When I was a new mother some 20+ years ago, Gina Ford published ‘The contented Little Baby Book” outlining her strict daily routines for parents and babies to follow, based on her experience as a maternity nurse. Opinions on the book split the world of new parents. Some of my friends saw it as a godsend – finally, they had a manual on how to manage their babies, along with detailed timings as to what to do and when.

Others like me, took a more earth-mother approach, going with the flow and hating the idea of a strictly enforced routine. It was at that point in my life that it really struck me that maybe neither approach was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but what was important was to find an approach that suited the parents’ organisational style. Some people love lists, structure, routines and goals – others prefer a more meandering approach to life, going with the flow and pursuing what interests them at the time.

Both approaches have pros and cons, and whatever our personal style is (and that may change over time and circumstances), we should embrace our strengths, but also be humble enough to realise that a different approach also has its strengths and at times we can learn something from that.

Fast forward 20 years and whilst studying Snyder’s hope theory in Positive Psychology, I realised I had a problem with the word ‘goals’. Say ‘goal’ to me and it takes me back to working in IT in the 1980s and the acronym SMART – you will be more likely to meet a goal if it is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. This is an entirely sensible idea, so why does the word make my inner anarchist squirm so much?

Maybe because in my mind’s eye, it makes the word ‘goal’ sound like something dry and logical, without taking into account any emotional component? What about the value of that goal in the first place? The importance of trying it even if it might not be achievable? And most of all, ‘goal’ to me sounds very outcome focused – we either achieve a goal or we don’t – but what about the learning along the way which may be as valuable as a successful outcome? What if we don’t quite know what we want to achieve in the first place?

A second problem that I see related to focus on ‘goals’ is it relates to a western ideal of focusing on personal achievement. Not that there’s necessarily a problem with personal achievement – it can be great! But again it comes back to that classic phrase, it’s the journey, not the destination.

A couple of years ago, I signed up for a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology at Buckinghamshire New University. In a way, I had a ‘goal’ of completing the course – which I achieved. But the important part to me wasn’t the qualification (albeit that does give me a nice rosy glow when I think about it), but it was the process of getting the degree that was the best bit. I travelled to Bucks once a month (until COVID interrupted), met so many wonderful people, had great conversations and learnt so many new things. That was the real ‘goal’ for me – but it was full of twists and turns and unexpected benefits along the way. Even if I hadn’t finished my Masters, I would have gained so much through going through the process.

Another example of a ‘goal’ I have pursued in the past was to have a family. After a number of years of infertility investigations and treatments, we finally went down the route of IVF, and were lucky enough to succeed on the second attempt, resulting in twins – a whole family in one go! When I studied Hope theory during my course – I thought back to this time, and whether the desire for a family met the idea of having a ‘goal’? Yes, it was a ‘goal’ of sorts, but at what point could I say ‘goal completed!’. On the day we got the fantastic news I was pregnant? On the day the scan revealed that I was expecting twins? The day that I gave birth? When they went to school? When they finally left home and became independent adults? (We’re still working on that one…) Having a family isn’t so much a ‘goal’ as a journey, an ongoing process of following my values and prioritising what is important and meaningful to me, in the same way that working on my Masters was.

Although I have had a sense of discomfort with the word ‘goal’ for a while, it was recently whilst reading an excellent book called “The Happiness Trap” (Harris, 2007), that I came across an excellent quote that crystallised this for me:

“It’s important to recognise that values are not the same thing as goals. A value is a direction we desire to keep moving in, an ongoing process that never ends.”

Thinking about it in those terms, it made sense to me why I have a problem with ‘goal setting’. I spent some time thinking about my values, and came up with three themes which capture them – Curiosity, Learning & Exploring, Connection to Others (which includes a sense of fairness and equality), and Connection to Nature. I can see that moving in the direction of my values is often a meandering process – curiosity side tracks me, looking at the flowers in the garden or doing creative stuff with the kids was always more interesting than tidying up or “getting things done”.

For me, a better approach to intentional behaviour is to set myself a ‘challenge’ rather than a goal. I’m often more motivated by “what happens if I do this? What will I learn? What interesting conversations about it will I have?” than the satisfaction of achieving something and ticking the box.

Spending some time identifying your values can be really useful in that it makes sure that you are heading in the right direction in life, and not getting side-tracked by the achievement of goals that don’t meet your values. Having identified my values in this way, when I start thinking “shall I do so and so” I can relate it back to my values – is this something I really want to do? Or that I feel I ‘should’ do? Psychologists Ryan and Deci (2000) call this “Intrinsic motivation” – being motivated by our internal values. When we are intrinsically motivated, we are far more likely to persist and achieve our aims than when we are motivated by extrinsic values – external rewards such as money or approval from others.

So whether you are a person who loves structure and lists and are happy setting ‘goals’, or whether you prefer to meander and set yourself ‘challenges’ like me, take some time to think out what are your values. What is important to you? Dig deep. If you think “I would like to have lots of money”, why is that? If you had all the time and money you wanted, what would you do? Spend more time with friends? Maybe what you really value is connection to others. Travel?

Maybe like me, you are curious about other places and cultures. If you can identify your core values, you can set a better direction in your life. Yes, you might have to work, but if you choose a job where you put your values in action every day, it will be much more satisfying than one that doesn’t. And even if your life is full of things that you need to do and you don’t have much choice, you can start to carve out little pockets of working on things that do matter to you. And it’s not just ‘what do I want to do?’ but also ‘What sort of a person do I want to be?’ , ‘what sort of relationships do I want to build’ and ‘what do I value’?

To conclude, I will still wriggle if you use the word ‘goal’ too much, but I accept that’s me and if you love the word, that’s OK. But the important point is to think about how your direction in life aligns with your values. When you set a goal, is it moving you in the direction you desire? Or if you aren’t quite sure of what goals you want to set, start moving in that direction anyway by taking a small step. You might not know what will happen or be 100% sure of where you are going, but hopefully, you will enjoy the journey along the way.


Harris, R. (2007). The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living. The Happiness Trap, 7(2).
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68

Read more about Sarah Cramoysan and her other articles HERE


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