Over the last few years, I have been really uncomfortable with the idea of goal-setting. I have been especially uncomfortable with much of the chase your dreams rhetoric that is popular at the moment, and which seems to promote excessive overwork and hustle the way to make your dreams a reality. I felt that most common goal-setting processes put too much pressure on achieving a long list of tasks, and leave no space for things to go awry, increasing a sense of failure when life doesn’t go to plan (as it rarely does, particularly with young children in the picture). I began to feel strongly that goal-setting was largely too rigid for mama leaders, and added to many tasks to the ‘to do’ list of already overwhelmed mamas.
But at the same time, I have always had dreams, and goals that I want to work towards, and I feel very strongly that we shouldn’t put our dreams on hold simply because we have young children. But neither should our dreams stop us from living the family life that we want, with the downtime that is so important.
There has to be another way to work towards your dreams. One that is softer and kinder to overwhelmed mamas. One that allows the flexibility to meander along that path, to take detours, and to take your time on the journey rather than aiming for a destination. Besides, good leadership isn’t always about arriving at your planned destination anyway. And working towards your dreams is fundamentally about stepping into your leadership potential.
One of my favourite writers on leadership- mama leader Amanda Sinclair- has this to say about the leadership
Contrary to popular leadership rhetoric, good leaders don’t always arrive at their intended destination. Instead, leaders may find themselves at unexpected places en route, and their leadership is demonstrated by the fact that they pause and recognise the importance of what is unanticipated. It is in working through opposition and difficulties- in stopping. listening and venturing again- that leadership is revealed.
So in working towards your dream, you shouldn’t miss the opportunities that come from left of centre. It is ok to change your dreams in response to unexpected opportunities that arise, or in light of new insights about yourself that you have gained in the journey.
Intentions and habits- the soft approach to working towards your dreams
The way that I have worked towards my dreams is most recent years has been to set an intention for where I want to end up, and what I want my work and life to feel like when I get there. This approach requires you to get very clear about what your values are, and what is most important to you in your life and work.
For me, my recent intention (which I have achieved) was to be able to work at home, doing work that energises me and allows me to pursue my creative social change projects, and which allows me to write. I wanted to work about 25 hours a week, and have time to cook food from scratch, to walk my children to school, to spend school holidays with them, and to have time to pursue my interests outside of work too.
Once I was clear about these intentions I had to work on building new habits that enabled me to work towards this goal, but without having a clear path to get there. This meant finding time to work on my creative projects and doing this consistently. It also meant prioritising self-care, as well as being willing to confront my self-imposed limitations and to do the deep personal growth work required to succeed in my creative work.
What I didn’t expect when I started this journey was to end up doing freelance consulting, and later to found Lead Mama Lead. These were not the creative projects I started out with. But as I went through the journey I saw more opportunities in these things, than in my first creative project. Although it is still in the mix of my career, my first project is only a small part of my income. If I had a fixed plan and hard goal for this project, it would have taken me far longer to make my intention for my life a reality. By meandering along the path, I actually achieved what I wanted much more quickly.
Fixed goal setting – the motivation that can come when you have a destination to aim for
Setting your intentions, and building habits to move towards that intention is the soft approach to working towards your dreams. It allows the space to take your time, to experience diversions along the path and to not feel like a failure when things don’t go according to plan.
But still, there is also a place for hard goal setting. If you give yourself a target, a number, or a grade to aim for, it can be very motivating to move towards that fixed goal. It is also much easier to tell if you are on track with your goal.
For example, if you know that personal growth is critical to your leadership journey, you might set yourself a goal of reading (and thoroughly digesting) 12 books that will aid your personal growth over 2018. By having a number to work towards, it is much easier to tell if you are on track.
For another example, if you feel that a Masters degree is important for your career progression, you might enrol in a program and give yourself the goal of achieving a Distinction average and finishing the degree within three years.
Intentions or Hard Goals – Which Approach is Right for You?
Personally, I feel that there is space for both the softer and harder approaches to working towards your dreams. This is something that will ebb and flow with the different tides of your life. In the last few years, when my children were small, I found that only the soft approach was suitable. But now that my littlest one has turned three, I feel a bit more room for a few fixed goals to work towards. Pay attention to your stress levels and your sense of overwhelm when decided which approach you would want to try.
If your children are very small, or if you are suffering from overwhelm and anxiety, if you are simply not ready to take on something that might cause your stress, then I would really encourage you to pursue the softer approach. Spend some time thinking about the changes you want to make to your life and work, and set an intention for how you want your work-life to look and feel in 2-3 years time. Then find the new habits that you can build to help you work towards that change, focusing more on small incremental changes rather than moving single-mindedly towards a goal.
Indeed, I believe this soft approach is worth maintaining all the time, even if you feel you also need some harder fixed goals to work towards too.
My Dreaming in Action
To get a sense of how my approach to my dreams has ebbed and flowed throughout the phases of my life, I will give you a specific example of one of my life’s goals, and how it has fit into my life over the years.
When I was about 6 or 7, for some reason I decided that my life’s goal was to speak 5 foreign languages fluently. At school, I had a few opportunities to learn languages, but not the opportunity to genuinely pursue my interest in a way that my children now have the opportunity to (with the gifts that technology have provided). So it was only at university that I began to study Chinese, the language with which I went on to achieve bilingualism.
During my university studies, I had the opportunity to study in China for a year. Upon arrival, I took a placement test, which placed me in a class that I felt was too easy for me. Being a typical Type A at the time (and despite having severe chronic backpain), I argued for myself to be placed at a much higher level. In this was I threw myself in at the deep end, where I had a genuine chance of failing the class, and I had to work my damn hardest to swim, lest I sink to the bottom. This set the tone for my language learning journey. After achieving spoken fluency in Mandarin, I later went on to study French, and ended up twice being placed in classes that were well above my level.
This was an approach to language learning success that was a great source of stress, and I found that I couldn’t continue it as my career grew more pressured, and there was even less chance that I could continue in this manner once I became a mama.
Having come to this conclusion, I could easily have given up on my childhood dream, believing it to be incompatible with my new phase of life. Many do give up on their dreams for exactly this reason. But it was not my dream that was incompatible, but my fixed idea to how to go about achieving my dream. Many of us don’t realise that it is not the dream that is the problem, but our idea of how we go about achieving that dream.
So instead of giving up on my dream at only one (and half) languages, I reframed my approach to something softer that would not add a source of stress to my life as a new mama. To maintain my Chinese, I watched children’s shows with my little ones, learned to sing nursery rhymes, and took them to Chinese playgroup. To continue my French I started listening to French radio podcasts (that I could only half understand) and reading children’s novels like Charlie et la Chocolaterie. As my children grew I later added a French class once a week, but at a level that was revision rather than intensive learning.
Once I started feeling like I was nearing spoken fluency in French, I started learning German passively by taking beginner audio courses while I clean the house and cook dinner.
So rather than having a fixed goal (of passing some extremely difficult course), I built habits that would move me slowly towards my intention of eventually becoming a polyglot. I was gentle with myself, and in doing so I allowed myself to progress towards my goal slowly.
This year, now that my children are a bit older, I have decided I am ready for at least one fixed goal for this dream. It is less intense than in my earlier years, but I have decided to take a certification exam in French that is achievable, but which will require consistent preparation this year in order to pass the exam. It is the only fixed goal I have taken on in regard to this dream, and my gentle habits will continue to be a much more important feature of this journey.
Walk Your Own Path
Having little ones to take care of needn’t mean you give up on your dreams. But you do need to be kind to yourself if you don’t want to be overwhelmed entirely. The way that you work towards your dreams will change and grow with you. I hope that this post has given you a better idea of how to go about it in a kind and gentle way while giving you permission to still dream big.
Take this topic further:
- I have created a step-by-step workbook that teaches you my process for getting in touch with your values and forming habits that will create a meaningful life that is centred on your values. This is essential to working towards your dreams in a kind and gentle way. You can learn this process for yourself with my self-guided program Design Your Perfect Week