As I talk about setting goals for the New Year, I get a lot of questions like these: “How do I know if I’m being too aggressive with my goals? How do I know if my goals are realistic?”
If you’re asking these questions, you’re already on the right track. Why? Because you’re already talking about goals you suspect, assume, or know will stretch you.
I like to answer these sorts of questions by finding out where someone’s goals relate to three different zones. I use this same technique when evaluating my own goals.
1. Am I Pushing Outside My Comfort Zone?
For a goal to matter, it has to stretch us. That means that it has to stand somewhere outside our comfort zone. If you know exactly how to attain the goal, it’s probably not far enough.
I recently watched a documentary about amateur ultra marathoners who were running a thousand kilometers across four different deserts. One of the runners who had done only a few small races before decided to sign up.
What’s instructive is why. He’d never done anything like that before, he said, but he knew he’d figure it out once he committed.
I’m not saying you need to sign up to run hundreds of miles in four of world’s most inhospitable places. But if you have all the financial, emotional, and physical resources you need right now to accomplish your goal, it’s probably not challenging enough to be compelling.
We know from the science of goal setting that rising to the challenge of a goal creates huge emotional gains for us. We don’t get them from phoning it in. So, for instance, if you’ve run a 5K and you want to stretch to a 10, maybe that’s really not the best goal. What about pushing for a half marathon—or even a full?
2. Does Achieving My Goal Lead Me into My Discomfort Zone?
For a goal to be meaningful its attainment should lie somewhere outside our comfort zone—in the discomfort zone. You’ll know you’re there when you start feeling emotions we normally consider negative, things like fear and doubt.
When rightly understood these supposedly negative emotions work like indicator lights telling us we’ve arrived. When we don’t see the path, or we’re unsure about having what it takes to reach the goal, then we’re closing in on a goal worth trying for.
The path won’t become clear until you commit. Just set your intention and get started.
Trying to work it all out in advance through detailed planning is just a fancy way of procrastination. Sticking with the running example, why not just download a simple marathon training regimen and get going—today?
But you need to be smart about this. For instance, in the business environment there’s a big difference between setting bold goals and managing up. It might be unwise to publicly stand for a certain goal that’s on your personal goal list. There’s nothing wrong with having a public number that’s in your comfort zone and your personal stretch goal that’s beyond it.
3. Am I Veering into the Delusional Zone?
There’s a difference between discomfort and delusion—me thinking I could play on the PGA senior tour, for instance. Anyone who’s played golf with me knows exactly how delusional that is.
What about the guy who decided to run across four deserts? That sounds pretty delusional, right? It does until you consider the fact that he had always been fairly athletic and was highly determined.
But how do you know you’re getting into crazy town?
Sometimes it’s just math. In his one-day EntreLeadership event I heard Dave Ramsey mention a sales employee who set a goal of calling X number of new leads in a certain period of time. Dave called foul and showed him how there wasn’t enough available time to actually accomplish the goal. But going through an exercise like that can get us to something in the realm of possibility.
Other times talking with a spouse or someone close to you can help.
Goals in the discomfort zone challenge. Goals in the delusional zone just discourage. What I like to do is set a goal that’s delusional and then dial it back a few clicks. Then I bounce of delusional and land somewhere in my discomfort zone.
What Are Goals For?
As we try to set goals that are challenging but still realistic, it’s important to remember what goals are for in the first place. They are about getting things done, yes. But it’s more than that. A goal is not just about what you accomplish. It’s about what you become.
Goals are about growing. A good goal causes us to grow and mature. That’s because every goal is about the journey as much as—even more than—the destination. And that’s exactly why setting goals outside the comfort zone is so important.
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