements in my professional and personal life.

So what was wrong? This was something easier asked than answered, but I managed to narrow it down to a couple of major mistakes. They may seem obvious, but I figured why not write them down?

1. A Salary is Not a Goal – Let’s Take Wage Out of the Equation.

So, I know we all “know” this. Money is not the source of happiness, but it always seems to be the driving force when people sit down and share their goals with me. I started wondering why was this always the case? Then I started dissecting the statement and I repeatedly heard, “I need to make more money.”

I started asking more questions about why they are tying their goals to money. Our conversations started quickly transitioning to financial troubles, payments, family emergencies, etc. In many cases, they were actually content in their current role, but the desperation to have more income was the driving force to their desire for upward movement.

That is not the right motivation for a goal.

I have wanted to achieve goals with the motivation of money because there never seemed to be enough. How do we address this? What is the solution?

The answer was provided to me in a single word, ‘budget.’

I had a reply with one word, too, ‘gross.’

What is that REALLY going to do for me? How would this help, I needed MORE money, not something restricting what I was spending. Well, I decided to consider the idea and did some math….and the results were staggering. On top of the normal issues like bills, credit card debt and student loan payments, I was living something of an, ahem, excessive lifestyle.

To give you an idea, in a single 30 day period, I spent $1,200 on eating out alone.


As terrifying as that fact was, what was even more terrifying was I had been operating for so long in complete ignorance of that fact.

You’re probably thinking, ‘this is definitely not what I want to hear.’ The trouble is, it’s what people need to learn the most. When you live your life on a budget, you are not only making wiser decisions, you are slowly alleviating stress by creating a plan and following it. For example, back in 2015, SunTrust Bank released a study stating that 35% couples of couples experiencing stress in their relationships said the cause was money dispute.

I think it wasn’t until recently I found an appropriate substitute understanding for what money actually is. Money is not the source of happiness, but simply a tool to make life manageable. It’s the oil in the machine. When your machine is properly oiled (not with too much) but the appropriate amount in the correct spots, life becomes easier. Your focus can then shift onto more aspirational things – like goals that make you happy, not just pay your bills.

If you need help finding resources how to better understand financial well being and money management, I suggest exploring Dave Ramsey‘s website. He provides free content and resources and well as ways to find those that can help you navigate your financial troubles and questions. If my streak of writing continues, I’ll probably find myself jotting down how I created and managed my budget to help add some balance to my life.

2. A Vision (or Dream) is Not a Goal – Make Your Vision a Map to a Destination Instead

We’ve all heard, “work hard and your dreams will come true.” While there is some truth to it, it generally is an incomplete way to approach a goal. So many of us, myself included, are SO great at picturing ourselves in a situation or position in which we think we should be. How many times have you said to yourself, “If that was me, I’d…”

All the time.

It’s a natural human inclination and we need to stop it. You simply picturing yourself in that scenario will get you nowhere. If you can do it better, get there and do it better.

I spent much of my twenties dreaming of being at the level in which I wanted to work. I wanted to be in a position of significance in my company (at the time) where I was managing multiple units with hundreds (and hopefully thousands) of employees under my umbrella of influence. Sounds great, right? The idea is great, and it is still apart of the overall vision I have for myself. A vision, however, is nothing without a plan, and that’s the element that is so often left out.

I started thinking, how do I create a plan? There are a couple of steps after you have your vision established.

  1. Imagine yourself living the vision you have for yourself.
  2. Identify the distinguishing behaviors you would be exhibiting if you were living your vision. *Disclaimer: many students say, “I’m already doing those things. Why hasn’t my vision come to fruition?” Don’t kid yourself. There is something missing if you’ve not achieved your vision. What I’ve found with my teams over the years is they aren’t communicating their behaviors to the appropriate parties to get credit for their work.*
  3. After you’ve narrowed down the behaviors, it’s important to find ways to tangibly incorporate them into your life. A very basic and elementary example would be a healthy person eats healthy and exercises every day.
  4. The fun part is next – the actual plan. Create a schedule that allows you to incorporate those behaviors into your routine. If you have a schedule that varies from day to day (like me) you’ll need to be a little more intentional with your time.

If your goals are more long term, these steps still apply. An additional thing to consider is how you map out your vision over time. I purchased a 12 month, 3′ x 4′ dry erase calendar so that I could map out milestones and hold myself accountable.

Everyone has their own methods, but that’s what works for me. The most important thing is to make sure you write your goals down. That’s the first step to progress.

3. Being The Winner is Not a Goal – Help Others Win Along the Way

We live in a highly competitive culture. As I sit typing this discussion I recall flashbacks to grade school, junior high and high school. Sporting events (not my own of course – I was a fat kid), debate meets, high school marching band, academic events (more my style) and they all ingrained in my peers and I the importance of winning. Even still we also always heard: “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

Yeah, right.

I remember sitting back at football games listening to the dads and other fans around me coaching from their seats, yelling and mocking the job the coaches were doing. It was never about sportsmanship. It was always about winning.

These trends continued on through college applications, interviews for internships and eventually for jobs – all of which had limited spots. Almost no one was ever sat down by their parents to be taught the lesson of helping each other win. Life was a zero sum game.

+1 for me. -1 for you.

One of my favorite books of all time, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, is highlighted in my courses I teach each semester. He discusses the idea that successful people think win, win.

It is a really great thought, however, a little more difficult than you might think to put into practice. I’ve spent most of my career trying to outshine many of the people with whom I worked. As talented as I made myself appear to be with my success as an individual contributor, I struggle to admit that it has yet to get me where I want to go. It wasn’t until recently where my motivations have shifted to be not about me, but about the greater good for the team with whom I work.

Now – I’m not perfect. I still have a long way to go because that natural instinct of winning comes close to taking over from time to time. However, being aware of the issue is a large part of overcoming it.

A few job positions back, we spent a lot of time discussing the concept of having an inward vs. an outward focus. It’s been 2 years since that dialogue occurred and I have yet to forget about it. When we focus our motivation on positively impacting the people, our situation, or the world around us we inherently find more joy in our day to day lives. Thinking selflessly while keeping your goals on your mental horizon might sound a bit strange, but I assure you it makes the journey FAR more pleasurable.

Being THE winner should never be your goal. Your goal should be more focused on the success of everyone around you. The rewards for those behaviors are exponentially more impactful to your life.

Am I an expert on goals? Absolutely not. I’ve made all of these mistakes hundreds of times over. However, I’ve found that the only way to become an expert in anything is by repetition, consistent self-assessment of progress, and by always trying to do a little better each day. I make both short term and long term goals frequently. These goals have several different angles, but the most important thing to remember is that your goals, whatever they are, should be in line with your personal values. I’ll save that discussion for another day.

Until next time,


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