The Yin and Yang of Goal Setting

Since this is the time of year when the conversation turns to goal setting, I thought I would talk about it here.  We keep hearing that we should set goals, and we all nod in agreement, “Yes, yes, goals are good.”  Human beings are natural goal setters.  Whether the goal is to take over the world, win a game of [whatever people play these days] or have another piece of chocolate cake, we all already have plenty of goals.

The magic of goal setting is all in the how of it.  In 2013, I learned what I call the Yin and Yang of goal setting.  This is about learning to balance between the soft and the hard; decisiveness and flexibility.

The Magic of Goal Setting

In Myers-Brigg Typology (MBTI), the last letter of anyone’s type is either a P or a J.  It’s an indication of your relationship to your goal-setting.  I like to think that J’s go to their goals, whereas P’s let their goals come to them.

The P stands for “perceiver” and the J stands for “judger.”  Here is the description of the difference between a P and a J on the MBTI website.

 Here’s a slightly entertaining video about how P’s and J’s approach goals differently.

In short, J’s like to plan ahead and P’s acknowledge that nothing can ever really be planned ahead because the world is an ever evolving place where nothing can be predicted.

 Full Disclosure: My boyfriend is a strong J and I am a strong-ish P.

Let me tell you a story about us to demonstrate the differences between a P and a J:

We like to hike a lot.  When we first got together, my boyfriend would refuse to set foot on a trail without having studied multiple trail maps for several minutes, thoroughly discussed all of the possibilities, have our entire route planned, plus alternates if the first route didn’t work out.  This was true even in small parks that contained one trail.  I was impatient with that process.  I stared off into the woods while he did this and said things like, “Yep, sounds good….” And “uh huh, good idea.”  When he got to the third contingency plan regarding what to do in case of bear attack in our local city park, I would say, “Ok, can we start hiking now?”

On the other hand, I would walk a half mile up a trail in a giant state park that was full of crisscrossing trails and warning signs about life-threatening dangers before I’d turn to my boyfriend and say, “By the way, did we bring a map?”  At which point, he’d look at me incredulously, and start pulling out four different kinds, inevitably re-traumatizing me causing me to shriek, “No, no, no more planning!  Keep them away!”

Ok, this scenario is a slight exaggeration.

The true difference between P’s and J’s isn’t that J’s plan and P’s don’t.  The difference is that J’s prefer to make decisions (Yang) so they can put on their blinders and head unimpeded towards a goal, whereas P’s prefer to hold off decisions (Yin) and keep an eye out for new information—to wait for the decision to reveal itself.

Of course, most of the time, most of us do whatever is appropriate to the given situation, but our preferences often win out when there is some wiggle room.

How this manifests in your life depends on the other letters in your MBTI and all of the millions of little things that make you uniquely you.

Because my boyfriend and I have opposite personality types, we like to think that we can learn from one another’s perspective.

Before I learned anything, this is how goal-setting manifested in my life:

I was a wonderful short-term planner.  I could tell you exactly what I was going to do within the next five minutes, sometimes within the next few hours.  On exceptional days, I knew what I was going to be doing for the entire day.   I was an amazing doer.  I was doing, doing, doing, but without any particular long-term goals in mind I always felt unaccomplished.

As for my boyfriend, he was, and still is, one of those people for whom if you ask, “What’s your five year plan?” can tell you, and not in a wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if-this-happened-fantasy way.  It will be in a realistic these-are-the-plans-for-my-current-options kind of way.  Before he learned anything from me, this meant that he spent a lot of time planning, and then re-planning when he saw that an old plan wasn’t going to work out.  For some reason, things that need to be noticed before they could be addressed (such as cleaning the house, a picturesque view or a bad mood) had the tendency to get overlooked completely.

So far, this is what I have learned about goal setting:

Having long-term goals doesn’t mean imagining the ideal end-point for all of my activities and turning them into goals.  As painful as it was for me, I needed to start prioritizing in order to bring anything to fruition.  I had to accept that I wasn’t going to become the world’s best underwater yoga instructor, join the NYC ballet, write the next great American novel, invent a new vaccine for cancer and finish my MA all this year.  I made a handful of annual goals, created a realistic schedule for achieving them and made every other activity optional.  I did this around mid-summer 2013 and you wouldn’t be reading this blog right now if I hadn’t.

This is how I added some Yang to my Yin approach.

So far, this is what my boyfriend learned about goal setting:

A well-constructed long-term goal includes several short-term goals that aren’t necessarily directly related to the goal, such as doing several smaller, seemingly insignificant tasks (like cleaning or occasionally checking out the environment).  He found that it can be valuable to take off the blinders to get a much more inclusive and comprehensive view of any given situation.  Sometimes, rather than planning out of necessity, there were times he made plans to cope with anxiety.  He has found that in low-risk situations, there is value in setting aside planning altogether and embracing spontaneity.  For bigger, more risky commitments, he has learned to hold off major decisions until he has done plenty of research.  This has allowed him to be more comfortable with the times when it’s better to not make a decision.

This is how he added Yin to his Yang approach.

It is somewhere in there, when we figure out how to balance the Yin and Yang of goal setting, where we find that sweet spot of feeling accomplished without making ourselves crazy.

How do you approach your goals?  When you think about goal-setting, what comes up for you?  How and where do you find that balance between being an over-planner or an under-planner?  Let us know in the comments below!

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