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When to Be Specific, When to Be Vague, and When to Let Go

Goal setting is often heralded as the compass to success. I’m not so sure myself. As Christian Swann shared on the podcast, “The trouble with a lot of goals is that you’re always behind the them”. The types of goals therefore needs to adapt to our needs, and perhaps it is wiser to actively choose not to set a goal! There’s an art to knowing when to set laser-focused objectives, when to allow the freedom of open-ended goals, and importantly, when to step away from goal setting altogether.


When to Set Specific Goals

The Case for Specificity: Specific goals are like beacons on a foggy night; they guide your path with clarity and precision. They are instrumental when you have a clear understanding of what needs to be achieved and how to get there.

Ideal Scenarios:

– When You Have a Clear Outcome in Mind: If you’re aiming for a tangible, measurable result, such as increasing revenue by 20% or running a marathon in under 4 hours, specificity is your ally.
– Tasks Requiring Technical Skills: In scenarios that involve acquiring a new skill or improving an existing one, specific goals can break down the learning process into manageable steps.

Top Tip: Avoid the hackneyed SMART framework (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) – instead use the SMT, and add something in the middle that motivates you, like ‘Useful’ (SMUT) to structure these goals. The lack of challenge in SMART goals makes them less effective – make it specific but don’t make it pathetically easy to acheive.


When to Set Vague/Open Goals

Embracing Ambiguity: Sometimes, the beauty of a goal lies in its openness. Vague goals can stimulate creativity and innovation, particularly when the path ahead is uncertain or when flexibility is key and you want to enter into ‘discovery mode’.

Ideal Scenarios:

– During Creative Endeavours: Projects that require out-of-the-box thinking, such as developing a new strategy, finding out more about an idea for an athlete or your business or writing a blog or a book. These type of goals can benefit from the leeway that being more open brings.
– In Early Stages of Exploration: When venturing into a new field or starting a new role, open goals allow you to explore and understand your environment without the pressure of specific targets.

Top Tip: Frame these goals as intentions or directions rather than fixed targets. For instance, “explore ways to improve athlete buy-in” allows for more flexibility than a rigid, quantifiable objective.


When Not to Set Goals

Knowing When to Pause: The relentless pursuit of goals isn’t always the answer. There are times when setting goals can be counterproductive, leading to unnecessary stress or stifling creativity.

Ideal Scenarios:
– When Under High Stress or Burnout: Adding goals to an already overwhelming situation can exacerbate stress. Sometimes, it’s better to focus on well-being and recovery.
– In Highly Uncertain or Fluid Situations: In times of significant change or uncertainty, like navigating a crisis, rigid goals can become obsolete quickly. Here, adaptability is more valuable.

Top Tip: Practice actively not setting a goal. Try writing it down as an area to own and not control and focus on the present. Sometimes, the best goal is to simply be adaptable and responsive to the situation at hand.


Goal setting is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. It’s a versatile tool that, when used appropriately, can lead to personal and professional growth. But it shouldn’t be a ball-and-chain that weighs you down. By understanding when to apply different types of goals and when to step back, you can accelerate your progress and take the time to stop and take in the view with some wisdom and agility.

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