Don’t set any goals for 2021

Don’t set any goals for 2021

 ECC’s Chief Executive, Geraldine Gallacher, draws on neuroscience to challenge traditional thinking around goal setting, and shares a fresh approach that will help you to create a positive focus for 2021.

As we are nearing the end of 2020 your thoughts might well be turning to 2021. Personally, I can’t wait to put this ghastly year behind me and get stuck into a new year. Although it might seem a bit premature, I would like to talk about New Year Resolutions. You’re probably asking yourself how you on earth are you supposed to set goals for next year in the middle of a pandemic when we still can’t even predict what’s going to happen from one week to the next. Well, my advice is don’t set any goals for 2021!

Don't set goals for 2021

Re-thinking the way we think

As a trained coach who’s been practising for over a quarter of a century (gulp) it may seem ridiculous, even heretical, for me to steer you away from goal-setting. I mean, after all, SMART goals have been a key plank of coaching practice for as long as I’ve been coaching. But new research is pointing to something interesting that happens inside the brain when it comes to behavioural change that has certainly given me pause for thought. The brain has two modes or states: one is where the Positive Emotional Attractors are engaged and the other is where the Negative Emotional Attractors are engaged. The human brain needs both. If you like, the NEAs help us to survive whereas the PEAs help us to thrive. When helping someone to change you need to engage the Positive Emotional Attractors to help them to flourish. By doing this the brain quite literally expands its range and is capable of finding more creative responses to problems.

Appreciative Enquiry

The type of questioning which triggers the PEAs is called Appreciative Enquiry and it’s very powerful to be on the receiving end of it. It’s about asking “What is your vision for a few years’ time?” or “If you were really happy in a years’ time what would that look like?” or “Setting aside what’s going on for you at the moment, where would you like this to lead to?” or “Tell me what makes you happy?” “When  do you most feel in flow?” “Which strength of yours do you feel has most contributed to your achieving what you have in 2020?”.

A lightbulb moment

These are the kind of questions that can elicit a “that’s an interesting question” response which for me signals a “flickering light bulb ” moment. A sign that you’ve managed to get someone to think about possibilities. When you’re helping someone to change, I think it’s very helpful to keep asking yourself “whose lightbulb is shining now?”. If you’re doing the talking, irrespective of how inspiring, clever, amazing that you are, the chances are it’s your light bulb shining which can shed some light on the way forward. But that light pales into insignificance compared to the light that shines when you manage to find the switch to your coachee’s, your employee’s, your friend’s or your child’s light bulb. There’s nothing quite like the experience of witnessing someone getting an ‘aha’ moment, when their lightbulb changes from flickering to burning brightly. You can usually spot the signs because words seem to come more easily and visually they look excited and almost lose sight of you.  Often the ‘aha’ is so personal to them that you might not even begin to get it even when they explain it but that’s really not important. Your role as coach/manager/friend/parent is to help them find a way forward and it most probably will look nothing like your version of the best route to take.  This is where humility plays an important role. If you are wed to your idea of how the person should move forward you will trigger a resist response. Remember, if you insist they resist.

Toughest with our kids

I think it’s hardest to do this with our children. Every fibre in our being strains to provide the solutions for our kids. Firstly we are usually in a rush and so not inclined to ask questions and wait for answers and secondly we care too much, which makes it much harder to resist the urge to tell them what the right thing to do is because we hate to see them fail. But I really believe that to help a person engage in any form of change it’s vital to figure out how to switch on their lightbulb and to avoid giving solutions until they have exhausted their own stock. If they come up with the solution they are MUCH more likely to implement it.

So back to goals

Most managers are now familiar with the GROW model made famous by the legendary Sir John Whitmore. It stands for Goals, Reality, Options and Way forward. At ECC we adapted this model to include a phase prior to goal setting because we felt intuitively that jumping straight into goals didn’t work as well as you might expect. Our COACH model stands for Context, Objectives, Alternatives, Change and Help and allows a more oblique path to clarifying one’s goals. If you seek to clarify and specify goals too early then you trigger the Negative Emotional Attractors, the analytical side, the part of the brain that seeks to protect you. The brain actively closes down other neural pathways to allow you to focus. This is essential in a crisis but not at all conducive to a conversation designed to help you flourish. Much better is to enquire about the person’s dreams, hopes and vision for success. Only once they have been fleshed out and given substance is it advisable to discuss actions and get specific.

Applying this to New Year Resolutions

When it comes to New Year Resolutions, particularly after a year like 2020, it’s much better that you dream a little and imagine how you’re going to feel at the end of 2021 rather than setting yourself some exacting goals. And it also helps if you articulate your vision with others that are close to you because you need a support network to encourage you and research shows that you’re much more likely to do something if you say it out loud. Keep it simple too so you can remember it. In fact, memorise it.

My New Year Resolution

Here’s mine.

 “In 2021 I am going to come to my senses and enjoy the moment”.

It sounds like a hedonist’s charter but actually it’s about resting the muscle that I overuse in the extreme, my brain! Have a great festive season with your loved ones and here’s to Dreaming big for 2021!


Geraldine Gallacher- CEO & Founder of the Executive Coaching Consultancy

Geraldine Gallacher is the CEO of the Executive Coaching Consultancy.





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