Each year we are inundated with lists of New Year’s resolutions that we “should” be doing. We often set annual goals based on the preceding year’s actions (or inactions). We go to the gym diligently for a few weeks and avoid leftover holiday treats until at least Valentine’s Day. Many of us then forget what those resolutions were (if we ever set them) and feel guilty when we have the same resolutions the next year.
But what if we look at goals as a benefit, not an assignment? As a launchpad, not a mandate? What if instead of “have to,” we “get to” set and move toward our goals? And what if we gain something not only in the final achievement but on the journey toward the goal, too?
A Better Way to Set Goals
Studies and life experiences show us that pursuing self-concordant goals can make people happier. Self-concordant goals are goals that express a person’s being, not those imposed on the individual. They are aligned with a person’s authentic self and what the person wants to do. They represent enduring interest and values set by the goal setter, not by an external source. A self-concordant goal for new attorneys could be that they want to improve their emotional intelligence by becoming more empathetic to clients. A goal that is likely not self-concordant would be billing 1,600 hours.
Erin R. Ogden, Chicago-Kent 2003, is a partner in Ogden Glazer + Schaefer, Madison. She is a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Business Law, Intellectual Property and Technology Law, and Solo/Small Firm & General Practice sections.
Determining What Is Meaningful. The first questions to ask when setting goals are the following: What matters to me? What do I want to accomplish? And why? If you can’t answer the “why,” then a resolution likely will not last. And if the why seems to be external, recognize the goal for what it is. Not all goals must be self-concordant, but you likely will need more motivation to reach them because you are not basing them on internalized interests.
Trying to stick to a resolution can do much more than giving the satisfaction of attaining the substance of the goal (for example, going to the gym three times per week, reading 100 books, responding to emails within 24 hours). After all, goals are not merely the ends; they also include the means. Goals often are couched as restrictions: Lose 10 pounds, so don’t eat that cake. Go to Hawaii, so don’t go to Nashville. But goals can liberate, too.
Fewer Choices Can Be Freeing
Goals can be liberating by providing parameters and thus reducing the number of choices. Goals set a destination. They guide you on the journey to where you want to go. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice and the Cheshire Cat discuss this:
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where--” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“-so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
Alice is wandering and will keep doing so until she picks a destination. Each crossroads requires an arbitrary decision that lacks meaning but likely is made only after lengthy consideration and without much confidence. People in Alice’s position spend a lot of time and effort looking at pros and cons, but doing so doesn’t help because there is nothing to measure the results against.
But if we know our destination, then we have guidance for each decision. Which option will get me closer to my goal? We now know what to measure. Will this take me closer to or farther away from my goal? Is this slowing my progress or speeding it up? Is this attractive but a distraction nonetheless? We only have answers if we have a destination.
Goals are also liberating because they allow us to focus. If we know where we need to go, we can focus on how to get there. We can focus on making better decisions and focus on where we are now. We don’t have to take time and effort to decide and debate the “where” and, instead, can focus on the “how.”
Goals Are Catalysts
Goals provoke change. The creation of clear goals, on its own, moves a person toward achieving them. William H. Murray wrote the following in The Scottish Himalayan Expedition:
“Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative or creation, there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: That the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would otherwise never have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have believed would have come his way.”
Murray then wrote (possibly quoting Goethe), “Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace, and power in it. In other words, by committing, by starting, you start gears that you don’t even know about yet.”
Another analogy is Newton’s First Law of Motion, which states that a body at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force acts on it, and a body in motion at a constant velocity will remain in motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an outside force. That is, if you aren’t moving, you will stay still until pushed, but if you are in motion, you will stay in motion until stopped.
Goals are part of the push. Routine distractions are part of the stopping. But a goal can help push a person to stay in motion even when frictions slow the person down or tempt the person to put on the brakes. A self-concordant goal will push a person forward with more force for a longer time than will an externally imposed goal.
Self-concordant Goals Are Powerful
Meaningful goals, ones that reverberate with you, tend to be stronger than goals that are imposed by other people. An external push might set you in motion but the motion will be easily slowed by life’s routine obstacles. In contrast, self-concordant goals tend to lessen the friction and provide continuous pushes. There is a role for other people: Seeking support from an “accountability partner” can help you overcome the friction and maintain momentum.
Your goals are for you, and they are most powerful when you create them. They will liberate you, focus you, and compel you to move forward.
Consider a billable-hours goal. Although many people are subject to externally imposed numbers – from bosses or because of expense lines on profit-and-loss statements – one need not think of them only as numbers. Billable hours can reflect experience gained. A self-concordant goal that correlates with that external mandate might be, “Gain 400 hours in novel real estate transactional experience.”
A time-related goal for a business owner might be, “Go to Hawaii for two weeks with my family and look at them rather than my phone while there.”
If you set goals to gain clarity and momentum, the path to the top might be easier, shorter, and more meaningful.
» Cite this article: 96 Wis. Law. 39-40 (April 2023).