023 - Forget Goals. Try This Instead.



  • Goals don't always work
  • Use a quarterly personal theme instead - direction vs finishing point
  • Make it meaningful to what you want to develop
  • What do you want to learn over the next three months?
  • Make it quarterly to enable new habits but avoid stagnation
  • Images are much more powerful than words alone
  • Adding sound is even beter again.




Goals are not all they're cracked up to be. For one thing, they can induce a lot of stress if you don't quite get there. I'm going to suggest you forget goals, and try something else instead.

There are a lot of ideas out there about setting goals. In fact, a Google search on 'setting goals' results in 1.3 billion hits! That's a lot of advice!

Goals are great when you have a short or medium-term objective to reach. Once you've reached it, however, the goal is no longer required. It's utility expires.

Here's an idea that is different to that, and yet can result in outcomes that last years, if not your whole life.

It's the idea of having a quarterly personal theme (and at the end, I'll show you my current one).

The advantage of a personal theme can be it's:

  • easier to remember
  • easier to visualise
  • easier to refresh and re-interpret
  • transformational rather than transactional.

What a Personal Theme Is

A personal theme is your intention rather than a goal or set of techniques. As such, it's a bit broader but works more like a principle than a set of steps.

Here are some examples:

To finish projects before taking on new ones


To take time to notice what's happening around me


To look for ways to add tangible business value to my organisation


To speak up more and put my perspective out there

or (and this was one of mine a while back)

To assume everyone is a good person until proven otherwise.

And because of their nature, themes like these can transform you and your approach forever, especially if they become the way you operate from then on.

1. Make it Meaningful

Your quarterly personal theme should ideally come from within you. I've found it's much more powerful than me trying to take on someone else's theme that I might have read or heard about.

By 'from within', I mean it's something that you notice has captured your attention and interest. That may be because you want to embed a way of being into your life because you believe it would be fruitful.

Or, it could be a commitment you want to make regarding your work because you've decided it's important.

Yes, these things can often be prompted by what we see, hear or ponder but only make it a theme if you genuinely want it to be something true of you.

This doesn't preclude you setting goals, and about things that are entirely different from your personal theme.

But it's different to goals - this is about how you want to be transformed over the next three months in particular, and from then on. How you want to be improved as a person.

So, make sure you set a personal theme that's meaningful to you.

Question: What would be a meaningful personal theme for you right now?

2. Make it Quarterly

Most ideas and inspirations only last for a period of time before they peter out and fall off our mental radar. That's quite normal because of the way we're wired - we can't concentrate on everything we've ever heard or thought about, it's too much information. So we tend to select for what is current and fresh. (The downside of this bias is that we too quickly move on to the next thing.)

Because of this, I suggest you put a timeframe on a personal theme. In my experience, a quarterly theme  (for the next three months) is about right because:

  1. that's long enough for you to repeat and reinforce it into your mind, so it becomes how you think
  2. it's long enough to enable it to become a habit, so it becomes how you act
  3. it's short enough to be fresh and therefore motivating, so it becomes something that guides you.

So, focus on this personal theme for the next three months.

After that, you can review how you went and set yourself a fresh one for the following three months.

3. Make it Visual/Auditory

Words are good but images are far stronger especially as a mental reminder. That's simply because pictures convey ideas much faster and more powerfully than words do.

You could achieve this by making a small colourful post-it note and putting on your fridge, screen or bathroom wall. Or make an A5 poster of your theme. And maybe add some pictures from a magazine or printed out from Google if it works for you.

And, make it auditory because by adding sound to the exercise you engage even more of your brain and make it more likely you'll remember it. (This is why, when people hear a phone number, for example, they repeat it over and over to themselves to try to remember it.)

You can achieve that by merely saying it out loud to yourself each day. Or, if you're particularly musical (like I am), you might turn it into your own personal jingle or ditty. Even better.

But whatever works for you, do more than just decide your personal theme. Make it visual and auditory.

In a Nutshell

    1.    Set yourself a meaningful personal theme that fosters growth in you as a person

    2.    Focus on it for the next three months (by which time you'll make a new one)

    3.    Create a visual version of it and put it up where you'll see it often.

    4.    Say it out loud to yourself every day or so.

    5.    Ponder it often, reflect on it, ask yourself, "How can I make it true of me?"

As Promised

And what's my current personal theme for the quarter? It is to:

Focus not on what I can do, but primarily on what magic I can bring to things.

I've created a little post-it for my computer screen: Can vs Magic.

Care to Share?

Once you've decided on a quarterly personal theme, why not share it by leaving a comment below. Going public is good, but you might very well inspire some others as well.