We all desire to live up to our full potential and achieve our dreams.
We may desire to build an app, write a novel, or give a rousing speech at a conference.
But for most of us, these ambitious visions of the future are not ever realized.
Because we are crafting goals in the wrong way and in the wrong order. We set our goals that are too specific too early, then give up when we fail to realize them quickly.
But if we took a different approach, and framed our goals just a little bit differently, I believe we may be more likely to accomplish what we dream.
The problem with setting goals
When we are taught to set goals, we are told to make them SMART:
- Specific - A clear definition of success and accomplishment
- Measurable - You can measure progress towards completing the goal
- Achievable - The goal is realistic and attainable
- Relevant - The goal matters to you and aligns with your purpose
- Time-bound - The goal has a set deadline of when it should be accomplished
SMART goals are based on the pioneering scientific research of Dr. Edwin Locke and Dr. Gary Latham who found that setting specific goals led to higher performance. As a result, this style of goal-setting has become the de-facto standard in the workplace.
But with SMART goals, we are crafting goals with no regard to our intrinsic motivation, or our desire to perform an activity because it’s internally rewarding. In fact, setting specific goals can damper our innate curiosity and inner motivation, especially in the early stages of a new project.
The way we’ve been trained to craft goals at work is why many of us fail to achieve our dreams outside of it. We define our goals based on specific outcomes too quickly, failing to realize the difficulty of these goals. And when we face the inevitable setbacks and obstacles, our motivation falters and we give up.
But instead of applying SMART goals to our ambitions, we should apply an often overlooked goal-setting technique: open-ended goals.
From specific to open-ended goals
Open-ended goals have no deadline; there is no way to measure incremental progress towards achieving them. Instead, they encourage an experimentative, “try your best” mentality to progress, envoking playfulness to improve.
Open-ended goals get a bad rap because they are objetively worse at productively accomplishing a goal. However, they do have a significant positive benefit: open-ended goals are extremely effective at inducing flow state, that “deeply rewarding, enjoyable, and harmonious state of focus” where time passes faster than normal.
People rate flow as one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences in life. And bonus: after experiencing flow, your levels of intrinsic motivation shoot through the roof as you seek to re-live that experience.
As a result, we need to make more of our goals open-ended, especially at the early stages of a new project.
Imagine you’re at the gym for a workout session. You could set your workout goal one of two ways:
- Open-ended goal - “let’s see how many exercises I can try”
- Specific goal - “I want to increase my deadlift, squat, and benchpress by 10 lbs”
If you’ve established a regular habit of working out, the specific goals will be much more effective at setting new personal records.
But if you’re new to the gym and are just building this new habit, it is much more important to foster intrinsic motivation and get yourself to love working out.
How to set open-ended goals: introducing meaningful moments
To create open-ended goals, we can leverage the power of visualization, an incredibly effective technique for building self-confidence, lowering stress, and enhancing motivation.
We can focus on identifying meaningful moments: spontaneous future events that will feel incredibly fulfilling and satisfying to experience.
A meaningful moment is an event that is happens to you and is outside of your control. You can’t schedule it on your calendar or measure incremental progress towards it.
Instead, meaningful moments happen spontaneously from interactions with others, surprising and delighting you.
A meaningful moment is when a stranger at the gym compliments you for your great lifting technique.
Or when someone you’ve never met purchases your handmade pillow from your Etsy store.
Or when you wake up to an email describing how your writing helped improve someone’s life.
Experiencing these moments helps us define the “why” we are looking to do something. The are the social validation and proof that what we’re doing is working, and as a result, fuel our intrinsic motivation to keep going.
By defining these moments in advance, before they happen, we create an open-ended goal to strive towards. It removes the pressure for hitting a specific deadline, instead allowing us to do the work for the love of the work, knowing in the back of our minds that the work will be worth it someday.
Tips for defining your own meaningful moments
A quality meaningful moment has the following characteristics:
- New - A meaningful moment is an event you haven’t experienced before. It should be novel, exciting, and fresh.
- Rewarding - Once you experience this moment, you should feel fulfilled and rewarded. It should “make your day”.
- Outside your control - The meaningful moment is initiated by somebody else, not you.
- Purposeful - You believe the moment connects with your higher level of purpose.
- Slightly scary - The best meaningful moments are outside of your comfort zone; you’ll have to put yourself out there a little bit. It should be a little bit scary, but not too scary.
Focusing on a small, future moment helps you de-risk the future. By defining an incremental next step, you can “try before you buy” on your ultimate, dream scenario.
If you craft a meaningful moment and you don’t feel an intrinsic motivation boost after it happens, you’ll have received a pretty clear signal that this ultimate dream scenario may not be what you truly desire. You can then confidently move on and focus on accomplishing something else instead of being caught thinking “what if”.
A well-crafted meaningful moment allows you to apply second-order thinking to identify any insecurities or blockers that may be holding you back. By identifying what scares you the most, you can tackle your fears head-on and progress towards your goals.
Experiencing flow state increases an individual’s intrinsic motivation.
Setting an open-ended goal generates significantly higher levels of flow.
Therefore, at the beginning of a project, we should set open-ended goals in the form of meaningful moments to boost our levels of intrinsic motivation.
Then, once our intrinsic-motivation is established, we can set specific, SMART goals to complete the project.
Hello! I'm an entrepreneurial product designer that helps product teams understand their customers, work better together, and improve key business metrics. If you enjoyed this article, please follow me on Twitter and subscribe to my newsletter to get the latest: