How to set goals if you don’t know what you actually want. I often get asked this question. There is a dangerous illusion that only if you know exactly what you want you can get it. More often than not people who end up being successful in what they do (or how they live their lives) know what kind of life they want, but not exactly what they want.
The second illusion is that even if you knew what you wanted it is unlikely that you could get exactly that. Getting what you want may actually lead to a disappointment. We don’t often know what is good for us until we let life’s experiences shape us. For instance, 8 years ago I didn’t know that I wanted to lead a women’s network. DrivenWoman had not yet been born. But I did know I wanted to make an impact and explore what I’m capable of doing, and grow.
Accepting that you can’t always get what you want and that it may be good for you sets you off to a good start. This is not to suggest that drifting through life without any goals is a good idea. It’s valuable to consciously plan ahead and set goals. Regular reviews of the way you want to live helps you make most of the one life you have – and live it to the full.
Here are 5 steps you can take immediately to plan your life, even if you don’t know what you want.
1) List four focus areas in your life
We have created a simple matrix we use at our Lifeworking workshops that helps you to set goals in all areas of your life. The tool is called My Life Matrix and it helps you create a ‘Bigger Life Plan’. Most of us do lists and goals for work but not for our relationships or wellbeing, for example. It is very easy to get carried away with work or a project and neglect other areas of your life completely.
In my matrix I have Relationship (with my husband), Family (kids and living the family life), Impact (how I can influence others and how my work influences me) and the fourth area is Balance (the ‘enjoy the journey‘ part and includes everything from riding a horse to art and cooking with friends).
What are four key areas in your life? What actions do you need to take to improve these areas?
2) What kind of feelings and experiences do you want in your life?
List what kind of feelings you would like to feel or experiences you would like to have in each of the four key areas. What activities give you a boost of self-esteem or make you feel energised? What kind of people do you want to work with?
When you don’t know what you want it is not fruitful to set goals based on achievement, but based on what kind of days you want to live. My favourite exercise is ‘The Perfect Day’ where you write down what happens in a course of one day from waking up to going to bed. You can cram as much in as you like and describe whatever is important to you. I write this up every 5 years and so far it has worked wonders!
3) Are you doing things that point you in a direction that excites you more?
I interviewed Jodi Ettenberg who writes a fantastic travel and food blog called Legal Nomads it is probably one of the most genuine and personality-filled blogs I’ve came across so far. She went from being a successful NYC based commercial lawyer to traveling the world for 8 years.
I asked her how she has ended up where she is now and how she initially coped with the uncertainty of leaving her big job. She told me she grasped what made her passionate – travel and food – and just ran with it. She doesn’t think one should necessarily chase one ultimate goal, but to keep an open mind with each step and be aware of new opportunities that arise around you. Her advice was to weigh each option against how they are going to make you feel and if they excite you.
It is a good idea to make a list of things that excite you and not just expect those moments to happen. This will equip you to become better in spotting the opportunities that might lead to a more fulfilling direction in your life.
4) “I don’t know what I want” – List what is ‘Hot’ and what is ‘Cold’
We used to play a game called ‘It’s Getting Hotter’ when we were kids. One would hide an object in a room and the others would have to find it based on tips such as ‘Hot’, ‘Hotter’ or ‘Cold’. If you were in the ‘Cold’ area of the room you had to move to another part and try to discover if it would be a success. Staying in the ‘Cold’ would not bring results as your friends would move around and most certainly get the ‘It’s Getting Hotter’ call soon enough. Sometimes one ended up searching the whole room before succeeding.
You can list areas in your life that are ‘Cold’ and the ones that are ‘Hotter’ or ‘Hot’ to help you set goals to find your way. Move away from ‘Cold’ and towards things that are ‘Getting Hotter’ but ultimately try to find the bulls eye in ‘Hot’. As long as you are getting closer, you are on the right track.
5) List actions you can take today to start moving towards your bigger life
Think of small steps you can take immediately to start making the ideas, thoughts and concepts listed above a reality. Don’t start from drastic moves such as moving to a different continent. Little steps can often give more information and you can further refine your goals as you make progress.
Make sure you write down at least one immediately actionable step for each of the four boxes in your matrix. And remember that you will have to step outside of your comfort zone in order to start discovering what it is you want.
Can you please explain number 4 a bit more? I don’t quite get it. What do you mean find areas of your life that are cold?
Hi Mehrnaz, it’s a metaphor. Things that are “cold” are things that don’t excite you, they don’t make you curious, they don’t make you feel alive, they don’t bring you professional or personal fulfilment. You have to try things out to know if they are “cold”, “warm” or “hot”. Trying things out may mean starting in a new position or a job, starting a side project, writing a blog and exploring different topics, taking part in a charitable activity and so on. Over time you can see the those things will leave you “cold” or if you get excited about them. What you want over time is to spend less and less time with activities (in your work and in your personal life) that leave you “cold’ and more and more time with things that make you feel alive. I hope this helps?