How Setting Goals Makes you a Better Person (even if you never set a goal to become one)

“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” ~ Zig Ziglar

Are you a goal-setting flunky? A New Years Resolution drop-out? Have you set goals time and time again only to summarily fail to reach them? All of them?

Well, the good news is that you didn’t waist your time trying. You even likely improved your life, becoming a subtly better person, perhaps without even realizing it — even if you’ve never quite reached a single goal you’ve ever set.

There’s More to Goal Setting than Meets the Eye

The value of setting goals has been well documented. We simply achieve better results when we set goals and work to achieve them than when we don’t. We experience measurable improvements as energy and resources are directed and concentrated on a desired end.

But I contend here that there is another reason to set goals that reaches far beyond the thing we set the goal to attain. And the reason has nothing to do with the specific goal being set.

The very act of setting and pursuing goals can actually make you a better human being.

Now let’s be clear. I’m not talking about setting goals to become a better person. I’m talking about becoming a better person because you set goals and work to achieve them. Any goals. To do anything. Related to being a better person or not.

How? Well, read on! The “how” is the rest of this article.

When taken seriously, goals provide a context and a process that can help us develop an impressive array of character traits and other personal characteristics that can lead us to living better lives.

For Example …

Let’s suppose, for instance, I set a goal to lose 20 pounds by November 15th. But I only lose 10 by the given date. Fail, right? I missed my goal. I fell short and 50% of anything is a big fat “F”. A dismal, abject failure!

But wait a minute. Let’s look a bit closer. What exactly happened during my supposed failed attempt?

I resisted eating as much junk food as I normally would have. I pushed myself to get to the gym (or track or field or court or pool) more often than I otherwise would have. I exercised through discomfort and pain. I pulled myself from the TV and frequently took my family with me on walks. I aimed at a target. I eliminated (or reduced) distractions. I kept at it (even if not reaching the specified goal). And in the failed attempt to reach the desired weight, I was taught some valuable lessons about myself.

Failure? All that? No way! Perhaps I failed at reaching my specific goal. But I succeeded wonderfully at living life. Healthier. Happier. Better. In other words, the effort did not go wasted.

And even if you never reach any given goal, your life will be all the better for having tried. So no need to beat yourself up anymore when a deadline for a goal passes and you find yourself somewhere south of the hoped-for results.

10 Ways Goal-Setting can Improve your Life

As we set goals and begin the process of chasing them down, stumbling, wrestling back up, pursuing, trying, reaching and stretching, something happens inside of us. Qualities are exercised. Personal characteristics are tightened up. Character begins to grow, just a little bit at a time, over time, as we continue the effort to achieve something we were willing to sacrifice for.

Life is a ready schoolmaster. Setting and pursuing specific goals with specified timelines has a way of intensifying the lessons life means to teach us. Here are 10 of those lessons we would all do well to learn …

1. Delayed Gratification

“The ability to discipline yourself to delay gratification in the short term in order to enjoy greater rewards in the long term is the indispensable pre-requisite for success” ~ Brian Tracy

By working toward a goal, we learn to put off what we want to do now for something more important later. That ability to delay gratification will pay off huge dividends in personal power and achievement and happiness in the future.

One study conducted with 3-5 year old toddlers demonstrated that those who could delay eating one marshmallow for two later were also more likely to get good grades in school, go to college, stay off drugs and out of jail and lead successful lives than their more immediately gratifying counterparts.

When we can delay immediate gratification, we can push the desire to lie or cheat or steal for personal gain off for the larger rewards of self-respect, human decency, and living up to a set of moral standards. We can delay the reward of junk food and partying for future rewards of better health and a more rewarding career. With greater self-control comes greater opportunities for happiness as well.

2. Commitment

“Once a man has made a commitment to a way of life, he puts the greatest strength in the world behind him. It’s something we call heart power. Once a man has made this commitment, nothing will stop him short of success.” ~ Vince Lombardi

Reaching goals requires committing to an imagined end. Without the ability to commit to a goal, to focus concentration and energy to the completion of a long-term pursuit, we flounder and become distracted and fail to see the goal come to fruition.

But learning to commit to our goals works our commitment muscles. That same commitment (now stronger than before) can then be applied to other areas of life, such as committing to a marriage as you whether storms and uphill climbs over tough emotional terrain that is often part of the marital journey. We become better, more committed parents, friends, or club and church members.

We are also better able to commit to a set of moral standards. The skills, thinking, determination and passion it requires to commit to your goals can be carried over into the rest of your life as well.

It’s not that developing our ability to commit to something guarantees we will also commit to our marriages, children, friends and churches. But the commitment muscles will be in better shape to be used wherever our values apply them nonetheless.

3. Hard Work

“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” ~ Henry Ford

Those who reach difficult goals are those who work hard to achieve them. Whether we’re talking about Olympians or entrepreneurial success or losing 5 pounds, those who reach for their goals learn to work hard to attain them.

Life also requires work. Loving families do as well. Developing talents do. Raising moral children do. Overcoming weaknesses and living a deeply meaningful and happy life do.

4. Self-Discipline

“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” ~ Harvey MacKay

Goal setting requires planning. We plan out our futures. We plan the steps it takes to get there. We plan the monthly, weekly then daily tasks required to reach our longer-termed goals.

Planning in all parts of life improves the likelihood of achieving something that looks like what we hoped life would be like. Few great achievements were accomplished accidentally. (<– Tweet this!)

But here’s the thing: Sticking to a plan requires self-discipline.

Planning to live an ethical life, planning happiness into life, planning on marital and parental success increases the likelihood of living happier and more ethical lives.

5. Prioritization

“Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great.” ~ John D. Rockefeller

Goal setting by definition means we’re choosing something over other things. Life is all about priorities, trade-offs and opportunity costs. So learning this characteristic will serve you well no matter your circumstances.

You will come to recognize the value of time and begin to use yours better. You will lose less time on the trivial and inconsequential and start spending more time doing those things that truly matter. Life will have more meaning and you’ll have more happiness more often because you will have identified those things that matter most to you and will have allocated enough time to their pursuits.

6. Focus

“Don’t dwell on what went wrong. Instead, focus on what to do next.” ~ Denis Waitley

Concentrated effort. Steely-eyed determination. Clarity of vision and purpose are ways the top achievers have accomplished the amazing things they’ve accomplished. That ability is important when we work to finish anything we do.

The more focused we are, the more productive and effective we’ll be. The likelihood of finding joy in your work also increases as it requires extended focus to reach what performance experts call flow.

The intensity of a dream is measured by the sweat expended on its pursuit. (<– Tweet this!)

“Champions aren´t made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them – a desire, a dream, a vision.” ~ Mohammad Ali

Setting and working toward goals helps nurture our desires, dreams and visions. It inspires us to reach for the possible. It unleashes our potential and momentum and ability. It harnesses our creativity and energy and passion and drives us to a single point.

7. Humility

“Humility is the only true wisdom by which we prepare our minds for all the possible changes of life.” ~ George Arliss

Those who have spent much of their lives setting goals will attest to the fact that we often fail to achieve them within the given time frame allotted.

While not all people who fall short of their goals learn humility, that lesson is certainly there to be had. I know students, for example, who drift off as teachers instruct. There are also many of us who drift off as life instructs. That’s to be expected, even though self-defeating.

But the lesson of humility can remind us to depend on a Higher Source and to recognize our interdependency. It peels back the pride to reveal someone open to being instructed, taught and schooled in life.

8. Adaptability

“Take the best out of everything and adapt it to your needs.” ~ Sam Walton

As we set goals and work towards achieving them, it doesn’t take long before we realize there is a need to be flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances.

Goals teach us to seek the best advice from wherever we can get it and adapt it to our circumstances, grow, innovate and improve.

9. Perseverance

“I had to get up everyday with my mind set on improving something.” ~ Sam Walton

If you’re a goal-setter, you know that most of our big goals are reached by taking regular little steps. Our whole lives, for that matter, are comprised of smaller days and hours and events. Castles are built one brick at a time. So is happiness. And moral lives of character and decency.

“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ”Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” ~ Muhammad Ali

The world needs more moral champions as well. Goal setting can take us closer to that end as we develop those characteristics that moral champions champion.

10. Cause and Effect

All of life is about cause and effect. If we are caught in the rut of self-defeat, there are reasons why. The feeling of being stuck is the effect of other causes.

Happiness is the effect of specific causes too, such as gratitude, optimism and finding meaning and purpose to life. Moral behavior is governed by cause and effect as well.

So are goals.

So are lives.

As we come to recognize the causes that produce the desired effects in our lives, we will be better empowered to change the nature of the causes to effect changes in the conditions of our lives, in all areas and compartments of life.

Afterthoughts

There are plenty of people running around this world of ours who are addicted goal setters and whose character is left wanting. Why? Because people can be quite tunnel visioned.

History is packed with high achieving goal-setters who were crummy people. They kept their character out of it. They delayed gratification, but only in certain things. They were focused, but to the exclusion of more important things. They set priorities, but often, to wrong things.

Obviously, there are also many people who are quite decent human beings of sound character who have never set a formal goal in their lives.

One doesn’t necessarily lead to the other.

But they can.

Goals are not set in a vacuum. As we strive to reach our goals, we change. We grow. We can become someone different than the person who started the pursuit.

That’s the power of goals. Yes, they can improve the likelihood of you getting what you aim at. But they can also change the person aiming.

Still, the tool is only as helpful as the person using it allows it to be.

As you set and pursue goals, watch how you change in the process. It may be more subtle than you would like. But permanent change and deep-rooted improvement tends to be that way anyway.

 

YOUR TURN!

  • How has goal setting made you a better person?
  • Or have they done the opposite?
  • I may have left some of the benefits out, so help me out and add a few of your own observations.

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Photo by Paxson Woelber