The First Rule Of Goal Setting

You need a BIG – Bold, Important, Gratifying – goal and you need a plan. The plan gets you started, but the plan you start with is likely not the plan that will get you to your goal. Be adamant about your goal, but be flexible in the plan to get you there.
clear goals flexible plans

A Plethora Of Plans

I had a difficult experience trying to find a job when I first moved to South Carolina. My wife and I, newly married, moved here when she was offered a position as a high school media specialist. I was finishing my degree in data processing. Computer programmers were in high demand, and we assumed I would have no trouble landing a job. However, this was not the case.

I began by having 100 resumes printed with our new address and phone number. I mailed them out, unsolicited, to 100 companies I identified in our area. Then, I waited for two weeks with not a single call. Then we learned from our local phone company that the phone number they said was our new number was not the correct one. I had mailed out 100 resumes with a non-working phone number!

I corrected the number on my resume, but I couldn’t afford to have another 100 copies printed. Time for Plan B. I had twenty-five corrected ones printed, then I began scanning the Classified Ads of the local paper. (There was no internet in 1981.) I contacted several companies that had openings, and I got a couple of chances to interview. However, companies looking for experienced programmers had little interest in an entry-level person.

Plan C saw me take a job as an inventory control clerk . . . a stop-gap measure while I continued to look for a programming job. In fact, I thought perhaps I could work my way into the IT department of the company I went to work for, but that was not to be.

Then, I was contacted by a headhunter, a recruiter to whom I had been referred by a relative. Plan D. I was skeptical at first, but this lady worked tirelessly to help me find a job. She eventually connected me with the company that offered me my first job as a programmer. I had finally reached my goal.

Be Clear About Your Goal

“Here is the most important rule of goals: ‘Be clear about your goal but be flexible about the process of achieving it.’” ~ Brian Tracy

As my job hunting experience illustrates, you must be absolutely clear about your goal. We call this end result the “outcome goal”. If my goal had simply been “to get a job”, I would have reached it when I went to work as an inventory control clerk. But I was clear about my ultimate aim – to get a job in my chosen field. That first job was just a step on the path to my final destination.

Now I am assuming you have a BIG – Bold, Important, Gratifying – goal. If not, you may want to start here. At this point, you may have no idea how you are going to reach your goal. You need a plan. Or you may be well on your way. You are following a plan. But be prepared to change to a new plan if necessary.

“Be clear about your goal, but be flexible about the process of achieving it.”

Be Clear About Your Plans

We learn from Jeff Olson in The Slight Edge that there are three steps for starting toward your goal.

  1. Write it down.
  2. Look at it every day.
  3. Start with a plan.

You must start with a clear plan. “The power of a plan,” writes Olson, “is that it will get you started.” [Olson] But the plan you start with is NOT the plan that will take you to your goal. You don’t know what that plan is yet. If your goal is truly BIG, there are too many variables. It isn’t possible to come up with a finished plan . . . yet.

“You have to start with a plan,” Olson says, “but the plan you start with will not be the plan that gets you there.” [Olson] You’re on the path, but, at this point, it isn’t a clear path.

Expect Obstacles

If your goal is sufficiently BIG (read “challenging”), you will encounter obstacles. Consider that a given. Sometimes, a common reaction is to express surprise and dismay: “Oh, no! This can’t be happening to me!?!” In The Psychology Of Hope, Charles Snyder advises us to realize (in advance) that life throws curve balls. Don’t assume that you alone run into obstacles on your way to your goals. [Snyder] It happens to us all. And sometimes, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of that fact.

Just remember, as Marcus Aurelius, Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor, wrote in his Meditations: “Our actions may be impeded . . . but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting.” [Aurelius]

When you encounter obstacles, be clear about your goal, but be flexible about the process of achieving it.

When you do that, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” [Aurelius]

Should You Burn Your Boats?

If you have a Plan B, does that mean you don’t have faith in your Plan A? I was recently invited to contribute to a blog post by Roli Edema that asked this question: “What’s better – to burn the boats, or have a plan B when pursuing a big goal?”

Burning the boats refers to the practice of military commanders in ancient times who instructed their men to burn the ships before a battle, to cut off retreat and create a point of no return. With their ships burned, the soldiers had to fight or die.

Roli asked the questions: “Do you believe in burning the boats to achieve your goals? Does a plan B distract you from your plan A? Or is it too risky?” Twenty-five bloggers and authors responded to the questions. Although they gave differing opinions, I believe the majority of us agreed that putting all your hopes and efforts into one plan can lead to disappointment.

My own viewpoint is that burning the boats is a way to keep from retreating, not a way to advance. The plan is not the goal. You must have a plan – the best you can make it – and commit to the plan. But understand that the plan will likely change, while the goal remains the same.

Don’t mix up Plans A, B, C, etc. with your goal. These are means, not the end.

Methods And Intentions

OK, so you have a bullet-proof plan (so you think) and you head off full steam ahead to your chosen destination, your goal. But then you come upon a snake in the path, or a boulder, or a car crash, or an earthquake, or you get sick, or confused, or tired. You begin to think, “Things aren’t working out. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.” Don’t confuse methods – the means to reach your goal – with intention – the end result, your goal.

Just because your 1st method, or 2nd, or 3rd, or 57th, didn’t work doesn’t mean your intention is not valid or achievable. It’s a mistake to allow your methods to determine your intentions. Too many people live unfulfilled lives because they are merely shuffling through their methods, trying to make do with what they have. It’s like saying, “Well, I have this car. Where can I go?” This is a very limiting way to exist.

How much more fulfilling to find your Purpose, choose intentions that honor your purpose, then determine the methods for putting your intentions into practice. Don’t limit yourself to what you already have. Turn the question around: “Here’s where I want to go. Now, how can I get there?”

Decide what you want and set the intention. Then, get busy on the methods you’ll need to fulfill the intention. And be ready to try different methods when you need to. You may be surprised at what you find.

One Goal, Many Plans (as many as you need)

If you need to burn your boats, burn ’em. But be ready to build a better boat. One of the benefits of getting started with a plan is that it allows you to learn things you need to know in order to craft a better plan.

Remember, your plan is not the goal; the means are not the end. Be steadfast in following your plan, and be flexible in improving it as you go along. Or scrap it if necessary and come up with a new plan. Don’t look at your current resources (i.e., methods or means) and decide what you can do with them. Decide first what you want to do, then find the means to do it.

And if your plan doesn’t work? Don’t abandon your goal. Be clear about what you want. Adapt your plan to meet the current situation. Be flexible about how you get it. That is embracing the Excelerated Life™!

Excelerated Goal Setting™ — planning and achieving BIG (Bold, Important, Gratifying) goals — is one step in creating your Excelerated Life™, a life of flourishing and well-being and a life of meaning, purpose and service.

Read more about the Excelerated Life™.


Aurelius, Marcus. The Meditations Of Marcus Aurelius. Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Publishing, a Division of Long Hill Parterns, Inc., 2012.

Olson, Jeff. The Slight Edge. Austin, TX: Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2005-2013.

Snyder, Charles. The Psychology Of Hope – You Can Get There From Here. New York: The Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, 1994.

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