Introducing the value-based forest (my version of goal-setting)

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During the first weekend of January, I did the Goal Crafting Intensive (GCI) with the Complice crew and during the second weekend of January, I did The Annual Review (TAR) workshop with the Forte Labs crew. Both were ostensibly about goal-setting for 2021 but offered much more reflection, introspection, and awareness than just thinking about goals.

I've been setting goals for myself for the last decade and, over that time, haphazardly crafted a workflow that was tenuously working for me. Before this year, I had never taken a goal-setting workshop and every time I tried to set goals with others it was invariably a flop. Because of the intensity and scope of my 50 year Master Plan, I wanted to lean on the experience and frameworks of more experienced leaders in this domain, so I doubled down with two programs that came highly recommended.

Both programs were very productive and illuminating for me, surprisingly in very different ways. I strongly recommend either or both of them to anyone interested in the future. I'll offer a more detailed reflection on how the two programs compare and contrast in a different write-up and it's enough for now to say they were both awesome and well worth the time and money.

This essay details my structurally-aligned, value-based framework that I distilled for my own aspirations and productivity. If this system resonates with you, reach out (henry @ this url) and I'd enjoy walking on your Thriving Path together.

Why my # 1 goal is to never take shots on "goals" again

At its core, setting goals is about intentionally focusing on targeted growth. I’m all about growing and focusing my efforts, but my absolute biggest takeaway from spending >40 hours over 10 days pouring myself into my goal-setting is that I don't like the word "goals".

Words matter because they shape our brain chemistry and cognition. So I find it valuable to think about and feel into my experience with specific words that guide me.

When I think of a "goal", I either see the tired and reductive SMART Goal framework or I see a set of goal posts from any number of sports. In both cases, these are discrete entities - I either achieved / scored the goal or I didn't. In many ways, that feels too black and white, and certainly too harsh, for what I seek as my guiding light.

Moreover, when I miss a goal, I instantly feel a lot of negativity - guilt, shame, disappointment, loser-dom, you name it and I've whipped myself on that post. It seems there are expectations and value judgments baked into the word "goals" that bring up resistance (within me) faster than a cheetah on speed.

Perhaps most importantly, a "goal" implicitly orients me toward a "do state" over a "be state". Specifically, it seems intuitive to say, "My top goal is to publish 10 articles and sign 3 clients by Q3" because the action is clear and directive. But that's because I'm doing something. It sounds and feels much stranger to say "My top goal is to feel more at peace in my relationships by Q3" - uh, OK, what goalposts do I aim for to score points on that one? And can I really fail or miss that goal? I can't quite pinpoint why, but the word "goal" becomes clunky and awkward when it's applied to feel-state aspirations, and those are as or more important to me than discrete doer objectives.

I honor and respect and that "goal-setting" has a very clear meaning that is well accepted and easily understood in most professional and intellectual circles. That's exactly why I used it in the title of this essay to anchor you on the concept I'm touching on. But now that you're here, I'd like to change the narrative by changing the language, and I suggest we start first with meaning.

What is the root source of all your "goals" or aspirations?

One standard of a successful "goal-setting" framework for me is that it sets me up for success (however I define that). This is really important - if I’m missing my goals, it may be me, of course, but it’s much more likely that I’m just setting the wrong goals. So when I was consistently missing or disregarding my goals, that was a flag for me that my framework was not supporting my aspirations (NOT that there was something wrong with me).

My second biggest takeaway from both workshops was that setting goals (or outcomes, objectives, intentions - really any framing) without understanding meaning or purpose seems broken in a way that doesn’t support my path. It’s like putting the cart before the horse - sure, the carriage can roll and get somewhere, but it creates a lot of friction, confusion, frustration and fighting along the journey.

It is surprisingly difficult for most individuals to pinpoint the wellspring from which their personal desires and aspirations bubble forth. I admit it can feel heavy and daunting (it doesn't have to be!!) to trace your current ambitions back to their source, but I suggest there are two key reasons this is important and worth the effort or discomfort:

  1. Individuals that are driven by externalized priorities are rarely happy or satisfied, no matter how successful or accomplished they seem to be. Put another way, scoring goals with meaningless points feels empty and shallow (no matter how good one gets at scoring).
  2. Individuals that cannot enunciate what has meaning to them often feel adrift in a vast sea with no compass and no rudder. Sure, they can stay afloat, but daily life can feel empty and overwhelming without a North Star to guide their voyage.

In both instances, the symptom often looks like frequently missing (or simply not setting) goals. The explanation often sounds like negative self talk "I'm not smart / good / capable enough", "I don't have enough willpower", or my personal favorite "I can never seem to catch a lucky break".

From first-hand experience, I can humbly offer that the root cause is much deeper. When I was trying to achieve other people's dreams for me, I always managed to find a way to subtly self-sabotage because that's not really what I wanted for myself in the first place. The cognitive dissonance this instilled in me manifested as low-grade (OK, sometimes it really loud) stress and anger that seemed pointed at everything and nothing at the same time. Because the goal was not aligned with my deepest desires, some part of me was always tripping me up. And let me tell you, I'm really good at throwing banana peels underneath my own feet.

When I found what deeply resonated with the core of my being, I stopped swimming against my current and found a lot more ease and flow in achieving much higher levels of throughput and output. I could do more with less effort, and because I was aligned to my core, my experiential feel-state transformed into more peace and contentment. To put a fine point on it, because my stress and anger decreased dramatically, I found my relationships at home, with family and friends, and at work improving substantially and I started to see more success and joy in every corner of my life.

I imagine it's different for everyone, but personally, I did not wake up one day and have it all figured out. For me it was more like an existential game of Marco Polo - I'd try something new, see if I was getting closer to my purpose, and listen to hear if there was a response. Over time, the resonance got louder and clearer until my life's work was revealed.

This year, I refined my previous iterations at "goal-setting" into a systems- and value-based framework that empowers creativity, productivity, integrity, and flow. The rest of this essay describes the structure I find meaningful for how I reflect on my accomplishments and orient toward future aspirations. In a later post, I will publish the specifics of my 2021 value-based complete with how this looks and works in my annual, quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily flow.

Quick note: I do not expect this framework to resonate with anyone wholesale. I offer with an open palm so you can take whatever works for you and leave behind the rest.

I visualize my value-based growth framework as a tall, majestic tree

Imagine a big, healthy tree (say a redwood, for example) and our mind's eye sees:

  • Deep roots - the underground network that connects to all nearby Life and absorbs nutrients to feed the whole structure. We may never see it, but it's tapped in, grows far below the surface, and offers resiliency against whatever storms may come.
  • Wide trunk - the simple but powerful structure that we first see and feel. It transports nutrients and information up to the branches and leaves.
  • Diverse branches - the limbs, new and old, that constantly reach out and up to catch more light.
  • Vibrant leaves - the individuated units of production that ebb and flow with the seasons.

In my growth framework, each tree element maps to a critical function in the system:

  • Deep roots = meaning & purpose
  • Wide trunk = qualities & core values
  • Diverse branches = outcomes & resolves
  • Vibrant leaves = projects & tasks

The deep roots of meaning & purpose

At the foundational layer of my structure is that which feeds all else - my meaning and purpose in life.

My purpose in life is to "Maximize Thriving for self and others" as defined in my 50 year Master Plan. Seen through that lens, everything that has meaning for me is informed by reaching for peak physiological, psychological, and relational health.

The roots of this purpose form a complex web of interactions and connections with all Life around me. Also, these deep roots help me make sense of and withstand unexpected hardship.

It's important to note that the vast majority of people I meet will never see or know my deeper purpose and meaning, and they don't need to. They can still sense the strength and resiliency far below the surface. A tree never needs to show its roots to grow tall and proud.

The wide trunk of qualities & core values

Atop the roots sits the robust latticework that defines the most visible structure and contours of my being - my qualities and core values.

Qualities are externalized characteristics that flavor how I show up in this world. They are words that I hope others would use to describe my character. Similar to the bark of the trunk, this is what people see on the outside of me (and also what protects me from thoughtless or nefarious acts of others).

So far, I've drafted 45 Qualities that I seek to evoke. A few examples for specificity and clarity: integrity, kindness, awareness, open-heartedness, open-mindedness, warmth, precision, curiosity, humility, mystery, magic. My entire list is included in the Roam file referenced at the bottom.

Core values are internalized driving forces that are rooted in my purpose and inform my qualities, outcomes, and resolves. They are core to my very being, grow stronger with every passing year, and elevate the core nutrients of my meaning to feed everything I feel and do.

A few examples for clarity and specificity: critical thinking, virtuous systems, sustainability, security, stability, community. I didn't mark them here, but there is substantial overlap with Qualities and I think of them like a Venn Diagram more than two completely distinct lists. 

Note: I did not include my core values list in the Roam file because I'm currently reworking that chunk of my trunk. When it's done, I'll write an essay and relink it here

The diverse branches of outcomes & resolves

Supported and empowered by my trunk are the areas where I reach for the light of divine inspiration - my outcomes and resolves.

Outcomes are the "do state" of accomplishments on the physical plane. They are specifically broad and high level and do not fit a SMART framework, but they clearly circumscribe an experiential reality - an outcome - that I seek to cultivate in my life.

One perfect example from my list is "To have the best year of marriage we've ever had in 2021". That is somewhat amorphous but clearly points to an area I want to grow with attention and intention this year.

For what it's worth, outcomes are the closest word map I have to goals. I find outcomes more compelling, however, because they feel more warm and welcoming than goals. Somehow, they also feel less judgmental - if I do not achieve a desired outcome I innately have less shame and disappointment than if I didn't score my goal. I find myself much more willing to explore the reasons behind an unexpected outcome than a failed goal. For me, “outcome” just has less emotional baggage than “goal”.

Resolves are the "be state" of accomplishments on the internal plane. They parallel Outcomes in being broad and encompassing, but they still point to a very specific desire I seek to call forth.

One example from my list is "To find more and longer flow state in my daily life." I can achieve that in any form, whether I'm meditating, running, reading, working, or washing the dishes. It's less about what I'm doing and more about how I feel (whether or not I'm doing at all).

Resolves represent the counterbalance to Outcomes so that they can work in tandem to shape the reality around me.

Note: I use the word "resolves" where many use "intentions" because I find resolves to feel firmer and more committed than intentions. Plus, the word "intentions" has been co-opted by certain New Age and spiritual communities in a way that does not resonate with the resoluteness that I seek to capture for how firmly I commit to nurturing a specific inner state. That said, if "intentions" is more resonant, you do you!

Sometimes, for the overall health of the tree, it's important to prune off an entire branch that no longer serves. There are better and worse times of the year to cut back, and there is always an adjusting period as the tree reorganizes to transmit growth energy in a different direction. It can be painful and sad to cut back a branch, but with practice and skill, we can eliminate that which no longer has meaning to make room for bigger and better things.

The vibrant leaves of projects and tasks

Outstretched and held by the branches are the open palms of life that directly interface and transform the celestial light of creation - projects and tasks.

Projects are tactical, time-bound implementations that are the building blocks of Outcomes and Resolves. It's the medium and larger steps required to get where I seek to go. My Projects are the closest I get to the SMART Goals framework.

Projects come and go at varying degrees of velocity depending on their complexity and scope, and the conclusion of one project often begets one or more projects to keep the ball rolling. Generally speaking, I like to chunk my projects relatively small so I can feel like I’m getting a lot done by closing projects relatively quickly.

For the Outcome example above, one Project is to host a Family Dream Retreat where we rent a cabin and dreamscape what the best year of marriage even looks like. The outcome of this project will likely include spinning up new and different projects that we agree are valuable or worthwhile to explore together. 

For the Resolve example above, one Project could be to journal every day for a month highlighting when I was, and was not, in flow state so I can develop a short-cycle feedback loop. What dropped me out? What kept me flowing and engaged? Once this project is complete, I'm notably closer to achieving that Resolve.

Tasks are discrete units of doing that make up projects. If I can put it on a checklist and assign it for me to complete on a given day, then it's a task. Tasks are the atoms that bond together to form the more complex molecular Projects. Procedurally, it’s ideal for a task to be granular enough that I can achieve it within a few hours or less on any given day.

To extend the Outcome example, one task for that project could be "research the top 3 AirBnBs nearby for our retreat". Hot tub and dog friendly are a must!

To extend the Resolve example, one task for that project could be "create an atomic journaling prompt and template in Roam and add to my Daily Notes morning flow". This would ensure that I reflect on yesterday's flow states every morning.

It's important to note that leaves change color, shape, and quantity notably throughout the various seasons of the year. Also, it's relatively inexpensive to pluck off a leaf and can be done more frequently with less harm than cutting off entire branches. But beware! Not enough leaves and a tree can go dormant (or even start to die) until the container for converting the energy of divine light is evocative of more creation again.

Aligning the structure of this value-based growth framework

The reason I consider this to be structurally aligned and a systems-based growth framework is because each piece of the puzzle supports and positively reinforces every other piece of the puzzle.

My meaning and purpose directly informs my core values (internal expression of driving forces) and qualities (external expression of meaning, purpose, and values). My outcomes and resolves, then, are natural extensions of my core values and qualities. And my projects and tasks directly support and breath life into my outcomes and resolves.

Practically, that means that I can always linearly follow every single project-based task on my list back to it's express meaning and purpose in my life. That, in turn, reduces any doubt, concern, or misalignment down to zero - if I trust my concept of meaning today, then every single task is for sure going to be meaningful for me to accomplish.

The advantage of alignment is that I no longer have cognitive dissonance and no longer find myself self-sabotaging. If any given outcome, resolve, project, or task is deeply full of meaning, then my motivation and commitment to follow through increases exponentially. Because I'm willing to dig into deeper reserves, and I'm no longer running on banana peels of my own setting, I can get much further much faster with less energy expended.

And beyond productivity proper, on the days when things feel hard and daunting, I find a tremendous amount of solace having pristine confidence that everything I'm doing is richly imbued with meaning and purpose. Like a magical plate of armor, I feel protected and held in a way I never did before. For those with a more spiritual bent, this can often be attributed to connection to a higher (or more rooted) power.

Seeing the value-based forest for the tree

In truth, I personally do not have just one tree - I have a whole forest.

My favorite framing from Tiago's TAR was the concept of Areas of Responsibility. In Tiago's definition, taken from his PARA method,

an area of responsibility, has a standard to be maintained. And there is no end date or final outcome. Your performance in this area may wax and wane over time, but the standard continues indefinitely and requires a certain level of attention at all times.

I find that each tree in my forest is conceptually aligned with this notion of an area of responsibility. I have a value tree for my professional responsibilities and a different tree grows elsewhere in my forest for my responsibilities as a husband and a partner.

And, although it's not often and takes time, new trees can grow up as well. We do not yet have children, so my parenthood tree hasn't grown yet. Technically, we have 3 dogs, so perhaps that stewardship of the lives of others is the sapling of parenthood, but it's not a fully-fledged tree the way I imagine will happen when our first child joins our family.

And, similarly, when I retire from my professional sphere my career tree will die off only to decompose and offer critical resources (time and energy, mostly) back into the complex ecosystem of my existence.

I love the majestic grandeur of old growth redwoods, so I started with that imagery, but perhaps a closer analogy would be the single organism of an aspen grove. Like fingers on a hand, each tree in an aspen grove shares the same root system and genetic makeup.

I like the expansive quality of imagining a forest (or grove) because it leaves room for new, expected or unexpected, seeds to grow into saplings and later into towering trees. The value-based forest also honors the full lifecycle of all living things that certain areas of responsibility will naturally wane and die off over time. And like a living forest, all of the value trees speak and interact with each other in a complex system of nutrient exchange that creates stunningly gorgeous biodiversity of Life.

A concluding walk through the woods

I completely respect and appreciate that goal-setting can be meaningful and compelling for others. And, although I don't use that framing for myself, I can easily "turn on my translators" and receive the wisdom of the practice in whatever language it's packaged in. I bow to anyone who takes their self-growth seriously, regardless of what words, tools, or frameworks they use.

I had a wonderful time reflecting, introspecting, and clearing the path for my 2021 in both GCI and TAR. It was only going through those intensive workshops that I could finally land on the metaphor design, functional pieces, and interwoven quality that is my "value-based forest" framework of goal setting.

If any of this resonates with you, or if you're interested in more of the practical mechanics of cultivating your own value-based forest, drop me a note (contact page or henry @ this url). I look forward to nurturing our diverse and breath-giving ecosystems of Life together.

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For my fellow Roamans, the JSON of this article for import.

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