January 1, 2008
 Aiming Straight,
Aiming High

The Unspeakable
Benefits of Goals
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This article is now expanded into a short book (60 pages) -- Goal Setting for the Christian: Harnessing the Stunning Benefits of Focus and Persistence to Realize Your Potential for Christ -- and Your God-Given Dreams, and it's available in paperback, Kindle and Nook.

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In May 1999, my mom came down with rheumatoid arthritis almost overnight, then was diagnosed with chronic leukemia. By July, this happily independent, gregarious eighty-six year-old, required round-the-clock nursing and seldom ventured from her second-story bedroom.

The cost of full-time nursing was devastating. Mom also longed for more activity and contact with people, but her body would no longer cooperate.

Assisted living was the obvious answer. For months Evie and I dragged our feet, though, certain mom wouldn’t want to leave her beloved home of forty-four years.

By January we at least had reached one conclusion. An assisted-living facility near our home was far and away the best option for her. We met with a director there. They could take mom eventually, she explained, but had a six-month waiting list, and then no guarantee of space.

Then something snapped inside us. Six months was too long to wait, given mom’s personal and financial needs. We set a goal--to have her happily moved out of her home and into a better arrangement by the end of February. I stress happily, for we weren’t going to force her, but would do whatever we could to encourage a welcomed transition.

Almost immediately we recognized a solution we had missed before. To this point we’d assumed we had no space to host her in our home, even for a short time. Now it occurred to us that we could convert our upstairs family room into a temporary guest room, until her apartment was ready.

Option one.

Then dawned option two. It was far more preferable, but seemed highly improbable. What if? I wondered. What if the door that seemed presently closed at the assisted-living facility had a crack?

In that nothing-ventured, nothing-gained spirit which only a goal can inspire, I phoned the director, and explained to her that we really needed to move mom out of her home soon. Did they possibly have a way to accommodate her temporarily, until her own unit was available? I was stunned when she replied that she’d look into it.

Several days later she phoned back to say they had a guest suite available that mom could rent for as long as necessary. And the charge for it was less than for permanent residency.

Now the job of convincing mom. We were equally stunned to find that she needed no persuading. She was ready to move, and eager for a new adventure.

On February 25, 2000, we moved her into this haven, where she continues to live contentedly--now in her own apartment, which came available in September. She hasn’t had an unhappy day there, and the improvement to her social life, health and finances has been remarkable.

What a Difference a Goal Makes

This surely isn’t the most dramatic story you’ve heard about goal setting. Our situation wasn’t desperate. It wouldn’t have been a calamity if we’d had to wait six months or longer to move mom into assisted living. Still, we were faced with a situation that was far from desirable, and wanted a way to improve it. Once we set a goal, things changed quickly.

The goal substantially influenced how Evie and I thought about our predicament. Our minds started working. We saw possibilities we hadn’t recognized before. It also gave me the resolve to broach an option with the director of the home that I wouldn’t have considered raising otherwise. After all, if they had temporary housing, she surely would have said so during our long interview. Yet simply asking the question made all the difference.

I’m certain, too, that the sense of urgency I conveyed when I phoned her affected her response, and her decision to explore an option at her mammoth facility that she normally wouldn’t have mentioned. Our goal influenced the outcome.

There’s no question, either, that the excitement Evie and I felt about this sudden open door was contagious to mom. Had we been less focused, and less convinced, she would have been less certain about wanting to move.

I share this story, not because it’s my most extraordinary experience with goals, but because it’s recent, and the results have been deeply meaningful to my family. It demonstrates how goal setting can help us resolve moderately challenging problems--the type we often try to tackle head-first, without first establishing a clear goal. The same dynamics that worked for Evie and me in this case will work for any of us in setting more far-reaching goals to achieve our major life dreams.

The Power of Focused Intentions

Pick up any book on human potential, positive thinking or the secrets of success, and you’ll likely find the author extolling the benefits of goal setting. You may well find him or her declaring that an effectively-set goal guarantees your success.

I’d caution that life offers no guarantees. Even our best-laid plans never assure any outcome beyond question. If you set out tomorrow at 9:00 a.m. to drive from Baltimore to Columbus, Ohio, determined to meet a friend for dinner at 6:00 p.m., there’s no promise that you’ll make it. Your car may break down. You may have an accident. You may encounter weather problems or traffic delays. You may suffer a heart attack, and make it neither to Columbus nor back home.

Life offers no guarantees.

Still, it’s likely you will make your goal. If your car is in good running order, you know the route and exercise reasonable prudence, the odds are overwhelming you’ll reach Columbus by 6:00 p.m. You can tell your friend you will meet her, and proceed with confidence that you’ll keep your commitment.

A properly set goal in any area assures your success with similar probability. Probability so high that you can go forward with conviction that, Lord willing, you’ll accomplish your objective. Such confidence isn’t audacious or brazen, but simply respects how God has designed human life to function.

With a major, long-term goal, you’ll probably make some adjustments in the deadline as you move along, to be sure. You’ll modify some aspects of your goal as well. Still, the likelihood that you’ll achieve your primary objective is very high, providing you’ve carefully set your goal to begin with, and your passion for reaching it remains strong.

The parallel to a road trip is helpful from another angle. If you’re like me, you enjoy driving. Sure, it takes effort and focused attention. Yet it’s much less arduous, say, than laying cinder block or studying for a physics final. You may grow tired while driving, need to rest and regain your energy. Yet most of the time it’s fun, and seems natural and effortless.

When you’re living out a goal that is well conceived, and truly right for you, you feel much the same way. Far from requiring heroic self-discipline, the goal taps your natural motivation, and moves you forward at a pace that works for you. You may get tired or encounter obstacles, just as you would on a road trip. Yet, overall, the process is enjoyable--in part because you’re fueled by natural energy, in part because you’re excited about your destination.

How Goals Help Us

Let’s look more specifically at the benefits goals bring to our life. There are at least eight ways in which they help us achieve our objectives and dreams.

1. Goals break the inertia. Inertia is the single greatest barrier to our achieving a dream. A body at rest stays at rest. Yet a body in motion stays in motion--so anything we can do to get our life moving toward a desired outcome is beneficial. Monumental challenges, which seem beyond our capacity and strength, suddenly feel surprisingly manageable once we begin to tackle them. Goals break the inertia, by giving us the incentive to take that first step.

2. Goals give us occasions to rise to. Dale Carnegie observed that our most deep-seated human need is to be important. We each long to be doing notable things with our life, and we instinctively give the best of our time and attention to those tasks we consider most important. A goal lets us draw on this natural energy, by allowing us to determine in advance that a particular objective truly is worth our most earnest effort. Once we’ve established that fact, the goal gives us an occasion to aspire to, providing the most effective possible motivation to keep us in motion.

3. Goals focus our thinking and energy. Nature abounds with energy sources of unspeakable potential that vastly increase their benefit when harnessed and focused in strategic ways. A gently flowing river, dammed and forced to flow through a small channel, produces a ferocious output, capable of turning the wheels of a power plant providing electricity to an entire city.

Goals have a similar effect on our mental energy, enabling us to accomplish exceedingly more than is possible without them. Most important, goals harness our subconscious energy. They serve our subconscious notice that specific problems need to be solved, and enlist the most creative partner in our mental process as an ally. Before we know it, insightful answers begin to emerge that we’ve never considered.

We see an enlightening example of how a goal can ignite creativity in a familiar Gospel incident. Four men have a goal--to bring a paralyzed friend to Jesus for healing (Mk 2:1-12). They carry him on a pallet to a house where he’s teaching, only to find that they cannot move him through the huge, dense crowd overflowing the home. Rather than accept defeat, they look for a solution, finding an unlikely one. Instead of going through the crowd, they’ll go above it! They climb to the roof, remove tiles over the section of the home where Jesus is speaking, then lower the pallet carrying their friend through that opening--compelling Jesus’ attention.

Far from being offended by their aggressiveness, Jesus is impressed with their faith (v. 5). He forgives the man’s sins, then heals his paralysis.

What’s fascinating about this incident is that these men, in their mutual determination, conceived a solution to a problem that most would have considered unsolvable. Had they been less determined and focused, I doubt that their minds would have worked as well. Inertia would have prevailed. They would have settled for sitting placidly in the back of the crowd as spectators, failing to seize the golden opportunity before them. The fact that they had a clear agenda sparked their creativity, and inspired an ingenious solution to a difficult predicament.

Goals stimulate our own problem-solving skills in a similar fashion. They also heighten our alertness to opportunities we’d otherwise miss.

4. Goals inspire others to help us. We each have a natural instinct to be generous and helpful to others. A goal that we set for ourselves best allows us to appeal to this instinct in others, for it provides evidence to them that their effort to help us will be worthwhile. It also signals to them what sort of assistance we may need, and helps them recognize more readily how they can support us. Goals enable us to appeal to another instinct in others as well--the desire to root for someone who is making an honest effort to improve his or her life.

Setting a goal also helps us clarify in our own mind what sort of help we need to seek from others, and strengthens our courage to ask for it.

5. Goals open us more fully to God’s help and provision. Well-set goals are an exercise in stewardship--stewardship of the life God has called us to live. It only makes sense that God will more likely extend his help to us when we are treating the life he has entrusted to us responsibly. The help God provides to those who set responsible goals seems to be part of his common grace; human-potential writers, for instance, often speak of "synchronicity" or "serendipities" that occur when a goal has been set--fortuitous coincidences that help you realize your objective.

How much more should we expect special help from God, when, as a follower of Christ, we have set a goal prayerfully, seeking his direction and provision. The goal also increases our alertness to windows of opportunity God may be opening.

6. Goals increase our confidence and motivation to do what is necessary to succeed. The best-set goal includes a clear plan of action, describing what work will be done when. Because we have such a blueprint in place, we’re able to give our full attention to any of its details, knowing that the time and space is there to accomplish the other steps when necessary. We work more confidently on any segment of our plan, for we’re not worrying that we’re robbing time from more important tasks. We’re also more likely to enjoy the less-scintillating steps necessary to achieve a dream, for we recognize how they are moving us toward an objective we dearly want to accomplish.

7. Goals give us a basis for measuring results. Our plan of action also enables us to better judge whether specific work we’re doing is actually helping us accomplish our objective. We’re better able to work smarter, and to take corrective action when needed.

8. Goals give us something to celebrate. Because a goal gives us a clearly defined target, we know when we’ve hit it. We now have something specific and meaningful to celebrate. This jubilant occasion is not only a tonic to our life when it occurs, but another carrot-on-a-stick aspect of a goal, beckoning us to see it through to the finish.

Setting Goals Successfully

Appreciating the benefits goals provide helps us greatly to find the incentive to set them. How, then, do we do this effectively? Goal setting is more of an art than a science, to be sure. The process that most helps you may differ from what works for me. Each of us needs to experiment to find what steps benefit us most personally. Still, there are certain approaches to goal setting that universally help people turn dreams into reality. Here are ten of the most important principles to keep in mind.

1. Goals should be based on strong desire. The most common reason goals fail is because we don’t desire their results strongly enough.

Let’s say I set a goal to become an accomplished pianist in five years. I may establish it for a variety of reasons. At one extreme, I may be motivated by intense desire: I passionately wish to be musical, crave the thrill of performing, or long for certain social benefits this skill may open.

At the other extreme, I may take on this goal more out of obligation. Perhaps I’ve long felt I have some potential to play piano, and that I owe it to myself to develop it. Or I may have some legitimate desire to be a pianist, yet underneath have a much greater yearning to become an actor. We set many goals primarily for the momentary relief of guilt establishing them brings, not because we earnestly long for their results.

We need to be thoroughly honest about our level of passion in considering a goal of this magnitude. If I strongly desire to become a competent pianist, chances are good I’ll succeed. If I’m setting this goal mainly out of obligation, or as a substitute for a more burning creative desire, it’s unlikely I’ll stick with it past the fifth piano lesson.

Goals should spring as fully as possible from deep-seated natural motivation. Basing them on such desire isn’t taking the course of least resistance, but is a matter of stewardship, for even the most intense motivation remains unproductive unless focused through a goal. If I need to set a goal for an outcome I’m less than exuberant about, I should first do what I can to boost my desire for that result. Apart from keen motivation, I shouldn’t waste my time pursuing a goal.

2. Goals should be achievable. Goals should also fall clearly within our range of potential. Again, this isn’t taking the course of least resistance, for goals stretch us to grow in ways that would never happen otherwise. Consider, too, that we each have vast possibilities for accomplishment within our areas of potential that will never be realized apart from concentrated effort. It only makes sense to choose our goals from this huge pool of options rather than from outside of it.

We should be confident also that we can relate temperamentally to the process necessary for achieving a goal. Not that we have to find all aspects of it scintillating. But if, for instance, I know that I’d find the regimen of practice necessary to become a competent pianist repugnant, I shouldn’t lock into this goal. Some enjoyment of the process in this case is important.

3. Goals should be specific. Goals should be clearly stated, both in terms of what we choose to accomplish, and the date when we plan to reach our target. Staying open-ended at either of these points greatly reduces the possibility that we’ll achieve our objective.

4. Goals should involve a clearly defined plan of action. One of the greatest benefits of goal setting is that it allows us to take charge of our life. We are able to peer into the future and lay claim to the time and process that will ensure our success. Even goals that seem impossible for us often can be achieved, if we allow enough time to reach them and plan our steps wisely.

It’s unlikely we’ll be able to predict every step required to accomplish a major goal in advance. Some of the details will only emerge as we move forward. Still, we should do our best to predict the most important steps, then determine how and when we’ll take them. The more fully we can develop a map for the journey ahead, the more likely we are to reach our destination.

The single most important part of this planning is to decide specifically when we’ll invest the time needed for taking the different steps required for reaching our goal, so we can protect it as fully as possible. Start by determining, as best as you can, how much total time you’ll need. Then consider when, in light of your energy and creative flow, are your best times for pursuing your objective--daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. Look also at what other commitments you’ll need to rearrange or cancel to make way for this time. Design a schedule, even if it covers many years, which allows sufficient quality time for accomplishing your dream. Carving out this time, and guarding it as sacred, will make all the difference in hitting your target.

5. Goals should be established in prayer. While anyone can profit from goal setting, regardless of their spiritual orientation, we have an unparalleled advantage as Christians in planning our future. Through prayer we are able to connect directly with the heart of God, and enjoy the supreme benefits that result.

When setting a major goal, we do best to give some generous time to prayer. We should ask God to direct our thinking, to help us understand the desires and gifts he has given us that most deserve our attention, and to make the wisest choice of a goal among the many options before us. Just as important, we should ask him to give us courage to move forward with what he is prompting us to do. We should also ask him to help us determine a clear strategy for carrying out our goal.

Once our goal is established, we should commit it to Christ, in the spirit of Proverbs 16:3. Prayer, of course, should not end at this point. We should continue to seek God’s direction and strength as we move ahead, asking him daily to show us any changes or mid-course corrections we need to make. It’s here that goal setting can have the auxiliary benefit of deepening our relationship with Christ, by allowing us to experience his companionship in the great adventures of our life.

6. Goals should be flexible. Once we’ve established the process and deadline for achieving a goal, we should assume these details are realistic and follow them earnestly and confidently. Yet we should also recognize in humility that we don’t know the future--how circumstances will unfold, or what doors God may open for us. Our understanding of our own potential is always evolving as well. There is no shame, as we move ahead, in changing the deadline for a goal, rethinking some of its specifics, or even dropping the goal itself if we find it no longer fits our life as we now understand it. Such revising goes with the territory, even in the most competent goal setting.

In 1997 the Sons of Thunder set a goal to produce a new album--our first in twenty-five years. Our plan was to accomplish this task with a $10,000 budget, three days of recording and three days of mixing, and to have a compact disc available by June 1998. The first shipment of CDs finally arrived on Christmas Eve of that year. By then, we had spent nearly $40,000, and made nearly twenty additional visits to the studio beyond what we’d planned. Still, there’s not the slightest question that the album would still be a wish dream apart from our having had a firm goal, which galvanized these widely dispersed folks--spread out in eight cities around the United States--to accomplish a task we at first thought inconceivable.

The adjustments you have to make in pursuing a major goal may not be nearly as extreme as this. Still, you’ll probably find it necessary, even with the best-laid plan, to make some revision in the timing and process as you move along. Yet you will hit your primary target, if you don’t lose heart--and that’s the important thing. And the fact that you have a goal will make all the difference in what you’re able to accomplish.

7. Goals should be written down. Take time to record your goal and plan of action in writing. Articulate the details as precisely as you can. The process of writing helps greatly to clarify your thinking, and provides a reliable record when your memory lags. Apart from putting the specifics in writing, we limit the effectiveness of a goal--far more than we usually realize.

8. Goals should be rehearsed. We possess no ability--natural or learned--that doesn’t atrophy when unused. Our ability to walk diminishes if we’re bedridden only a short time. We should treat goals as we do our most cherished skills. We should "practice" them--that is, rehearse and reclaim them often. Most important, we need to rekindle our motivation for them frequently.

We should do this daily with a major goal. Take time to pray over such a goal each day. You may find it helpful to read over your written resolution, or recite it aloud. Visualize yourself succeeding. Imagine it’s the day that you’ve finally achieved your goal; you’re thinking back over all the time and effort you’ve invested to reach this point, immensely glad you never gave up. You’re looking forward to a big celebration. Enjoy the exhilaration of this image for a moment. Then pray, asking God to help you make it a reality.

9. Goals should involve accountability and enlist "cheerleaders." Most of us take great encouragement from knowing others are rooting for us to reach a goal. We benefit considerably from being accountable to others as well. Enlist your cheering squad--even if it’s just one individual. Ask this person or persons to pray for you and encourage you as you work toward your goal, and make a pledge to them that you’ll stay faithful to your intentions. Draw on their support as you move forward. And, of course, celebrate your victory with them when your mission is accomplished!

10. Goals should be celebrated! There’s nothing unprofound in saying that we should celebrate a goal once we’ve reached it. In our driven nature, we can easily bypass time devoted purely to enjoying our achievement, out of zeal to move on to new projects. In devising a plan of action for a goal, we ought to plan in time for celebrating--not only our final victory, but also intermediate triumphs along the way. Knowing these occasions for rejoicing are in place will increase our incentive to move toward our goal. They will also give us special opportunity to thank God for what he has enabled us to accomplish--and, most important, to feel thankful to him, and to grasp in our heart as fully as possible all that he has done for us.

Goal setting should add a substantial element of joy to our life, for we’re taking action to improve our life, and to harness our creative potential much more constructively. The hope for this joy is an important incentive to move forward.

Experiencing this joy is also critical, for it deepens our gratitude to God, enhances our health, and boosts our productivity and the benefit of our life to others. Planning times simply to experience such elation isn’t frivolous, but part of the process that will best enable our life to be a channel of God’s grace to the world.

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