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  • Stephanie Thrower

Context Matters In Goal Setting

We tend to neglect the importance of context on our success & failures in goal attainment. We are trained and socialized to think "If I individually approach a task or goal in the optimal way, I will succeed. And if I don't...well, that's my problem." I think the counter to that idea is if we are successful, we often don't give our context or environment the credit for our success.


Of course, both are problematic.


Ultimately there are optimal contexts for goal attainment to promote self-efficacy. For example, my relationship with goal-setting began when I was 8. It has never been more clear to me now how I was trained (and trained and trained and trained) to set goals as a young gymnast.


 


 

I remember watching my well-used VHS tape of “Gymnastics Greatest Stars” (which actually taught me a lot about the history of gymnastics, the resilience of young girls under immense pressure, and international competition...and it's relationship with war) and say to myself “Oh! I want to learn that skill! And that one! And that one!” My self-talk was apparently very enthusiastic.


Gymnastics is indeed an optimal context to learn about goal setting, at least how I was taught in the late 80s/early 90s. As a gymnast, goal attainment always involved repetition (a lot of repetition) and tiny incremental steps.  If I wanted to learn a new skill on the high beam, I started with the skill on the floor, then on a line on the floor, then on the beam with mats stacked up like the floor…you get it.


Goal setting in other sports and even in school was a bit tricker, there were a lot more variables I couldn’t control.  When I tried surfing at 21 having grown up in the middle of the country, I was a puddle of angry tears on the beach.


Things got much more tricky in the goal setting department when I first started coaching gymnastics and working with children.  I had so much less I could control and it was hard to identify what my goals were as a coach. It was also hard to know which interventions actually impacted my gymnasts to support them.


In addition, I realized my goals as a gymnast were NOT my gymnasts' goals, and that was great, but also left me vulnerable to set unrealistic and vague goals (and maybe also not know where to exercise that goal-monster I’ve been living with for decades 🙂).


 


 

Goal setting as a parent and as a business owner is a whole new giant set of variables. We are facing wildly changing non-linear development, contexts, demands, and economic landscapes. This leaves us vulnerable to set unrealistic goals and think, "What's the matter with me?"


As you may already be well aware of, accomplishing goals increases our self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is our belief that we can accomplish what we set out to do.


As a psychologist and career coach, I tend to care more about someone’s self-efficacy (rather than self-confidence) because I find it promotes an individual's mental health and helps people access living life in connection with their values & purpose (also good for mental health).


Failing to accomplish goals we set decreases our self-efficacy.  This is why it’s important to set goals that take into account our available resources or changing contexts/demands.

If you’re like me and find perfectionism alluring, you might also set “secret goals”--ones that you don’t share with others because you know they aren’t realistic but would give you that dopamine kick when you exceed your own expectations. Don’t do that (talking to self and anyone else I'm resonating with).


So how do we use goal setting as a tool to support us rather than lower our efficacy? (especially when we face constant changing contexts & demands)


1. SET FEWER GOALS


2. DON’T SET GOALS THAT IF ACCOMPLISHED YOU MIGHT AVOID NEGATIVE FEELINGS OF SELF COMPARISON:

These goals are not connected to your true values, they are connected to what you think other people or society value. These goals tend to prove you are disciplined for discipline's sake.


2. MAKE SURE THEY ARE OPERATIONALLY DEFINED:

Sorry this is nerdy but "be happy and healthy" is too vague (and also I think sometimes is derived by perfectionism and a fear of asking for what we want). What specifically would I observe about you or would you report to me if you had accomplished the goal? Focus on behaviors over feelings and outcomes.


3. GET A REALITY CHECK

Talk to someone about your goals (someone who is nice to you). Are you setting yourself up? What can you do to shift these goals to be more realistic?


4. ASK YOURSELF: ARE YOU WILLING TO MAKE MISTAKES TO LEARN HOW TO ACCOMPLISH THIS?

If the answer is no, the goal still likely matters. Let’s work on that fear of failure.

If you are interested in learning more about how to use goal setting that works for you as a parent and entrepreneur, a) check out my free resources including journal prompts to help provide structure to establishing specific goals and supports in the coming year and b) message me if you would like to work with me directly (or have any questions).

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