Self-help books and ‘gurus’ are constantly telling us that we need to set ourselves goals if we want to go far in the world. The idea is that without concrete goals and objectives, we can’t know precisely what it is we’re trying to get out of life. And when you don’t know what you’re trying to get out of life… well how are you supposed to get it? Seems fair enough…
But life isn’t all about setting goals and not everything you want to accomplish is going to be easily broken down into succinct steps.
Imagine for a moment if Martin Luther King had said: “I have an 8-point plan!”, instead of “I have a dream…”.
Somehow it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it and somehow it isn’t quite as encouraging or enlightening…
The point is, sometimes you need a ‘vision’ or a dream, rather than a goal.
What Is a Vision?
Once you start giving yourself visions instead of goals, you’ll find that they are far more powerful and actually more useful.
A goal is normally something quantifiable. This will normally mean something like ‘losing 20 pounds in two months’, or perhaps ‘getting a raise’. These tend to be binary in terms of their grading, which is to say that you either pass or fail and there’s not really any wiggle room in between.
Visions on the other hand are usually more abstract, more vague but also more poetic and more ambitious. This is something that’s much harder to put into words but it’s actually what ultimately motivates you more.
As the word suggests, a ‘vision’ will generally tend to be something that you visualize (though not always). This is about a certain state of being, a feeling and a way of life more than it is about achieving something specific.
So instead of losing X number of pounds in X number of time, you might instead just see yourself looking and feeling incredibly healthy. Having a confident smile, looking great in your clothes and feeling proud in your achievements. You might imagine the way that people will look at you now that you’re in awesome shape and you might think about the things people will say when they see you – things like ‘wow you look great’ which make all that work seem just a little bit more worthwhile.
Likewise, instead of aiming to get a raise, you might instead visualize yourself being highly successful, wearing a slick suit and having someone open a limousine door for you which you step out of to gasps of awe. Maybe you picture yourself standing at the top of your office block and looking out over the city.
Other people will have visions that instead relate to their lifestyles and or the impact they want to have on the world.
If you’re a family man or woman, then your vision for the future might just be a comfortable house with loving children, sitting around a fire and opening presents. Or maybe your vision is about how your business is going to change the world? Maybe your current business model is just a springboard to greater things – perhaps you’re going to gradually build up an entire empire that you can use to achieve incredible things.
Why Visions Are More Powerful
So now the next question is why you should choose a vision over a goal. What is it about this abstract, vague and ambitious vision that is innately superior to a rock solid goal?
The first thing to recognize is that a vision is far more motivating and powerful than a goal. When you picture a vision in your mind, it will feel much more real than just a boring ‘goal’. By focussing on the emotional aspects – the very things that are motivating you to want to accomplish that goal in the first place – you’ll find that you feel much more compelled to jump out of bed in the morning and to get to work on whatever it is that you want to accomplish.
This actually has a basis in neuroscience even – as it’s emotion that drives our anterior cingulate cortex and ‘salience network’ that are strongly linked to motivation and perseverance (1). In other words, if you focus on the ‘why’ and if you feel the emotions connected with what you want to achieve, then you’ll be much more likely to actually do it.
At the same time, the more ambitious nature of visions over goals make them much more exciting and lead to more incredible things. In some ways, an unrealistic vision can even be easier than a smaller goal. That’s because visions will motivate you more, they will motivate others more who will thus be inclined to get behind you and help out and they actually leave you faced with less competition. This at least is Tim Ferriss’ theory.
Finally, having your vision in mind makes it much easier for you to outline the steps and the goals you need to go through to get there. In other words, if you’re currently focussed purely on the goals, then you might actually be heading in the right direction. Maybe it’s not really the money that excites you but that dream house? Maybe you don’t actually want to be rich – you just want to be able to travel?
In these instances, you may discover that changing your strategy actually helps you to accomplish those goals much more quickly and easily. Keep your eye on the prize and you can ensure you’re setting the right course.
Combining Goals and Visions
While it would be easy to end the article there on the general note of: ‘visions FTW’, that would be doing a disservice. While it’s true that visions do certainly have many advantages over goals, they’re also flawed.
The problem? They’re much too vague and distant to offer you any real structure. The pass-fail nature of goals is useful because it allows us to really see whether we’re progressing or not and whether we’re heading in the right direction.
Unfortunately, many people go about goals in the wrong way and fail to align them with their vision. So here are the steps you should take to ensure perfect synergy between them both and positive steps in the right direction:
Visualize what it is you want from life, think about your role models and other people who have achieved whatever it is you want to achieve
Create a picture in your mind of that success and even consider drawing it
Think about what it really is about that image that excites you and motivates you
Now think about what it would take to make those crucial parts happen – whether it’s the beautiful home, the loving family or the travel etc.
Now, with your overarching vision firmly in mind, write down these steps as goals
Make sure that the goals themselves are very short-term and easy to pass or fail on
They also must be entirely within your control – so don’t set the goal of losing 20lbs in two months, instead set the goal of working out 5 times a week, every week. Each week you can review whether you passed or failed and you can consider whether this is still the fastest way to realize your vision.
With this system in place you can now focus both on the exciting ‘dream’ you have, as well as the short, concrete steps you can take every day to get there. This will keep you motivated while giving you a clear idea of how to proceed each day.