Going with the Flow v. Setting goals

The start of a New Year always brings out a lot of advice on setting goals and making New Year resolutions, so in this post I am going to discuss some of the issues I see with setting goals and compare the rational, logical approach of setting SMART goals to the more intuitive approach of ‘going with the flow’.waterfall1

On  a personal note I have always been a bit averse to the setting of goals, especially the setting of SMART  goals. However I confess to spending some time at the start of every year reflecting on my future path. As a strong P in MBTI terms, setting actual goals seems to be a constraint too far and I feel much more in tune with the concept of going with the flow!

Goal Setting

So I will start with exploring the setting of goals and with the acronym SMART as mentioned above. Goals which are specific, measurable and time related are generally acknowledged to be motivating as progress can be mapped towards them and successes celebrated along the way. If we are not clear where we were when we started then how do we know where we are now and how do we measure our success without the setting of goals?

Achievable and realistic? Maybe these are terms I have struggled with. Mark Murphy in this Forbes blog post  last year wrote that these do not challenge oneself sufficiently. If we set achievable goals then we are already putting limits on our results. On the other hand, having worked with many managers suffering from stretch or challenging targets set for them by their hierarchy, I have observed that goals which are unachievable are demotivating and at times stressful to live with. Having something we believe we can achieve may be more motivating than facing a challenge we do not feel up to. As I write this I am aware that I have set myself a challenge this year that currently looks a stretch too far, however there is a plan in place which makes it look more attainable. Perhaps it is not that goals are too challenging but that goals need to be broken down into tactical plans which can show the pathway to their achievement.

Going with the flow, on the other hand seems to imply letting things happen, being reactive rather than proactive. This does not seem so good as a motivating force either. If we let things happen we can drift along and very soon we are at the start of the next year with nothing achieved.

In order to explore this concept further I revisited the work of Csikszentmihalyi on flow which he neatly sums up in this TED talk.

In fact his concept defines being ‘in flow’ as being in a state in which we are highly challenged and using high skill levels. He states that being in this state, we experience focus, inner clarity, a sense of ecstasy, we know that it is doable, time disappears, we have a sense of serenity and are intrinsically motivated.

From this distinction we can determine where goal setting is not always so motivating. If we are setting goals for ourselves in areas in which we are highly skilled and where the challenge is therefore seen as doable then we can be in this state of flow. If the goals we set are too challenging or not enough of a challenge or if we are setting goals for areas in which we lack the skills, then this will not be motivating.

As I wrote these words I had an ‘aha’ moment around my interest in photography. I love being out and about taking photographs, however my skill level is not yet that which is up to the challenge I would like to take on and I am not in a state of flow. This is even truer of any post-photography processing. So in order to reach this desired state of flow I need to set goals to develop my skills before I can archieve a sense of being in flow.

So in order to conclude from this excursion through the two concepts: to be intrinsically motivated it would be desirable to be in a state of flow. This means that we need to have a high level of skills and set the challenge at a high but doable level. This does not necessarily contradict goal setting which can mean setting goals which are challenging and doable. If we are not in a state of flow setting goals in order to get there seems to be highly advantageous. However if we are already in a state of flow than setting goals may no longer be necessary!

Barbara is a leadership coach, change and creativity facilitator. She offers facilitated workshops in creative problem solving as well as change through creative techniques and has launched RenewYou Personal Development workshops for women in France. 



Hi, it would be great to have your comments on this post, so please leave a Reply