Goal setting

As we start a new year, it is the time for resolutions and goal setting to be all the rage. So, I felt repurposing this information from my book Godspeed and Guideposts for your Journey would be a timely topic.

We need to set goals; goals that are long term or short term; that are small or large. These are our objectives, targets, purposes, intentions, and plans that we intend to achieve. We also set goals to inspire ourselves and to measure our progress and accomplishments.

“The tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach.” – Benjamin Mays, American Minister and Civil Rights Icon

I first learned of SMART goals in 1990 when I read Stephen Covey’s book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. SMART goals were defined as: Specific- not general, Measurable- so you know how you stand against the goal, Attainable – something you have control over and can achieve, Relevant- something appropriate and meaningful to you, and Time-based, within a defined time frame.

A great example of goal setting I like to reference is NASA’s efforts to put a man on the moon. Prior to John Kennedy’s famous speech in May of 1961, the stated goal of NASA was “to achieve maximum effectiveness in space”. How does that goal compare with the SMART guidelines? It is not specific, measurable, nor tied to any time frame. However, JFK’s speech he states, “We will put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the end of the decade.” That is certainly specific, measurable, attainable (although many doubted it was at the time), relevant to the needs of the country and within a defined time frame. History reflects this goal was achieved and a remarkable accomplishment for NASA and our country – at a time when our nation’s morale needed it.

Scott O’Grady spoke at a convention I attended years ago. He was the fighter pilot shot down over Bosnia behind enemy lines in June 1995. He was sharing that life experience during his speech. He talked about goal setting and how it played a key role in his staying alive and avoiding capture. He survived for six days, alone, by setting specific goals for the day. Every day goal #1 was to stay alive and remain free. Then he set smaller goals like putting distance away from where his parachute landed, finding water, finding food, climbing as high as possible to communicate by radio, heading to a cleared area for rescue, etc. He said that by breaking everything down into smaller SMART goals, he could stay focused. If he had looked at the whole picture of his dire situation and tried to comprehend a total solution, he would have been overwhelmed by it all and likely would have been captured.

In goal setting we need to be flexible with the option to adjust. We will often need to correct our journey’s path as we move along it. Sticking with an exact path can be difficult as there will be things we cannot control. There is the analogy of a strong wind blowing and that which is rigid will snap and break; those things that are flexible will bend with the wind; and when the winds die down and calm returns, the flexible will rise again.

We should align our professional goals with our personal goals and not the other way around. Our personal goals are our foundation and the professional goals need to be what gets intertwined and reconciled against that foundation. A key to finding balance is having one side as the basis to balance against (personal) and only adjusting the other side (professional) as opposed to adjusting both sides. Balance isn’t ‘either/or’; it is ‘and.’

Learn to triage goals, prioritize them. We will never be able to accomplish everything we want. It is just impossible given a finite amount of time and resources. Some things in life cost time, some cost money and some cost both. Decide what is important enough to spend time on. When we triage our goals, what survives becomes the focus and other things are left to wither away. Some call this the ‘Law of Releasing’ – we must get rid of what we do not necessarily need, to make room for what we really do need. By prioritizing our goals and planning around those priorities we determine what is most important – not others.

“Things which matter most should never be at the mercy of things which matter least” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German Writer and Statesman

Should Christians set goals? Setting goals is not unspiritual. Some people wrongly think that goal setting is unspiritual because it shows a lack of trust. It’s not right to plan. Instead, people should wait for God to lead them. James is often quoted to support this argument, (James 4:13-15): Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town, spend a year there doing business, and make a profit- you have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow. You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears. Instead you should say, “If the Lord wills it, we shall live to do this or that.”

God doesn’t want us to forge ahead in pride without reflecting on His direction. Setting goals and consulting with Him shows that we trust Him and believe that He will lead us while we are moving forward. Throughout the Bible, God directly led people to set and pursue goals of His choosing. The Bible refers to the “call of God” and the “will of God” just to name a few. Consider:

  • God telling Jonah to go to Nineveh; Abraham to travel and settle in a distant land; or Paul to plant churches.
  • Paul’s intention to testify of Jesus before Caesar.
  • Noah building the ark.
  • Joseph providing for Egypt and his family during the famine.
  • Nehemiah rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem.

Scripture calls us to a higher standard in setting goals. The SMART goals we set as Christians must be in accordance with God’s will and under His leadership. We should be inspired to achieve and accomplish; be flexible to adjust; and triage our goals around His priorities and what is relevant to Him.

As we start a new year, let’s remember the condition James says we should employ to qualify all our plans – If the Lord wills it.

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