Goal setting is one of those things that seems like it would be fundamental to success. If you’ve read any books or articles about getting ahead in your career or life, you’ve probably come across tips on setting goals (like SMART goal setting) so that you can successfully meet them. Setting goals isn’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to managing your career.
But setting goals may not be as relevant anymore, and there may be better alternatives to managing your career–and your life.
Part of the reason goal setting may be becoming irrelevant is because of the speed of change and the volatility of the world. When everything is moving so fast and changing, the goals you set for yourself can become redundant.
That said, it’s very powerful to imagine yourself succeeding in the future and focus on your preferred version of tomorrow. The key is to seek to be directionally accurate, knowing that things are constantly changing in a way you can’t always predict.
Here are five effective ways to take charge of your career when you’re operating in an unpredictable landscape.
1. VISUALIsE THE FUTURE
You’ve probably heard of elite athletes who picture themselves succeeding and having tremendous success. This is a process that can be effective outside of sports. For example, a study by St. Michael’s Hospital found when emergency room doctors or trauma healthcare workers imagined how they would deal with a challenging situation, they were more successful.
The practice of mental mapping–imagining the future with a lot of detail and clarity–allows you to picture what that preferred future will look like. You visualize what it’ll sound like and feel like, as well as how you might work through obstacles. Experts believe this works because you’re preparing your mind, and when you get to a similar situation in real life, you’ll be primed to respond and take the right action. This general vision is more effective than goal setting. Instead of plotting steps that unexpected events might derail, you’re imagining a fully realized picture of the future rather than your calendar or task list.
Detailed mental maps can also help you articulate the process and bring others in. Suppose you’re solving a tricky problem at work and you visualize the potential solutions and outcome in detail. You’ll be able to express what might happen and share the necessary steps with others in a more specific way, increasing your likelihood of success.
2. ADJUST YOUR TARGET
A twist on mental mapping has to do with how you visualize your target. This was demonstrated by researchers at Purdue University. When golfers visualized a hole as bigger, they made their shot more often. Previous research found a similar effect with football players. When they imagined wider goal posts, they were more likely to make a successful kick.
Researchers believe that when you adjust your perception of a target, you increase your confidence, and that helps you perform better. Say your vision is to be a compelling speaker. When you imagine the audience nodding, smiling, and applauding wildly, you may enhance your likelihood of success.
3. INTRODUCE SOME DISTANCE FROM YOUR GOALS
Another way to think about what you want in the future is to imagine yourself in the third person. Research at York University and Wilfrid Laurier University explored the conditions for people’s success in multiple situations like school, work, and performing arts. When people imagined themselves in the third person–as if an audience were watching them succeed–their motivation levels increased.
When people see themselves in the future, they tend to be better at solving problems, because they feel more objective and disconnected from what might be an emotional or nervous situation. Anxiety can get in the way if you’re interviewing for a new role or negotiating a high-stakes deal with a customer. But if you’re able to visualize the situation as if you’re watching it like a spectator, you’ll probably increase your odds of success.
4. ALLOW THINGS TO EMERGE NATURALLY
Another alternative to traditional goal setting is to set a direction and then let the specific steps emerge naturally. You may want a particular role in your organization, and a conventional approach would have you set a course for classes to take, people to meet, and a progression of jobs to get you there. But having tunnel vision can be limiting. If one of the steps doesn’t happen according to your plan, everything else can fall like dominoes.
A better alternative is to set your course and respond as opportunities happen. Start by watching for unanticipated opportunities: There may be a job you hadn’t imagined on your path, but you consider it because it will develop your skills. Or, you might take on a project outside your normal responsibilities and create a new set of contacts who can influence your career later on.
5. Be Aware of What’s Going on Around You
Another aspect of achieving your aims in the future is to be constantly tuning into the what’s going on around you. If you’re overly focused on your goals, you may only look for what you’ve anticipated rather than tuning into how the world is changing. Focus on the circumstances around you, and you’ll be more ready to react and respond. For example, when you notice your organization’s shifts in strategy, you can anticipate a project you might volunteer for. The world is changing, so it’s only logical that your response should as well. In a volatile landscape of work and opportunity, it can be counter-productive to seek too much certainty. Instead, put your energy into detailed visualizations of where you’ll go, and you’ll be more likely to get there. Remember, today’s options won’t be the same as tomorrow’s alternatives.
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