One thing we are constantly being told is that we should have clear goals. I entirely agree with this, but I do wonder how many people’s goals actually bring any additional clarity to their work. I’m sure you have had the experience of setting a goal and then finding that, far from bringing a new sense of clarity, it just becomes one more thing that gets swallowed up in all the other things you have to do.
The reason I have been wondering about this is because I have become aware that goals are often seen solely in terms of defining things we are going to do. Isn’t that what goals are supposed to do? Yes, but it’s only half the story. To bring real clarity to our work, a goal also needs to define what we are not going to do as a result of selecting that goal. A goal represents a choice: “Among all the things that I could do, this is what I actually am going to do.” Our goals in other words should define the limits of what we are going to do.
The best way to get a feel for this is to compare it to going into a restaurant and ordering from the menu. Frequently these days menus contain so many choices that it can take quite some time to decide what to order: everything sounds so delicious. Eventually we make our choice and give the waiter our order. We are in effect saying: “I’m going to have the steak, and I’m not going to have the veal, the fish, the lamb, etc. etc.” Saying yes to one meal is the equivalent of saying no to all the other possible meals, however much we think we might enjoy them.
As in a restaurant, so in life – whenever we say “yes” to one thing we are saying “no” to a whole variety of alternative courses of action. At least that’s what it should be like. But for some reason in life when we say “yes” to one thing, we forget about saying “no” to all the other things. The result is that our goals fail to achieve the main point of a goal – to establish the limits of our field of action. Our goals should not just be statements of what we are going to do; they should be statements of what we are going to confine ourselves to doing.
Many of you may have read Betty Edwards excellent book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. In it she describes how to draw the space round an object rather than the object itself. This is a way of helping us to see the object as it really is rather than allowing our preconceptions about it to dictate the way we draw it. It’s the same with our goals – we need to draw the space round our goals so that we can see clearly what that goal commits us to not doing.
Take one of your existing goals and try to define it exclusively in terms of what you are not going to do. So if your goal is to learn some French for your next holiday, you might write: “I am not going to do anything between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Mondays to Fridays except learn French, I am not going to allow myself to be distracted by trying to learn any other subject until after my holiday, I am not going to speak anything but French to my friend Dominique, I am not going to check my email during the time I am learning French, I am not going to read anything except French in the evening after 6 p.m., and so on…”