3 Questions to Help You Set Deadlines for Your Personal Goals (and how to remain accountable to them)

The Twelve of Nevermber - the date for your goals.Many clients tell me that they find it easier to work to an externally set deadline. Personal projects seem to drift along without end, especially when life gets in the way. So what can be done about it? The short answer is to set your own deadline and build in accountability to the process. In this brief post I offer three simple questions that I ask clients. These questions will help you to overcome procrastination, set your own deadlines and increase your motivation.

When would it be too late, to achieve your goal?

  • 1. By what date will you be disappointed that you have not completed this project or reached this goal? In other words ‘what date’s too late?’

This gives a possible end date by which procrastination has gone too far. A goal is really only a goal if it does have a target date. Until then it’s just wishful thinking. An end-point allows you to move out of the ‘intention phase’ and to begin making concrete plans.

Now that you have a latest possible date, it helps to review the reasons. How come this feels too late? If you pass this date, how do you imagine you feel? What are the other negative associations with passing this date? What are the negative consequences of dragging things out until the last-minute? It helps to get something in black and white, so make a list. This becomes something that you can add to and review from time to time. Sticking to your goal will help you to avoid all of this down the line.

What’s your delighted date?

  • 2. For you to be absolutely delighted and elated, by what would you have to meet this goal?

Together with the first question, you now have range for the target date for your goal. the nest change is to inject a little realism.

What date is most realistic to complete your project?

There’s a phrase I use in coaching that I use to preface questions: ‘Knowing yourself as you do’. Coaching should be from a position of realism and self-knowledge. In the ubiquitous SMART goals, the A and the R represent Achievable and Realistic.

  • 3. So, knowing yourself as you do, what would be the most realistic date, between your ‘disappointed’ and ‘delighted’ deadlines for you to complete this goal/project?

This allows you to take into account obstacles, or just aspects of everyday life. The example I often use is starting a healthy eating plan on 23rd December when you also want to enjoy Christmas.

Goal completion: Delighted to Satisfied to Disappointed

Not only do these three questions give you a range of dates to use, they also have an emotional value attached, which helps to address some of the impetus that comes with external goals. This may be enough for you to pick a date, put it in to your diary, program the count down on to your phone or stick a note to the front of the fridge. The question then becomes, how do you maintain the momentum? Aside from engaging the services of a life coach will keep you accountable to your goals, there are techniques you can use by yourself.

The first step is to acknowledge the importance of this target date. If you nurture the attitude that it can move if something else comes along, then it will keep moving. Think about what you do if you are no likely to meet an externally set goal? What’s your process? As soon as you know your are not able to meet the original deadline, you estimate how much longer you would need and then contact the outside person to renegotiate a new deadline. However, the odds are that there will be some room for manoeuvre but not much. It’s important that you use the same criteria to re-set your own goals. If you don’t the over-arching message is ‘this is not important enough’. If you make a habit of reinforcing the ‘not important enough’ message it’s unlikely that you will meet the goal.

Using a formalised procedure for goal-setting

Some people find acronyms useful, others loathe them. There are a lot of them about, with SMART and GROW being the most famous. My own addition to the goal-setting acronyms is GO-FLOW. It’s a development of the GROW acronym. I came up with to fit in with the water-based theme of my book Don’t Wait For Your Ship to Come In. . . Swim Out to Meet It!  GO-FLOW stands for: Goal, Observation, Feelings, Limitations, Options, Will. For more information see: Going For Your Goals or Going with the Flow.

There are many goal setting tips on this site (See: Goal-setting Posts ). The important thing is to find a formalised system to help you keep track of the goals. One development of the SMART goals formula I use is SMARTER: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Enthusiastically Phrased and Reviewable. Goals evolve as we progress, especially with regard to achievability and realism.  However if you need to readjust target dates it shouldn’t be done with a shrug of the shoulders. it should go through a formal process, even the act of putting the new date on a calendar or in your diary. ‘Whenever I can fit it’ means the goal is unlikely to be met.

Rewards as accountability

The most powerful of tools for shaping and changing behaviour is simple rewards. Working on goals should be a thankless task, so it’s important to break down bigger goals into smaller steps and build in a series of rewards as you complete the steps. When you are rewarded it makes it more likely that a behaviour will be repeated. So give yourself something to look forward to as you progress with your goals, obviously keep the reward proportionate to the achievement. You should save the bigger celebration for the end.

It can be more difficult to meet goals that do not have external deadlines. The main difference is that we often approach external deadlines more seriously. This post has offered a process and ideas for creating more compelling personal deadlines to make sure that  perpetual postponing is not inevitable.

If you enjoyed this post and/or found it useful then please use the ‘like’ and share ‘buttons’. Your comments are also welcome.  

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 About Gary Wood

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodDr Gary Wood is a chartered psychologist, life coach and broadcaster specializing in applied social psychology, personal development and life coaching. He is the author of Unlock Your Confidence: Find the Keys to Lasting Change Through The Confidence-Karma Method (Buy: Amazon UK  /  Buy: Amazon USA ) Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his coaching and training practice and research consultancy.

To find out more about coaching for your goals, with Gary Wood, please get in touch using the form below:

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Self-Coaching: Exploring Exceptions to ‘The Rule of Absolute Hopelessness’

When we are stuck in the middle of a problem, it’s sometimes difficult to see a way forward. In  (life) coaching, it is often helpful to explore exceptions to the ‘rule of absolute hopelessness’. Stress throws us into survival mode and can negatively impact on our cognitive abilities. We don’t process information so well.

Questioning techniques (borrowed from Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy and Solution Focused Brief Therapy) help us to challenge our sense of overwhelm and to seek little glimmers of hope. Here are some suggestions for questions that you can ask yourself. They are also useful in working with others. If you are working with others, the questions need to be used sensitively. It’s important that other people feels as though they have been heard. If you are working on your own issues, you could get someone to ask you the questions, or else get a notebook and spend time writing down your answers.

  • Consider / Tell me about the times when you did not experience the problem so intensely.
  • Consider / Tell me about the times when you cope better despite the problem.
  • Consider / Tell me about the times when the problem doesn’t feel so great, when you feel more in control of things if only for a short time.
  • Consider / Tell me about the times when you refuse to let it get you down and control your life.
  • When was the last time you did something enjoyable and refused to let the problem get in the way of having a good time, even if only for a while.

When working with coaching clients, I invite them to take part in an observation exercise. I simply ask them to notice the times, between sessions when the problem/issue is not so intense or when it doesn’t bother them so much. The aim is not to take action or change things but purely to take note.

Ask about life coaching with Dr Gary WoodOften these observations form the basis of ways forward. Inevitably throughout our lives we will experience a sense of ‘stuckness’. Often it’s a sign that we are in new territory and learning something new. Exploring the exceptions can help to draw out the seedlings of transferable skills including coping skills. If there’s a sense of having been there before, exploring the exceptions can help instigate new learning and new ways of coping.

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Coping with Challenges and Change – How Do You Do It?

Taking Stock of Transferable Skills

Working as a psychology lecturer I routinely encounter students who don’t make connections between different aspects of psychology. Working as a (life) coach I often encounter clients who don’t take stock of their transferable skills. Now, the first time I attended a meeting of the Professional Speakers Association I was asked ‘Have you done any public speaking?’ My knee-jerk reaction was to say ‘no’. At the time I had over ten years experience in teaching, I’d fronted media campaigns, appeared on radio and television and yet I still said ‘no’. In my mind I obviously didn’t class any of this experience as public speaking.  Sometimes we keep aspects of our life and experience in discrete ‘little boxes’. This may have an impact on how we view change and new challenges and our ability to cope.

How to You Deal With Change?

Consider the following questions relating to how you made previous changes in your life. Get a sheet of paper and write down your answers.

  • Knowing yourself as you do, what pattern, routine or process do you usually go through to make changes in your life?
  • What are the steps you go through in your decision making process?
  • With whom would you normally confide when considering making changes?
  • What things would you discuss with them when considering making a change?
  • What considering change, what attitudes did you have that helped make it happen?
  • Of all the strategies you have used in the past to make changes, what do you think might be the most helpful in handling the situation now?

Take time to answer them fully. It doesn’t have to be a major change, in fact, think of all types of change from switching brands of fruit juice to changing jobs.

How to Cope with Challenges?

Now spend some time considering previous challenges and successes and answer the following questions. Again take time to consider the questions fully and write down your answers.

  • Despite the challenges you encountered, how did you manage to persevere? How did you cope?
  • Where do you get the determination when others might have given up?
  • Knowing yourself as you do, what attitude to previous challenges did you have that helped make it through?
  • Considering a previous success, despite the challenge and the circumstances, how did you manage to succeed?
  • What is it that enables you to get through challenges and succeed?
  • What personal qualities, strengths and skills enable you to get challenging times?
  • What would a supportive close friend, partner or family member say are your qualities that help you get through challenges?

Solution-Focused Thinking for Challenges and Change

Making an inventory is a key strategy in solution-focused thinking and one of the things I work with clients to do in (life) coaching. When we become stressed we go into survival mode – fight or flight – which limits our perception of the options available to us. Considering our options and writing down the answers means it is more likely we will recall how we coped with past challenges and how we dealt with change. It is a key confidence building strategy.

Whenever you are faced with challenge and change, it helps if you begin by taking a few long slow deep breaths to lower your stress levels. You are then better placed to take a broader view and consider your transferable skills, strengths, skills, coping mechanisms and past successes.

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Being Happy: Memories and Goals

In a recent radio interview I was asked about the process by which we recall happy moments in our lives whilst less happy times tend to fade. Of course, it’s not the same for all everyone. Some people are adept at recalling past events as reasons for not engaging with the present or the future. I’m not referring here to recalling serious trauma but more the refusal to move on in the coaching context.

Working with mature students there have been numerous examples of people who have held on to the callous remarks of (poor) teachers. It took some of them 30 years to go back into the classroom. It wasn’t that they had suddenly found the confidence to do so, it’s just that the ‘pain’ and regret of not doing so became greater. As well as teach the syllabus it was also my job to convince them that it was the right decision. These students are the main reason I got into (life) coaching.

Social Media and Memories

A recent research study at Portsmouth University by Alice Good and Claire Wilson suggests that we use social media like Facebook, not just to interact with others but also to interact with our former selves. Some people spend a great deal of time looking through the old photographs the post on networking sights. The process of looking back can create have an emotional buffering effect especially during tough times. It can create a sense of well-being and optimism to help us to deal with present challenges and to face the future.

Constructed Memories

The human memory is not an infallible storage device. Cognitive psychologist  Frederic Bartlett demonstrated in the 1930s that memories are highly constructed. When things don’t make sense or when there is missing information, we fill in the gaps based on memory default values based on our experiences of likelihood, Often our memories bear little relation to what actually happened, which is why the accuracy and reliability of eye-witness testimony (in the justice system) has been challenged by psychology, most notably by cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. In cognitive-behavioural therapy questioning techniques centre on cognitive distortions, most often on black-and-while, absolutist thinking. Similarly by exploring exceptions to negative evaluations, in the solution-focused approach, we can reveal small nuggets of possibility to build upon. In classic psychoanalysis we have he concept of defence mechanisms, where sometimes memories of painful experiences are blocked at an unconscious level in order to protect us emotionally and psychologically. Often memories seem to have a life of their own.

Being Happy

Happiness is no longer just in the realm of pop psychology, it has become a legitimate topic in academic psychology led by pioneering Positive psychologist Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. For Seligman, happiness is about living our lives according to our values and strengths. For Csikszentmihalyi happiness is about setting goals that stretch us and put us into a state of flow. ‘Flow’ is that state of total engagement in what we are doing, when we are totally ‘in the present moment’ and lose a sense of time and of ourselves. We can actively do something about our own happiness. Along with confidence-building it is one of the main motivations for seeking (life) coaching.

The Past-Present-Future Balance

As with all aspects of life, balance is key. It’s good to reminisce and look back and be reminded of the good times. The best times in our lives are often when we most in tune with our strengths and values. For some people the past has a powerful lure, so much so that it taints the present and the future. Philosopher Walter Benjamin said that ‘History is an angel blown backward through time’.  It means that, essentially, we walk backwards into the future. We cannot help but look back but still need to move forward. It’s important to value the past for its lessons, for uncovering our strengths and for providing us happy memories to see us through challenging times. Perhaps it’s greatest value is to help propel us into the future. There lie new opportunities to live according to our values, to use our skills and strengths and more opportunities to experience a sense of flow, those moments where time appears to stand still. Over the past few years there has been an explosion of interest in mindfulness – the ability to live in the present moment for what it is without letting it get crowded out by the past or the future. It’s all a delicate balance that becomes a whole lot easier when we take a few moments out of our day to settle our minds and take a few, long, slow deep breaths. Taking control of our stress/relaxation is the first step to confidence and happiness.

(In conversation with Annie Othen, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, 21/3/13 )

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That’s Just The Way I Am! (& Problem Solving)

If the doors of our perception were to be cleansed, everything would appear to us as it is, infinite

– William Blake

Sit still for a moment and listen. What can you hear? Scan the environment for sounds. It could be the fan of your computer or the dull hum of traffic noise. Now that you’ve switched your attention to them, you can hear them. Moments before, you had been screening them out. Now focus on your other senses and find out what else you’ve been screening out.

Attention
You see, we can’t pay attention to every tiny bit of information that comes our way. If we did, our heads would have to be huge. Instead, in the interests of cognitive economy, we operate a filtering system that screens out a great deal of the information in our environment  So. you just have to pay attention to the ‘good stuff’. In reality we have a self-limited view of the world. Now this is great for keeping us focused on ‘the good stuff’ but it can also mean we miss opportunities and different ways of viewing the world.

Novelty and Consistency
So, it’s just as well that we have a drive for novelty that balances our need for consistency. Getting these competing drives in balance is crucial. Too much consistency and we need consider anything new and too much novelty and we lose all sense of consistency.

All too often routine consistency wins out and when faced with a problem we are inclined to keep trying the same old thing over and over again, just like the fly that keeps head butting the window to get outside. It ignores the open window.

Perceptual Filters
As anthropologist Ruth Benedict says ‘No one sees the world with pristine eyes’. Rather each of us sees the world in a slightly different way through a series of filters that colour our perceptions. Factors such as gender, culture, ethnicity, age, sexuality, peer groups, upbringing, environment and education all have an impact on how we view the world. To this list we can add mood swings, different situations, time of day, whether we are tired, hungry or thirsty, likes and dislikes, needs and values. We filter information on the basis of personal relevance but that doesn’t mean that other information is not available to us. It is. We just screen it out.

Attention and Perception
All of these things also have an impact on what we pay attention to.  All of these filters are used to let through the relevant and screen out the irrelevant or novel. It becomes a closed system, a cycle where perception determines attention which in turn determines and reinforces perceptions. In this way we maintain our view of the world. If we allow our perceptions to narrowly define what we pay attention to, then we limit opportunities for learning and change often characterised by the phrase ‘Well that’s just the way I am’.

Problem Solving
To paraphrase Einstein ‘you can’t solve your problems with the same level of thinking that created them’. This means you need a fresh mindset. So review the categories that define ‘the way you are’ and then imagine approaching the problem from the perspective of someone totally different from you. Think about things as a different gender, race, ethnicity and so on. Think of a resourceful person you know or admire, real or fictional and ask how they would approach the problem. Approach problems at different times of the day. Also, break your daily routine. Go a different way to work, eat a different breakfast and so on. Set your alarm clock half an hour earlier. Small changes in routine can yield bigger changes in perspective. Most importantly of all, focus on solutions. Spend 20% of your time defining the problem and 80% of the time looking for solutions. Consider any solution no matter how implausible or silly. Just write down as many as you can from lots of different perspectives without censoring your thoughts. Review the solutions later.

Whenever you use the phrase ‘That’s just the way I am’ you are denying access to an enormous capacity for resourcefulness.


[Explore your perceptual filters, values and strengths in ‘Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . .Swim Out To Meet It‘ ]

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The Viewing Influences the Doing: Coping With Big Jobs & Distorted Perceptions of Time

The viewing influences the doing and vice versa

The viewing influences the doing and vice versa

How you view the world influences what you do in the world and vice versa.

Big Jobs
So a huge pile of paperwork seems insurmountable and may cause you to think ‘I’ll never get through that’. And of course, for as long as you see it as a huge, insurmountable pile of paperwork, then you will struggle. However if you break it down into a series of small, manageable piles of paperwork, you perception of the task will change.

Stress
When you are under stress, your perceptions are distorted, including your perception of time. You will underestimate what you can achieve in a given time and you’ll overestimate the amount of time a task will take. The problem is, you don’t really have an accurate idea of how long the task will take – you’re just guessing. What’s more, your guess is negatively distorted.

Accurate Data
There is only one way to counter your distorted perception of time and that it to get some accurate information. This is where the idea of personal development experiments comes in useful. Firstly, break the large task in to smaller, manageable chunks and then time yourself to see how long it takes to complete one chunk and make a note of this. Do this for a second equally sized chunk and make a note of the time, and again for a third chunk. If you add the times up and divide by three, you’ll get a more accurate (average) timing per chunk. This will allow you to make a more precise assessment of how long the whole task will take to complete.

Positive Outcomes

By this time your stress level will have decreased too and your perception of the task will have changed. Doing will have influenced the viewing and now you’ll have a new reference point on which to base future experiences and you will have completed part of the task too.

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So How Did You Get This Far? Solution Focused, Strengths Focused Learning

If you got 40% and passed a test, what would be your first question? Would it be:

  1. What happened to the other 60%, or
  2. What did I do to pass and get 40%

If it’s answer 1, then you’re taking a ‘weakness focused’ approach.

If it’s answer 2, you’re taking a ‘strengths focused approach’

Personal development often focuses on improving weaknesses but there’s a body of research that argues a ‘strengths-based’ approach is more effective. In short, we can’t all be fabulous at everything.To attempt to do so would require massive effort. It’s more economical to invest more time in what we are already good at, so we can specialize and excel (we can then manage the weaknesses).

I remember hearing of a child who arrived home with a staggering 96% on a maths test. The response of one of the parents was ‘What happened to the other 4%?’ Whereas they should have be celebrating the 96%. The questions they should have asked are:

  • What did you do to get that result?
  • Was there anything that you really think helped that you can do more of next time?
  • What strengths and qualities helped you get this far?
  • What did you do differently this time?
  • Is there something that you use to do that you stopped doing this time?
  • What can you let go of that didn’t help?
  • What else did you do?
  • What else?

With the strengths focused approach you concentrate on what you have already attained and then build on it, whether it’s 96%, 57%, 40% or 22%. This makes sense as it is the same approach we use with babies. After witnessing a baby’s first step, surely you wouldn’t dream of saying ‘And why didn’t you run around the coffee table?’ No, you’d praise them, encourage them to try again and focus on how they managed to take that first step. Now think about the staggering amount that babies manage to learn in a very short space of time.

You can apply the same to any goal you’ve set and tried for. If you didn’t get that 100% result, try focusing on what you have actually achieved and how you got there. Using the above questions you will use the feedback to build on strengths. If you obsess over what you didn’t get, you’ll probably lose motivation and give up! So go back and review previous attempts at goals and apply the strengths-focused questions. You have everything to gain.

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Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It!