Are You Paying Too High a Price to Accomplish Your Goals?

by Roger Reid

They’re as perennial as summer rain and fireworks on the 4th of July—management concepts that are constantly recycled, not only for those who may be reading them for the first time, but also often touted as a “refresher” for the seasoned pro. Currently, the subject is goals, and management newsletters and business blogs are buzzing with tips and techniques on how to choose objectives that are realistic, challenging, measurable, and most important, time-bound. Many authors are delivering their advice along with the well-worn metaphor of comparing the unfortunate goal-shunning majority to a ship without a rudder, its certain destiny to become nothing more than a rusting hulk on an unforgiving ocean.

All good things . . . right?

Usually. In fact, most of the time. But there are exceptions.

And before you prematurely discount what follows as just another philosophical derivative of “life is a journey, not a destination,” understand that I’m a definite proponent of using goals to identify, prioritize, and measure the things in life we want to accomplish.

And then there’s that exception I mentioned . . .

Those who are goal-obsessed—consumed with uncommon dedication to their life’s objectives.

While we tend to associate “goal-obsession” with the truly gifted—those born with extraordinary abilities and talents that places them at the forefront of their craft or industry—it also affects those without staggering IQ’s or a natural aptitude for success. These are the people who compete with sheer drive and overwhelming determination. They arrive early and work late. They forego vacations in favor of “catching up on the paperwork.” They watch their kids grow up as strangers, and their wives become little more than someone they plan to grow old with.

Sound familiar?

Driven by the promise of a better tomorrow, they are ambitious strivers, zealous advocates of the adage, “plan your work and work your plan.” Politely labeled as passionate, their lives are consumed by a fanatical focus on a goal-driven future, and in exchange, readily compromise their awareness and appreciation for the present—the proverbial “here and now.”

Granted, real accomplishment is seldom achieved without sacrifice, and every goal, whether realized or not, comes with a price. Pursuing a goal often means re-prioritizing other facets of our life—including those having intrinsic or psychic value we can easily, even conveniently, overlook. Charitably calling it an opportunity cost, we promise to “make it up in the future,” after reaching our lofty objectives.

But when our goals cause us to lose perspective, it’s time to reevaluate the cost of our pursuits.

And that’s my not-so-subtle way of introducing what is usually the most overlooked yet critical component in most goal-setting presentations—the conscious act of recognizing what is already working in your life, especially the people, places, and things you should never put at risk.

It’s human nature to discount the stable, nurturing, and comfortable parts of our lives. The fact they already exist—as opposed to something we don’t have and are longing for—makes them ideal candidates to take for granted. For some, it’s their spouse, the kids, their family. For others, it’s financial security, or the part of the county they live in, or how they spend their free time. The danger comes from being so caught up in the day-to-day striving for success, we never consider the possibility that with less attention, devotion, or commitment, these cherished touchstones can easily disappear.

The possibility of paying too much to achieve a goal is a very real threat. It can begin and continue unnoticed—until it’s too late. The key is to identify the non-negotiable fundamentals in your life and protect them with a commitment to keep them whole and healthy for the long-term.

The next time you begin a goal planning session, try these suggestions:

Subject each goal to a rigorous interrogation. Question everything about it. Why is it important? Is it worth the cost? Will the result truly be useful or beneficial? And most important, is it really your goal, or  will its importance be measured by the amount of influence it has on others—your boss, family, the competition? I’m not saying influence isn’t importance, but pursuing a goal for spite, revenge, or to impress others is a double waste of time—first, from the time invested to accomplish an ultimately useless objective, and second, from the lost opportunity to achieve something of real value. The ultimate test for any goal is to consider its impact on your future from the standpoint of “Time Well Spent.”

Before finalizing any goal, evaluate how it fits in the “Big Picture.” Practicing good goal ecology is the key to establishing a balanced life. Goals that complement each other and “fit” within your life-theme will help prevent conflicts between personal beliefs, values, and actions. This congruency test works across the board, whether we’re talking about financial objectives, health, or relationship goals. Preserving a balanced life is much easier when your goals work together, since taking action toward any of your goals is always in concert with your other objectives.

Always have a primary goal to maintain the established relationships, interests, and values in your life. Give them the priority they deserve by imagining what your life would be like without them. Realize that one or more of your new goals may have to be modified or even compromised to prevent the familiar and foundational aspects of your life from suffering the effects of unintentional indifference. Our natural tendency is to prioritize our time and attention in favor of the new and compelling. But never allow the slow but sure drift of focus, or the outright obsessive preoccupation with any of your goals result in the most important facets of your life becoming an expendable part of your future.

Avoid having too many goals. This doesn’t mean you can’t have twenty goals. It just means you shouldn’t try to pursue all of them at the same time. Having goals in reserve is an important step in creating a long-term life plan. It helps you better visualize the road ahead and makes it easier to recognize unnecessary diversions and side-trips you’ll have to re-track later. Start by reviewing your goals with the idea that three primary business objectives will usually keep you very busy, and unless you have a staff of competent people to whom you can delegate much of the research and follow-up, five goals is usually the limit for all but the most gifted individuals. And no, having more than five goals doesn’t mean you’re gifted. It more than likely means your life is either out of balance or you simply have goals you’re not working on, which can become a source of frustration and distraction. Remember, three goals for an effective, balanced life, five if you’re a super-star, and more if you want to brag about how much you have on your plate, yet never seem to accomplish anything.

I’ll leave you with this . . .

Socrates argued that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. I’ll offer the counterpoint that subjecting every part of your life to evaluation, measurement, and control can kill spontaneity, shackle creativity, and blind you to the things of value and importance already present in your life. Certainly, use goals to qualify your time and resources, and keep you focused on highest priority activities. And without diminishing those values, make sure any process used to increase your effectiveness does not also prevent you from experiencing—and appreciating—the excitement and satisfaction that can come from simply living in the here and now, one day at a time.