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Turning Reflection on Identity Into Plans and Goals

Using a goal timeline and breaking down each step to create change.

Key points

  • Once you've gained insight into your present identity and influences, consider which parts of these you want to emphasize and which to minimize.
  • Use a Goal Timeline to figure out your short, medium and long-term goals; and check that they are mutually compatible.
  • Break down and be sure to write down these goals in bite-size objectives using one of the tried and tested methods of goal setting and keeping.
  • Use inconsistencies and times when you get distracted from your goals as an opportunity to reflect and rethink, and recommit.

Last month, I wrote about reflecting on and evolving our identity, and how valuable an activity it is at any age. We discussed how to identify some of our patterns of interests, values, behaviors, and responses, particularly those we have developed under the influence of others — our parents, our family, and our surroundings. It is at this point that we must ask ourselves the key question, the most impactful part of our reflection: Which of those influences and patterns do we want to emulate, emphasize, and build upon, and which do we want to minimize, marginalize, or shed?

Once we have thought this through and have a better idea of who we want to be or which "best self" we are aiming for, we need to think about how we go about that. This part is a bit trickier and comes with more pitfalls.

As most people know, we are a bundle of habits and automatic reactions. "We are what we do," we’re told, and neuroscientific research into neural pathways and habit formation bears this out. So how do we enact our lofty goals to create emphasis and change? Well, the initial step is to properly set those goals in the first place.

Defining goals

When we start with this reflection on identity, we inevitably think of larger and maybe long-term goals – to have a successful business career, to make an impact on the world, to have a life of travel, to be the center of a large musical family. This is valuable but makes it hard to know where to start taking agency and create change.

A tool I use with clients for working through this stage is the Goal Timeline. We break down goals into categories like what you would like to achieve in the next year, what goals are appropriate for the next five years, and then a bird’s eye view of what you think of as your life-long goals.

Obviously, this is done differently depending on what stage of life you’re in but is useful whether we’re 20 or 90. I once saw this last stage facilitated by being asked to visualize yourself into your later years – you choose which decade – and reflect on what you would like your life to have included, what you may want to have done, and how you will want to be thought of when you look back. In other words, what is your legacy?

Often people think these things are obvious and that their own goals are not particularly unique but you’d be surprised how distinctive this process is for different people. I’ve done it hundreds of times with clients and no two sets of goals are the same.

Ariadne Calvo-Platero
Source: Ariadne Calvo-Platero

Once you have an outline for your Goal Timeline (see image — imaginary goals for a young professional), the choice is yours as to what you put on it. However, the important next step is to see if your different goals are in sync with each other.

Note the arrows that move from one period to another. Your goals need to make sense within a larger whole if you’re to plan around them. It’s not unusual for individuals to have goals that are not compatible with each other. This should not seriously derail you but does present the opportunity to think more deeply about which of the opposing visions you have for yourself you would prioritize.

Finally, before leaving this exercise, think about your present situation and whether where you are and what you’re doing now fits in with this larger and longer-term idea of yourself. If so, well and good. If not, why not? Add items to your one-year and five-year goals if you see a discrepancy there and need to make more immediate shifts to keep yourself directed to your larger life goals.

Creating SMART goals

Once you’ve finished these early activities — the reflecting, thinking, and planning — we need to move to engagement and action. This, of course, is where the rubber meets the road.

One of the best pieces of advice for being able to act successfully on goal-setting that I’ve absorbed over the years — and my apologies if this is a direct quote as I do not remember from where or whom, but I think it’s actually an amalgamation of, no doubt, rigorous research and also simple, homespun wisdom on the subject: Set your goals and make them manageable, achievable, not too many, and write them down. For some people, manageable and, therefore, more likely to be successful, goal-setting involves setting what’s been described as SMART goals: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-limited.

Ariadne Calvo-Platero
Source: Ariadne Calvo-Platero

It’s a useful acronym that enables us to break down our goals into smaller, bite-sized objectives, which are easier to plan for and achieve. Whichever method you decide to pursue — and there are many to choose from — I think you get the main idea, which is that we can easily be overwhelmed and fail at the first hurdle if we overstretch with too many goals or set the bar too high.

And that instruction to write it down is key. First, the very process of writing it down is a form of commitment; second, it is something to refer back to; and third, it can be a constant reminder if you keep it visible (a card pinned to your desk wall may seem simplistic but it can have positive results.)

In next month’s post, we’ll look at further ways to work on prioritizing and keeping track. But keep in mind that the notes you take during the process and the visuals you create are really helpful tools. Staying mindful and intentional about goals and plans also takes time and effort. Finally, remember that “falling off the horse” is part of the process and to be expected. Reviewing, recommitting, and “getting back up” are what make the difference and can keep us on course and feeling fulfilled.

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