Until recently, the process of setting goals wasn’t a conscious effort for me. I’ve always had overarching goals, but the details were vague, blurry around the edges. “Have a successful career.” “Live in a city.” “Be happy.” “Travel.” “Build meaningful relationships.” “Be healthy.” In the past, I rarely set a hard deadline or time frame for my goals or mapped a detailed route to achieving my goals.
Here’s an example:
Shortly after I graduated from college, I worked as a research engineer at a federal research lab in Hanover, New Hampshire. For many engineering graduates, this was a dream position. For me, this job had many appealing elements: the lab was located close to my hometown and near friends and family, I knew and respected the researchers who worked at the lab because I collaborated with many of them during an internship the summer before, high quality of research, networking opportunities, amazing mentors and, of course a regular paycheck and benefits.
Even with all of these positives, something felt off. I can’t pinpoint when exactly I knew this job wasn’t for me, but I felt an uneasiness all along. Imagine you’re rushing out of the door already five minutes late when you realize you forgot something important but you can’t figure out what you left behind. You know that nagging feeling you get when you know you’re really going to need whatever it is you forgot? That’s how I felt.
Despite my apprehension, I needed a positive mindset going into my new job. I told myself (and those close to me) the job was temporary–a stepping stone to my next professional venture. I distinctly remember telling my mom that I would be shocked if I stayed at the lab for more than a year (ha!). That was it–my goal was to leverage this new position and then move onto something new within the next year. In hindsight, I stumbled because I thought my roadmap leading to this obscure, new job was complete after the origin and destination were identified. I hardly gave any thought to the intermediate stops/subgoals along the journey.
For four and half years I worked at the lab as a research engineer. For four and a half years I had that unsettling feeling that I forgot something important but I was already running late. For four and half years I felt stuck. Yes, I’m shocked that I stayed that long. But I know now that big goals–the destinations–take time to reach. Holy smokes, they take forever to reach, don’t they!? I didn’t factor in the stop to get out and stretch my legs and look around, or the stops for gas and snacks. I didn’t think about the detours. My roadmap didn’t have clearly marked, intermediate goals, but it needed them–lots of them. It needed alternate routes too; it needed flexibility to explore other opportunities. My roadmap needed to guide me get out of ruts and help me prepare for “What next?” and “Where to next?”
Naturally, I wish I had pulled out my box of sharpies and color coded that dang map; I wish I had marked it up and planned for the detours. Because if I had mapped it out and set a plan, I might have made changes quicker and it might have been easier to alter my route and notice new opportunities. But I didn’t and that’s okay. Life isn’t about knowing all of the tricks or making the “right” decisions at the beginning. It’s about having the tools and awareness to get me to my next step or destination, right?
Instead of simply identifying my overarching goals, I’m using these three (new-to-me) ideas to sharpen the focus of my route to achieve my goals–to help bring the details into focus:
- Always move forward. There is no way to plan for all of the unknowns; adjust to whatever comes my way and then onward and upward!
- Write it down. If I’m passionate about a specific subgoal (e.g., train for a half marathon as part of my overarching goal to “Be healthy.”), write it down–put it on the map! I can be flexible about the details, but it must be in the plan.
- Ask myself: Where are the opportunities and how can I capitalize on them? This requires creativity and flexibility, but there are openings/opportunities everywhere. If I can identify them and be ready (and open) to seize them then good things will follow.
And a reminder: Enjoy the journey!
What about you? How do you set goals for yourself? Any tricks or tips? Also, what didn’t work for you when it came to setting goals?
What goals are you working towards these days? Do you break them down into subgoals? What are your subgoals? I’d really love to hear!
PS. “It’s OK to be sad.” because sometimes the journey can be bumpy.