Not all goals are created equal.
When life gets a little hectic, it’s alright to set goals that make life a little easier. That’s what writer, activist and podcast host Emily Ladau said she was setting out to do in 2022. Her tweet about FUN goals — flexible, uplifting, and numberless — went mildly viral last month and a lot of people agreed: this is the year to make goals fun again.
“I'm not setting ‘SMART’ goals this year, despite all the ‘expert’ advice to the contrary,” she later wrote on Instagram. “I know this won't be everyone's vibe, and that's okay. But for me, 2022 is the year for FUN goals.”
That’s not to say that SMART goals — specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely — don’t have a place in our lives, but not every intention requires such a thorough and daunting plan. Sometimes, they can be just what Ladau says they can be: fun.
Psychologists seem to agree that aspects of Landau's strategy are actually key parts of making goals work. Giving yourself a little bit of grace, being “flexible”, and finding ways to frame goals that add to your life (instead of take away) are actually helpful elements of healthy goal-setting.
Here’s what the experts have to say about goal and making any aspiration a fun one.
There is a time and place for rigid goals, but taking a flexible approach may be the way to go if you want to succeed in a meaningful way.
“This is understandable when you consider that most of us aren’t actually very good at predicting our actions and behaviors. Adopting a somewhat elastic approach to setting goals allows us some future wiggle room,” writes organizational psychologists Helen Mankin and Steve Martin for the Harvard Business Review.
Both psychologists recommend, however, that while you may be making a flexible goal, your pursuit should be more on the rigid side. For example, your goal may be to “save more money.” How much you’re saving and your end goal may change over time — the goal itself is flexible — but your approach should have structure.
That’s because reaching goals all seems to come down to decision-making, and it turns out we make a lot of decisions during the day, as many as 35,000 of them, according to several studies.
“So in the context of an already information-overloaded, decision-fatigued workforce, one thing people will likely appreciate is the need to make fewer, not more, decisions,” the duo says. “And that’s exactly what a rigid approach to goal pursuit offers.”
This delicate balance between flexible and firm can feel contradictory, but if you think of it in terms of what you are working toward, it makes more sense. A rigid goal, with no room for movement, can be discouraging, but giving yourself permission to rework the parameter of the goal is empowering.
Instead of dwelling on what aspects of the goal pursuit aren’t working, you can start thinking about how to make the mission work for you. In the end, that might mean you avoid giving up altogether, which can be a common occurrence.
After all, Ladau says, “life happens, things change and goals shift.” That’s more than okay. Don’t hold yourself to an impossible standard or one that isn’t working for you any longer.
Some goals can feel like a put down. How often do you refer to goals in terms of losing or removing something from your life? While we often think that line of thinking can be motivational — and to some degree it might — it also establishes negative thinking from the get go.
There may be things in your life you need to change, but the way you frame them will make a big difference. Instead of setting your goal by thinking about what you need to get rid of, think about your goal in a way that adds to your life.
For example, your goal may be to get rid of a bad habit. By stating your goal that way, you’re automatically set to think about what you’re losing instead of what you’re gaining. If you’re trying to break a bad habit of spending too much time on your phone, reframe the goal in a way that helps you think about what you gai (like time for real self-care, more sleep or with friends and family).
Not all goal outcomes need to be assigned to a number.
“Nothing will be radically different if I read 29 books this year instead of 30,” Ladau says of her 2022 goals. “I'm still going to be just as focused on progress and committed to social justice activism as I've always been. But this year, I'm doing it in a way that takes off some of the pressure and actually serves me so that in turn, I may better serve others.”
With SMART Goals, the first rule to abide by is to be specific. The reason to be as specific as possible is so that you know exactly what your objective is and what success will look like. Setting a goal that is too ambiguous can lead to a less-than-serious pursuit. If you don’t know where you are headed, you won’t know how to get there.
On the other hand, being overly specific can be overwhelming and lead to an early defeat.
The questions that can help you nail down a specific goal can still apply to a numberless goal:
- What do I want to accomplish?
- Why do I want to achieve this goal?
- When will I achieve this goal?
- Who is relevant to this goal?
- How exactly will I achieve this goal?
The big difference with FUN goals is that being “measurable” looks less specific. You can still resolve to read more books in a year or learn about a certain topic without setting a hard number.
As a result of setting a numberless goal, you might actually find that your plan is much more specific. What can you do to achieve this goal without setting a number? You’re more likely to think bigger in order to get there.