Goal Set for Success by Finding Your Flow

Goals are a lot like Goldilocks. There's a careful balance required to be sure they're not too ambitious and not too easy, but just right. After determining the ultimate goal, breaking that objective down into manageable, progressive mini-goals or steps, then working toward success slowly is the logical path.
Those who study goal-setting theory teach the necessity of setting SMART goals. For those unfamiliar, SMART requires that the goals be five things: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. It's the difference between saying, "I will exercise more" and "I will go to the gym on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and walk on the treadmill for 30 minutes."
But why is it that despite setting SMART goals, some people are able to actually adapt healthy habits that support the life they want in order to reach ultimate success, while others struggle to meet the goals each week and ultimately don't transform their permanent behaviors?
I've thought about this question a lot. Is it specific personality traits that might lead to one result or another? Or is it goal setting in one arena rather than another that guarantees greater success? What I've discovered is not a similarity amongst the individual or the topic, but rather a similarity between the type of goals set. That is, how lofty or challenging the goals that are set.
Typically, goals fall into one of three categories: comfort, stretch or stress. When you set a goal that is already within your comfort zone or the current realm of your existing habits, not much transformation will occur. Using the exercise goal above as an example, if you are already averaging three times a week at the gym most of the time, setting this target isn't challenging. It will keep you in maintenance mode, but will not lead to progress.
If, however, your ultimate goal is to become fitter than you currently are so you can run a half marathon six months from now, you are going to need to create some stretch goals. Stretch goals are those that require your participation in activities that initially feel awkward or unfamiliar, but will ultimately result in real change. Here's where you would need to explore setting goals that either have you increasing the duration, frequency or intensity of your workouts. You will need to challenge yourself to work harder, go faster, stay longer. Then, once you've reached those goals consistently, you'll need to challenge yourself again.
On the flip side, if you set goals that are so challenging that you lack confidence in your ability to execute them, they will leave you stressed, frustrated, deflated and defeated. Consider what happens if you've been walking on that treadmill three times a week, and now you set a SMART goal such as "I will run on the treadmill for 45 minutes every day this week." There's a good chance you may not even try. Why would you? You know the chances of sustaining that kind of workout is slim to none, you might hurt yourself or end up sore and miserable. You won't feel excited about working on that goal; you'll just dread it, and chances are you won't succeed.

Setting the Bar Just Right

Finding success lies in understanding the balance between goals that are just slightly out of your comfort zone, yet rise the bar just above your expectations. Lean too far one way or the other and you'll find yourself either frustrated and lacking the confidence to complete your goals, or spending your time and energy never moving from the starting block.  
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a Hungarian psychologist, and the author of the book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience." "Flow" represents a highly focused mental state that, when in it, allows us to become completely absorbed in the activity in which we are engaged, to the point where nothing else matters. When we are in flow, we become immersed in what we are doing and time passes quickly.
Interestingly, often when my clients are making significant progress toward their long-term goals, they tell me, "I feel like I'm in flow. I'm in a groove. I'm not sure why, but things are just falling into place." This sense of satisfaction, productivity and happiness, is most likely the result of pursuing goals that have been set in the stretch zone. Csikszentmihalyi says the flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, meaning when we are highly motivated, we work harder at our goals and continually challenge ourselves to the next level of achievement.
To achieve a flow state, both skill level and challenge level must be reasonably matched and high. If skill and challenge are low, boredom and apathy results. You just don't care enough. If skill level is low, and the challenge is high, frustration, anxiety and worry occur. You lack the confidence that you can achieve your goal. In that state, most will give up.

In his book, Cziksentmihalyi defines flow as, "a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it." Among the elements involved in achieving flow are the following:
  • There are clear goals every step of the way.
  • There is immediate feedback to one's actions.
  • There is a balance between challenges and skills.
  • Action and awareness are merged.
  • Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
  • There is no worry of failure.
  • Self-consciousness disappears.
  • The sense of time becomes distorted.
  • The activity becomes an end in and of itself.
Imagine what you could accomplish if you set goals that left you feeling self-assured, determined and happy!

Find Your Flow with Stretch Goals

Now that you understand what the right goals might feel like, how can you set goals that are lofty, yet not too grand? Goals that will give you the greatest opportunities to reach a state of flow? Once you've created your SMART goals, ask yourself the following questions. 
  1. How confident am I on a scale of one to 10 that I will be successful at that goal? If you answer six or less, your goal may be a bit too lofty. What information, education or support do you need to be successful? How might you tweak this goal to increase your confidence to at least a seven? Goals that rate a confidence level of seven to nine are ideal. If it is a 10, make sure it ranks that high because you are super excited and motivated to work on the goal and not because it's so easy you barely need to think about it.
  2. When I read my goal out loud, how does it make me feel? If you can answer excited, but a bit nervous, you are probably right on track.
  3. When I visualize myself being 100 percent successful with this goal, how do I feel? If words such as proud, accomplished, competent and thrilled come to mind, there's a good chance the goal is in the desired stretch zone.
  4.  What is the purpose behind the goal? When you can see how this goal is attached and relevant to your vision, it will be intrinsically motivating. That's the best kind of goal to set!
Psychologists who study happiness also note that individuals who set goals and write them down are more successful and report a higher level of happiness than those who don't. Perhaps that is why Csikszentmihalyi says, "The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive relaxing times. The best moments usually occur if a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile."
The key to happiness lies in how we invest our energy. When we focus our attention on a consciously chosen goal, our energy naturally "flows" in the direction of achieving that goal. Thus, no matter what your vision and goals are, make sure you are setting ones that are challenging, exciting, have deep meaning and purpose behind them, and present opportunities for you to achieve a state of flow. You will not only increase your chances of being successful, but you will also feel more accomplished, with increased self-esteem and, ultimately, be healthier and happier.