I used to write goals every January with my good friend Susan (not her real name), whom I’ve written about lately.  We would each come up with four to six goals for the year, a combination of business and personal objectives, and usually one or two of them would be shared goals, like “run this race” or “climb that mountain.”

We stopped doing it a few years ago, because every time we got together in December and tried to review our goals from the previous year so we could evaluate our progress, two things inevitably happened.  First, we couldn’t find them.  “I thought you kept a copy.”  “No, I thought you did.”  So much for being guided by our goals throughout the year; we couldn’t even remember what they were.

Then we would find them and be surprised by what we had written.   With many of them, the changes we’d been through during the year had made the goal no longer relevant.

I thought these were the only reasons we stopped writing goals, but a couple weeks ago I read a good blog post by Peter Bregman called Consider Not Setting Goals in 2013.  Bregman says the negative consequences of setting goals make them not worth setting, in many cases.

“When we set goals, we’re taught to make them specific and measurable and time-bound,” Bregman says.  “But it turns out that those characteristics are precisely the reasons goals can backfire. A specific, measurable, time-bound goal drives behavior that’s narrowly focused and often leads to either cheating or myopia. Yes, we often reach the goal, but at what cost?”

This makes me think that if Susan and I had tacked those goals to a bulletin board and paid attention to them all year, especially if some organizational incentive plan had forced us to do that, they might have taken us off course.  Goals that became irrelevant during year did so for good reasons.  To stay focused on them might have had severe consequences.

But this goes against everything we’re taught in business, right?  Don’t we have to have goals to keep us focused on achievement?  Bregman says the answer lies in outlining areas of focus instead of specific goals.  In other words, identify the path instead of the outcome; what are the things worth doing?  Instead of a goal like “achieve x percentage in sales growth,” identify an area of focus like “spend more time developing client relationships through networking.”  Instead of a goal like “climb Mount Rainier by July,” outline an area of focus like “spend more time identifying fun activities that will help keep me in shape.”

Areas of focus,  Bregman points out, help us tap into intrinsic motivational factors and keep doing the things we value.  If you think about Covey’s time management matrix, this makes even more sense. Covey says we need to spend more time in “quadrant two,” the area of non-urgent but important things, where we build relationships and develop our potential.  This is the quadrant that tells us what’s important in life, what is worthy of being called an “area of focus.”  And when our environment changes, as it inevitably does, it allows us to shift our expectations of the outcomes we want from that area of focus.

Of course, writing areas of focus instead of goals won’t keep Susan and I from losing the list every year.  But somehow I don’t think we’ll need the list anymore.  If an area of focus is truly worthy of the name, we’ll remember it.

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