The Goal Triangle Setting and Achieving Ambitious Goals To Become… Unstoppable!


The Myth of The Balanced Life – Success Comes from Imbalance, not Balance


balanced life goals

pic: Leading a "balanced life" rarely results in amazing accomplishments

Is your life “balanced”?

If you are one of the rare people who would answer yes, then here’s a follow-up question:  how long have you been “balanced” and how long do you expect it to last?

We’re told by psychologists, talk show hosts, life-coaches, and parents that we should be seeking “more balance”.

From my experience, people who are spending their time seeking a “balanced” life fall into two categories:

a)      People who have not accomplished anything remarkable, and never will, because they are constantly striving for “balance” (and are thus secretly afraid that doing what it takes to achieve true success in one area will put them out of balance).

b)      People who have already achieved amazing things in one (or many) areas of their lives, and are now attending to the previously ignored aspects.  Better term here would be people seeking to “rebalance”.

These are two vastly different approaches to living.  And I’ll argue that the second is more admirable than the first.  You see,

To accomplish truly great things, you need to seek an imbalanced life.

This imbalance I’m referring to is usually temporary.  And the degree of imbalance depends on your specific goals.

But make no mistake, achievement of your most important, most ambitious goals, you need to embrace imbalance.

Let’s start with a simple example, using the three corners of The Goal Triangle:  family/relationships, fitness and health, and finances/career.

Imagine trying this coming month to “balance” these.  If you are accustomed to goal setting, you will quickly come up with measureable, timebound goals for this month in each area.  And you’ll make some progress.  But will you accomplish anything truly great, without having to “borrow” time, energy, or resources from another area?

For examples, here are three truly great (in terms of ambitious) goals for 30 days:

  1. Fitness:  Lose 10 pounds of fat without losing muscle.
  2. Family: Spend extra time every day with your teenage kids (or working on strategies), beyond what you are already spending, resulting in 50% fewer arguments each week.
  3. Finances: Perform so well in your job, through ingenuity or extra effort, that you could ask your boss in 30 days for a 5% raise and she would grant it.

Are these the “best” goals?  Maybe not, but they are all examples of amazing accomplishments for a single month.

Could anyone achieve all of them at once?  Not a chance.  (Ok, maybe 1 out of 1000 people could; I know I couldn’t.  But later in this article I’ll share how you can accomplish them all, just not in the same month.)

In fact, each one of these is so ambitious that I would argue accomplishing even one of them would be difficult.

And doing so – accomplishing just one of them – would require some sacrifices in the other areas of your Goal Triangle.  If you dedicated yourself to fat loss, you’ll need to exercise more, spend more time planning your menus, extra time doing research into food and calories, and possibly even extra time meditating to get through the emotional/mental struggle involved in losing so much fat without losing muscle!

The best-case result: your family and your work are simply “maintained” at their previous level of effectiveness.  The worst case:  less time and energy for your family and work, either of which hurts those corners of your Goal Triangle.

In other words, for that month, you will be imbalanced.

I’ll repeat it again, knowing that I’m repeating myself:  To accomplish truly great things, you need to seek an imbalanced life.

Does That Mean The Other Areas Must Suffer?

No, it doesn’t mean that the other areas must suffer.  Quite possibly, you can still accomplish small things.  In the example above, while focused on losing the fat, you should still able to do your job at work.  You’d still spend time with your kids.  You may even make a little progress on small goals in each of those areas, but that depends on how deep you need to go into the main goal (in this case, fat-loss).

The more ambitious your goal (in terms of aggressive timelines or amazing results), the more likely other areas of your life could decline.

This is “temporary imbalance in the interest of achieving something truly great.”

How Much Imbalance Is Too Much?

Depending on your main goal, you may be willing to go deep into imbalance or not so much.  There is no single formula.

Stephen Covey talks about the “emotional bank account”.  The basic concept is that you are always either making deposits into or withdrawals out of your life’s key areas.  With work, you are either doing things to improve your skills, relationships, and performance or you are letting those things slip a bit.  With your family, you are either building stronger relationships or you are straining them.  Same with your fitness.

Taking relationships as a deeper example, you can miss one of your kids’ basketball games (a withdrawal from the emotional bank account) if you’ve already been to the past three games (previous deposits into the emotional bank account).  You can only withdraw what you’ve deposited.  If you are taking more withdrawals than you’ve made deposits, then you are in trouble.  Once an account balance is negative, it not only takes much more effort to restore good standing; you may also never recover.

I’m not advocating having a negative account balance in any area of your life.  So you have to stay very aware of the impacts of your chosen imbalance.  If you take the imbalance too deep or for too long, you obviously have to pull back.

So how does imbalance actually result in a greater life, full of diverse areas of achievement?

The Key To Balancing Imbalance

A simple but extremely effective way to avoid too much imbalance is this:

Cycle your imbalance.

Focus on one area, intentionally being imbalanced, for a period of time.  Then switch gears to a different area, while simply maintaining the gains you made in the first area.

Over time, you are actually achieving life-long balance, even though there is never a single point in time where you are balanced.  Think of it as a helix, where you are cycling around but over time climbing higher and higher because you are periodically rebalancing your life.

How Often To “Rebalance”?

I like to think of most big things in longer blocks than a month.  Three months works pretty well for most ambitious objectives, because it’s enough time to accomplish truly great things but short enough that less attention to the other areas won’t do too much damage.  This gives you 4 really ambitious goals to accomplish each year.

But some goals may require longer periods of imbalance.  If you’ve been a horrible dad for 10 years and suddenly want to be a great dad, you are going to need to make that your primary focus for much longer than 3 months, even if that means you make little to no progress on career and fitness.

And some goals could take shorter than 3 months.  For example, quitting smoking.

You’re not looking for a balanced life, you’re looking to constantly shift your balance one way then another.

And the magic of this is that once you achieve an ambitious goal, it usually is long lasting with reduced effort.  You focus on learning the basics of a certain language, and then maintaining your fluency is easier than the initial learning.  You focus for a few months really hard on learning everything about the right way to eat, even to the point where other parts of your life become secondary, but then you have that knowledge. It doesn’t go away. It’s like an investment.

What Goals Are Worth Being Imbalanced Over?

When you’re setting a goal that feels really ambitious, ask “Is this goal really important enough to me that I’m willing to be imbalanced as I pursue it?  Am I willing to somewhat neglect other areas of my life to achieve it?”

If it is truly a great, ambitious goal, then you should feel some butterflies in your stomach as you ask those questions.  Achieving great things doesn’t come easily.  If you don’t feel butterflies, then maybe it’s not ambitious enough to earn the description of “truly great”.

Perhaps there’s a better big, ambitious goal to pursue.   One whose achievement is worth being “temporarily imbalanced”.


Outcome-Based Goals vs Process-Based Goals

Should goals be based around outcomes, or based around processes?

Hmm.  There are three common views on this.

One is that all goals must be outcome based.  It doesn’t matter how much you try if you don’t actually achieve the desired outcome.

Another view is that people are too obsessed with outcomes and need to focus more on the process.  This is captured in a lot of eastern-based philosophies that tell us to this exact moment is all we have so enjoy the present.  Too much obsession about future results blocks our ability to grow and uncover hidden opportunities.

But most advisers on goal setting, myself included, advocate a balance.  There are some times when you want to base your goals around outcomes and other times around processes.

But are there any guidelines about when to use one approach vs. the other?  I think there are.

What Are Process-Goals?

Process based goals are best when you are taking on a new goal in an area where you aren’t already skilled or experienced.

Think of process-based goals as habits or activities.  Ultimately, you expect those habits to lead to outcomes but initially your goal should be simply to develop the habit itself!  Once you have the habit down, that's when you'll turn your focus to the outcomes those habits are intended to produce.

Let’s take a common one:  getting into shape. When you are just starting out, you simply need to get into the habit of eating better and exercising more.

An example goal could be, “For the next three months, I am going to get to the gym three times a week for at least 45 minutes each time, and I’m going to do these types of exercises: x, y, z.  Additionally, I will eliminate all beer and twinkies from my diet.”

It’s still measureable and timebound.  But notice there is no specified outcome – no amount of fat lost or muscle gained, even thought that’s really your long-term goal – to lose fat and/or gain muscle.

Or let’s say you are trying to learn how to do computer programming.  If you know nothing about how to do it, you can’t possibly set up a realistic outcome goal.  Initially, you need to set up some process-based goals.  For example, spending a certain amount of time a week working on examples in a guidebook.  You can’t even set up an outcome goal about when to finish the book because you have no idea how long it will take!  You’re too new to the subject matter.  And as you know, all good goals have a time-based component.

What Are Outcome-Goals?

Now eventually, once you're more experienced in something, then you switch to outcome driven goals. Outcome based goals almost disregard the process to get there - all that matters is the outcome!

So, if you're really already skilled at computer programming, you don't really need to have a process-driven thing of “I'm going to code for 4 hrs everyday for the next week”.  You can jump to outcome based goals like “I will write a program in C++ that models the swine flu outbreak over the next 12 months allowing for up to 5 different input variables, and will complete this code bug-free and user tested by May 12th.”

And going back to the fitness example, if you have already been working out and eating well, and have some baseline of how much fat you have lost or muscle you have gained, is it enough to stick to a goal based solely around showing up at the gym?

No!  You're already experienced. You don't need to learn the process, you don't need to develop the habit. You need an outcome. And in that case, outcome-driven goals are the most appropriate.  For example “By May 15 I will weigh 170 lbs and be at 15% bodyfat”.

A Short Quiz

So which of these short goal statements are process-based and which are outcome-based?

  1. I am promoted to Sr. Account Manager by June 30
  2. Every day, I'll brush my teeth after lunch
  3. Whenever I eat out with friends, I will not eat the bread that comes to the table and I will only order water to drink
  4. By May 31, I will fit into a size 10 pair of Levis
  5. At my weekly book club meeting, when Joan starts getting obnoxious, I will count to 10 before responding.

Answers:  outcome, process, process, outcome, process

Now, look at your own goals (you have them written down, right???).  Put a little O or P next to each one after you determine whether each is a process-based goal or an outcome-based goal.

Corollary:  I often talk about Major Goals and Minor Goals (and even mini-Goals).  For results-based Major Goals, it is still critical to have many minor or mini-goals to support it.  The bigger the goal, the more important those minor goals become.  They give you feedback along the way to make sure you are really on your path to achieving the major goal.  And regardless of the type of Major Goal (process- or outcome-based), your minor goals can be a mix of process and outcome types.

p.s. You might see me and others refer to outcome-based goals as “results-based goals” by mistake.  They are certainly synonyms, but outcome has the connotation of being a byproduct of specific, intentional effort towards a conclusion, whereas result connotes a certain about of passivity.  Linguistic expertise aside, I will do my best to use “outcome” – correct me if I slip!


Better SMART Goals

pic: For Better SMART Goals, Focus on the M and the T

pic: For Better SMART Goals, Focus on the M and the T

Any discussion of goal setting would be incomplete without mentioning the SMART framework.  SMART goals stand for Specific, Measureable, Action-based, Realistic, and Timebound.

Or is it Stretch, Meaningful, Achievable, Results-Oriented, and Timely?

Or maybe the A stands for Agreed-upon?  Or maybe…

“Ah, whatever.  This is too confusing.  I’ll just set my goals the way I always have.  Which means I won’t really do it well.”

Unfortunately, you see this happen too often.  A cute acronym gets butchered by well-meaning managers and self-help gurus.  And what was designed to speed effectiveness ends up becoming a road block and maybe even the butt of a joke (I’ve been in meetings where someone next to me, bored with the lecturer telling them how to set goals, ends up finding some really hilarious word substitutions you wouldn’t want to show your kids).

While it’s easy to remember SMART, it’s hard to remember what each letter stands for.  And even if you do, it gets even harder when you’re writing your goals to make sure you’ve satisfied each criterion.

Let’s Simplify This A Bit

I’m going to help you simplify this.  The kernel of this idea came from a great business podcast called ManagerTools, so I credit them with the simplicity.

All you need for good goals is to make sure they are measurable and timebound.  That’s it.  The rest is common sense.

Every goal has to be measurable and every goal has to have a time-based deadline.

If they are truly measureable, they’ll be specific enough and certainly they’ll be results oriented (you are measuring the results, right?).

Timebound remains important because it tells you when to measure.  And we all know that goals set to be achieved “someday” are less likely to happen.

As for the possible SMART interpretations of “realistic” and “stretch” and “achievable” – why would you ever want to limit them?  Some goals should be realistic and some should be challenging.  Forcing every goal into one of these buckets is lame.

And goals should be easy to remember.  Encumbering them with extra words, just so that satisfy S.M.A.R.T. (whatever they stand for), reduces their effectiveness.

If you have staff that report to you, one sure-fire way to get them to roll their eyes is to ask them if their goals are SMART.  It’s a bit patronizing really.

Try It

Try it right now.  Pick an area in your life that’s important to you.  Any area…

Now, what would you like to accomplish in that area?  Start by trying to satisfy every SMART criterion.  I’ll wait…

Done?  Ok, how hard was it?  How long did it take?

Now pick a different area in your life.  Got it in mind?  Now, what do you want to accomplish in that area?   But this time, use just the M and the T – make it something you can measure and give it a deadline.

Done?  How long did that one take?

Look at the two goals?  Is the SMART goal any better than the MT goal?

I bet not.  I bet that the MT goal took a lot less effort and time and may actually be superior in terms of the way it’s worded – so that you actually achieve what you want to.  Do this enough times – say, for 10 goals - and you’ll be convinced that nobody needs the S, A, and R.

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Resolutions vs Goals

Today’s post is a quick salute to other great articles/podcasts on goal setting.   A common theme that I’ve picked out is that RESOLUTIONS ARE NOT GOALS!

Please read these over – you’ll gain an appreciation for goal setting beyond my own slant and you are sure to be inspired!

1)      The Sales Guy

This is a good one because it’s a audio – listen online.  However, I think his approach is a little off.  His 5 rules are a variation on the SMART system, and in an upcoming article I’m going to simplify that for you.

2) From the master, Brian Tracy

This is inspiring and his 7-step process is better than “rules”; it’s a method you can actually make use of.

3) In the fitness world, I love Tom Venuto:

I’m not including this to get you to buy his, book, but rather because he’s the best I know of for helping to set the right fitness goals.  But if you do decide you want to purchase his book, I’d love it if you did it through my affiliate link here.

4)      Tim Ferriss is a superstar, not really focused on goal-setting per se, but this is one of his best posts:

It’s an excerpt from his book and highlights how you can win big by having bigger goals than you might think.

5) On the financial side, I love the Get Rich Slowly blog.  However, I’m gotta slam his goal setting technique for 2010 on

I love the fact that he’s got a single biggest goal for the year.  But it’s so big that he needs to define intermediary goals (milestone goals) along the way.  He’s a little squishy on having goals that are truly measureable and timebound.

6) And then there’s my own fitness site and a recent article I wrote there: .

Have you read other sites that have really good messages for goal setting?  I’m totally fine with you dropping their links here!