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The Trade-Offs in Goal Setting

In our pursuit of achievement, we set goals. We do so in order to rack up a steady stream of accomplishments. That is what forward-thinking people, like readers of Uncommon Sense, do in an effort to keep self-development front and center in their lives.

In my early years of self-development, say, in my 20s, I went about it all wrong. I had very high expectations and an innate desire to achieve greatness. However, I was unwise because I aspired to do far too much. I would set somewhere between 10 and 12 goals each year. Each of those goals were audacious. I was too inexperienced and undisciplined to realize that great things come about when there is focus. It’s hard to focus on many goals in a relatively short, 12-month, period of time. Thus, I would fall short. It was like trying to juggle with 10 bowling pins. They all came crashing down, and I had little to show for my efforts.

Time is our scarcest resource. It governs our reality. There is only so much time in a week – 168 hours to be precise. We are limited by time. In a given week, I try to sleep for 56 hours. Another 3.5 hours is taken up every week just wrapping up the day and getting ready for bed. Another 7 hours is spent making and eating my one meal of the day – dinner. Another 2 hours is involved in worship services each Sunday. Another 7 hours is spent driving to and from the office. And another 6 hours is spent in the gym. That leaves me with approximately 86.5 hours each week to be productive, to participate in meetings, to write, to speak, to publish, to teach, to do prep work, to do research, to consult and coach, to work on various projects, to have a social life, to fit in some down time, etc. Choices have to be made.

The Law of Reciprocity suggests that when you put energy and focus into one path, that by definition means you cannot put energy and focus into another path. You can only be on one path at one time. Multi-tasking is often a recipe for mediocrity.

It is true that you can have multiple projects or goals going – to a point. But the limits inherent in time constraints requires that you choose very carefully where you will focus your energies and where you will postpone other worthy goals for the future.

Where to focus your energies?

I can’t possibly know your individual circumstances, your interests, your desires, or your history. It is, therefore, imprudent for me to provide you, the reader, with specific goals you should consider pursuing.

However, I can give you some hints re. the broad arenas you may wish to consider setting goals in. Here are five:

The Physical Dimension: I look around me, especially when I walk into the nearest WalMart, and I see people who look like they are in awful physical condition. Both men and women strike me as being grossly out of shape. There is far too much overeating taking place in our society, and not enough physical exercise. These people don’t likely sleep well, they do likely have lots of unnecessary aches and pains, they are probably on lots of meds, and if they are not, they should be, and their overall quality of life is wanting. All of that is unnecessary. There is no shortage of fitness clubs dotting the land. There is no shortage of personal fitness coaches out there. There are plenty of fitness apps one can download on their smart phones and follow any number of exercise programs. And I don’t favor any one of them. Sure, some are better than others, but almost any exercise is better than no exercise. Our bodies are like machines; they need regular maintenance. The physical dimension can cover so many things: joining a sports team; lifting weights; doing some form of cardio to build endurance and a healthy heart; stretching or yoga; taking supplements; even just walking. . . Oral care and dental care falls in this category also.

I decided at the start of the year that I would commit to regular exercise (I had already been doing so) in an effort to get stronger and take off inches from my bulging stomach. I removed all food and snacks from my office to avoid temptation. Plus, I downloaded an app called V-Shred for about $65 and committed to their 90-day program. And I’m seeing results. At the start of this year, I weighed 195. This morning I weighed 182 and have taken almost two inches off my waist/stomach. Why? Because of the intense exercise I am now doing (the crunches are absolutely killer!) and because I practice intermittent fasting, eating only dinner. I also committed to being in bed by 8:30 PM each night and arising at 4:30 AM every workday. And I don’t miss a workout.

And you want to know the biggest factor? I possessed steely determination to live this lifestyle. And you will have to possess similar determination if you want to turn that Titanic around.

The Mental Dimension: You can actually set goals to develop your mentality, the intellectual part of your persona. As with the Physical Dimension, there are many possibilities in the mental realm. When is the last time you read a book? Not just any book. Not a dime-store novel. But a substantive book that covers heady, intellectual material. I just finished a book called Leadership. It was written Henry Kissinger, shortly before he died at age 100 recently. Kissinger is brilliant – deeply informed and quite the intellect and historian. His vocabulary is at a very high level, and I found myself looking up words, some I had never heard of before, and others I had heard but wasn’t certain what they meant, such as sclerotic, laconic, apparatchik, conflagration, inexorable, vituperation, scion, and axiomatic. It was an enriching experiencing being able to look up their meanings and better understand what Kissinger was saying. But even more importantly, I now possess a familiarity with various world leaders such as Anwar Sadat, Margaret Thatcher, Charles de Gaul, Richard Nixon, and several others. I have an appreciation of what makes them tick and how they exercised their leadership acumen. I know things now I did not know before reading the book, even though I have been a serious student of leadership for some decades. Books will do that to you. But you aren’t limited to books. Doing crossword puzzles or other mind-benders, learning a new language, memorizing passages of poetry, scripture, or literature, and spending scheduled time simply for the purpose of thinking. . . All of those activities and many more can enhance our mental abilities.

The Spiritual Dimension: This is a difficult one to talk about, mainly because it is more challenging to describe, but it is very real nonetheless. I see the spiritual dimension as the part of us that has us enter the world of the transcendent. The word transcendent is defined as “exceeding usual limits,” “extending beyond the limits of ordinary experience,” or “deeply significant or profound.” Many people, upon hearing all of this think of God, religion, sacred texts, the holy. That is appropriate. But people who are either agnostic, or especially those who are atheist (meaning they insist there is no God and no afterlife) can still have brushes with the transcendent, at least to a degree – usually by being inspired by nature, or great music, or great art, or those rare and wonderful moments of bonding with another person. Everyone has their own way of connecting with the transcendent. Meditation, prayer, singing hymns of praise, reading sacred texts, worship, engaging in religious ritual, doing acts of profound decency and sacrifice, anonymous service, helping the poor or less fortunate in some way, forgiving others who have wronged us. All of those things and many more can have a sanctifying, cleansing effect on us, and keep us tied to our deepest values.

The Social Dimension: This dimension is about our social life, our relationships. We have all sorts of relationships with people. Some of them involve family members. Some may pertain to neighbors. Some may touch on work associates. Some may relate to our personal friendships, those with whom we get together for recreation and fun. Some may involve the romantic if we are courting someone, or if we are married (as our spouse should be the recipient of our deepest romantic impulses). We might have relationships with teammates such as those who are on our soccer team, or our bowling team, or others who are part of, say, a book club we belong to, or a sewing/knitting club. We can actually set goals to acquire new friends, or to be a better and more devoted friend to those we already have. We can commit to generating a hand-written letter or card on a regular basis to certain people – as handwritten letters and cards are something of a lost art. We can set goals to remember the birthdays of those who are closest to us. We can set goals involving road trips or concert attendance, or sporting events to attend with those who are close to us. We can commit to “date night” with our children and/or spouse on a regular basis. We are only limited by our imaginations.

The Financial Dimension: This is a very important and pragmatic part of your life. The less money you have, the less options you have. The more money you have the more doors are open to you. When it comes to the Financial Dimension, three arenas become immediately apparent: Debt, Wealth, and Retirement Planning. You may have debt of some kind (a mortgage, student loans, personal loans, credit cards, etc). It’s important to keep your debt manageable, or maybe work to eliminate it. Doing so will require careful planning and some sacrifice. For building wealth, you may want to pay 10% of every dollar you make into a savings account that you will grow until you have a large reservoir of cash. For retirement, you will probably benefit from the wisdom of a fiduciary, an experienced Registered Investment Advisor, who can help you reach your financial goals. I rely on Michael Sears from Sears Wealth Management ( He’s not only a very gifted financial wizard, but even more importantly, he is a man of unmatched integrity. I trust him implicitly.

The goals you set may eventually be woven into the very fabric of your life to become normative, everyday habits and processes. They become a regular part of your modus operandi. At that point your former goals, now attained, become a matter of maintenance. Like the plate-spinning street entertainers, your new life is more about maintaining momentum, making sure none of the critical plates come crashing down. It’s about keeping the plates spinning. At that point, you are living life at a higher plane, and you can start to take on new goals.

But keep those goals few in number. Focus is the key.

Ara Norwood is a multi-faceted and results-oriented professional. Spanning a multiplicity of disciplines including leadership, management, innovation, strategy, service, sales, business ethics, and entrepreneurship. Ara is also a historian, having special expertise on the era of the founding of our republic.
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