May 27, 2022 4 min read

Setting Goals For The Year? First Ask These Three Questions

Many of us are goal-setting and goal-attaining experts. We love the chase. Unfortunately, we get caught up in the pursuit and in the process fail to take a closer look or to question the very thing we are chasing.

There are three critical questions we can ask when setting goals. They highlight the role of choice and how to leverage it to maximize and sustain peak performance.

The Latin root of integrity is "integer" meaning intact or whole and complete. A system that is not whole is handicapped and cannot reach its true potential. Thus performance is a direct function of integrity.

When we are whole and in alignment, performance comes naturally and can be sustained over long periods. In contrast, when goals are out of alignment with what we truly care about, it's harder to get top performance and true satisfaction. Even when we pull it off, it's short-lived.

Performance suffers because we are out of alignment with our true selves and values, and thus out of integrity.

Our true values and selves often tend to be implicit because we have not taken a closer look at our own narratives.

They disclose themselves over time through our experiences, and our actions or inactions. This is often different from what we might be explicitly claiming.

Often it's a trial and error process and comes at the cost of undue suffering and pain. Asking the following three questions on a regular basis helps ensure goals are in alignment with what we actually care about.

  1. Where did our definition of success come from?
  2. Who set the criteria?
  3. Are we taking ownership of our choices?

1. Where did our definition of success come from?

All of us absorb values from the cultures and families we grew up in. Knowingly or unknowingly we have modeled our lives based on people who influenced us. We have negative role models too — people we do not want to be like.

This is natural and nothing wrong with it. The trick is to recognize and account for any potential misalignment between our own values and what we have absorbed from others.

Often we struggle in our endeavors because there is misalignment between our stated values and what we truly care about.

We have to learn to differentiate between our “have to do” and “should be doing” vs our “want to do”.

Regardless of what our definition of success is, and whichever SMART goal we might be pursuing, it’s worth peeling the layers and asking some questions:

  • Did they come from our parents, friends or relatives?
  • Are these societal norms and expectations?
  • Is it from someone we respected or a famous figure?
  • Are we ok with this?
  • Is there a tension between what we are “supposed to be doing or be like” and who we actually want to be?
  • Are we navigating by our own compass or someone else’s?

2. Who set the criteria?

If we set a goal to be a millionaire before 30 to consider ourselves as a “success”, who set that criteria? Was it really us or did we unknowingly pick it up?

We often have arbitrary benchmarks of success without actually asking if that’s what we truly want. More importantly, are we willing to make the necessary tradeoffs? The tradeoffs are often not in alignment with our own true nature and needs.

Who are we competing with? What are we comparing against?

3. Are we taking ownership of our choices?

A common reason goals end up powerless is because we have not yet taken ownership of our choices. We don’t always understand choice when it comes to our own lives.Even the default, aka not doing anything, is a choice for the status quo.

The nature of choice

Choices by definition provoke anxiety. By deciding to choose something we are also deciding to not do ten other potential ones. We suddenly realize that analytical decision making is not as effective when held up against the existential anxiety of making a life changing decision.

What gets unnoticed and goes under-utilized is to own our choices even in situations where we have to do something. Going from “have to do” to "get to do" to “choose to do” something, is a super-power.

Even when adopting someone else’s ideals, recognizing our choice in the process yields more power.

Frustration and disillusionment comes because we think we don’t have a choice. Look a little closer and most of the time we do. Even in situations where we truly and objectively do not have a choice, acknowledging that fact and taking ownership makes a huge difference.

We might not be ok with the potential consequences of a choice but regardless we do have one.

Recognition of choice can make all the difference in how much commitment and power we bring to pursuits.

Love of fate

Invoking Nietzsche’s idea of amor fati, here’s how Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi put it in Finding Flow:

A simple way of improving the quality of life is to take ownership of one’s actions.

A great deal of what we do (over two-thirds, on the average) are things we feel we have to do, or we do because there isn’t anything else we feel like doing. Many people spend their entire lives feeling like puppets who move only because their strings are pulled. […]

There are many things in life that we must do and don’t like doing. It may be sitting in meetings, or taking out the garbage, or keeping track of bills. Some of these are unavoidable; no matter how ingenious we are, we still must do them. So the choice is either to do them against the grain, grumbling about the imposition-or do them willingly.

In both cases we are stuck with having to do the activity, but in the second case the experience is bound to be more positive. One can set goals for even the most despised task: for instance, to mow the lawn as quickly and efficiently as possible. The very act of setting the goal will take much of the sting out of a chore.

This attitude toward one’s choices is well expressed in the concept of amor fati- or love of fate- a central concept in Nietzsche’s philosophy.

For instance, in discussing what it takes to live fully, he writes: “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity…. Not merely bear what is necessary . . . but love it.

– Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi in Finding Flow

Next time you sit down for a review of your goals, consider them through the above 3 lenses.

What do they illuminate? What will you do differently?

Further reading

For a deep dive into the nuances of goal-setting check out Effective Goal-Setting Using 14 Different Dimensions.

Another important framework in peak performance is deliberate practice. I examine it from the context of leadership development in Using Deliberate Practice to Increase Leadership Effectiveness.

Sheril Mathews
I am an executive/leadership coach. Before LS, I worked for 20 years in corporate America in various technical & leadership roles. Have feedback? You can reach me at
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