How To Tackle The Goal Setting Problem Nobody Talks About

Elephant in the room

“I discovered at an early age that all I’ve ever wanted to do is design”

Jonathan Ive in his New Year Honours press release

(Image by David Blackwell)

It makes me want to puke.

On reading this you will have had one of two reactions – you’ll either have nodded along because you, too, have always known what you wanted to do and discovered it early.

Or it edged you closer to despair because finding your passion is like playing hunt-the-thimble in a game rigged by a particularly perverse game master.

Guess what? Yet another post from a celebrity who effortlessly discovered their passion and went on to pursue it with great success. You could be forgiven for wondering whether you missed out on the ‘passion-finding gene’. And you’re not alone.

All the evidence shows that people who know what they want are more likely to get what they want. After all, if you don’t know what you want, you will end up working for someone who does. Without your own agenda you will spend the best part of your youth and energy delivering someone else’s agenda.

What also seems true is people who do manage to know what they want possess a kind of ‘inner compass’ allowing them to make decisions and change their circumstances to move nearer to it.

Why then is it so rare?

There are myriad goal-setting books on the market and an equal number of goal-setting systems, each with its own fans. Much of this ignores the plain truth – most people, when you ask them, don’t know what they want. Goals, beyond a daily to-do list, are a hazy concept for most. An even greater mass of people have not made it as far as using an effective to-do list.

For all the talk of outcome orientation there is very little of it out there. We are drowning in advice and yet, aside from a tiny minority, most people don’t set goals and this year will pass pretty much like last year.

I have always found this fascinating. There appears to be a complete disconnection between the standard self-help, personal improvement, creativity mantra (I call it ‘Knowing and Going’) and the daily reality of working with clients who remain not only clueless but stuck because they are unable to work it out.

Test it for yourself. Next time you start a meeting try asking people why they are there and what they want to walk away with? Watch as they duck and run for cover. Hard to believe I know, but most folk who trundle along to meetings do not know why they are there and cannot say what they want to leave with.

If something is not yet done it comes down to one of two problems:

  • Either you know what you want but don’t know how to get it
  • Or, you don’t know what you want

It’s people with the first problem who are writing and reading all those articles and books on success and change. They more or less know what they want but need a tool, technique or advice to help them get it. These folk seem unaware they are part of a very small group. They also assume the second problem is easy – you just think of it and then go for it. You know and go.

This is all fine, until you begin talking to people with the second problem. That’s when you find it’s a real problem and for many it strangles change at birth. There is almost nothing out there to help these folk.

Unfortunately the people writing all those self-help/productivity/creativity blogs don’t understand this. They assume all you have to do is ‘work out what you want’ or ‘know what you want’ and you can skip to the next step in their pet system. But what if you don’t? What if you can’t get past step one because nothing you think of seems to ignite your passion?

Is any of this familiar?

  • You know what you don’t want but struggle to be clear about what you do want.
  • You could do almost anything but you end up doing almost nothing because you lack the certainty to pick something.
  • You don’t like where you are but can’t figure out where you should be.
  • You know you are holding yourself back but you are not sure from what.
  • You have let others make the bigger decisions about your life; you suspect you might be coasting.
  • You carry around a vague but pressing feeling there is something else for you, if only you could know what it is.
  • When asked what you want, your mind goes blank or your heart starts racing. It scares you.
  • You’re facing a big decision and you don’t know what to do, or you have a feeling you might know but are afraid of the answer.
  • You’re scared of making the changes you know you could be making.
  • Somehow, you know your life would be different if only you could work out what you wanted.

Congratulations, you have the second problem – you can’t ‘go’ because you don’t ‘know’.

I’ve spent years helping clients get past this and collecting tools to help with just the first step – working out what you really want. Last year, I put the best of them into a book, First, Know What You Want – Why Goals Don’t Work and How to Make Them. Inside you’ll find twelve practical experiments in finding your ‘inner compass’, whether you’re the analytical type or more intuitive. And some bonus tips on using these techniques with others.

Here are a couple to get you started:

1. Start with What You DON’T Want

Unless you are a highly motivated, goal-seeking machine who uses positive language all the time, the chances are you spend at least some of the time thinking about things you don’t like and don’t want. Some of us are really good at this, so good that when someone asks What do you want? it takes us by surprise and we get a bit flustered.

Make it easy for yourself and start where you are – with what you don’t want. Pick something right now that you don’t want in your job, career, future, art, or relationship. Got something? Now ask What do I want, instead?

What you want is not always the opposite of what you don’t want:

I don’t want to breathe recycled air all day.

What do you want instead?

I’ve always wanted to work near the sea or I’d like to be hotter during the day or whatever that little ‘instead’ unlocks for you.

If What do you want? is the most powerful question you can ask, What do you want, instead? is probably the second most powerful question.

First you go with your natural focus – the moan, the irritation, the thing you don’t like. Then ask yourself What do I want [pause] instead? To answer you will have to glance in some other direction, searching around until you find an alternative.

2. Stop Thinking and Come to Your Senses

Instead of using your head to tease out what you want, why not ask your senses? They have a pretty good idea of what pleases them, but they talk slowly, like your uncle who takes forever to get to the point.

Often we numb or ignore our senses because we are moving through our lives too fast and it is annoying to have to slow down and pay attention to them. It is a bit like taking a toddler for a walk. The little one keeps wanting to go in different directions and stopping to investigate interesting things.

Hurry up, hurry up you cry to your senses, pulling on the leash. It’s no wonder they stop talking to you after a while. In your senses lie some powerful clues about what you want.

Mike came to see me facing a job change and uncertain about what he wanted next. After getting nowhere for a while I asked him what his favourite smell was. He thought for a moment. “It’s my daughter’s hair, just after she has had a bath and is having a bedtime drink.”

When I asked him how often he got to enjoy that smell and how he could enjoy it more, he began to well up. “I’ve been so busy with work in the last few months I can’t remember the last time.”

What’s your favourite smell? was enough to help Mike get to the heart of what he wanted from work and family. Could your senses help you gain some clarity too?

What do you enjoy looking at?

What would you love to hear more of?

What do you like to touch (or be touched by)?

What do you love to taste?

And your favourite smell? Could it contain a clue about what you want?

We have somehow confused adulthood with having less physical pleasure in our working day but it’s totally OK to devise a life that pleasures your senses (in case you were wondering).

If nothing else is working why not stop thinking and come to your senses?

What Else Do You Want to Know about Goal-Setting?

With Mark’s permission I’ll come back and share some other tips for knowing what you want. Let me know in the comments whether you want to hear more.

If you have discovered what you really wanted, what was the secret, the trigger point for you? Please share.

If you are yet to find your inner compass, let me know whether some tips would be helpful.

About the Author: Andrew Halfacre is a coach with years of experience helping people discover what they really want. Visit to download your free ‘First Know Journal’, a 40-page PDF of all the exercises from the book. And get the book as well on Amazon: First, Know What You Want.

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Responses to this Post


  1. I would have thought that most people who coach or write self-help materials on the basis of having actually worked with people would have noticed the large number of people who regularly proclaim the need and desire to find their passions! I have interpreted the focus of self-help materials on productivity tips differently from the way you have. I believe this focus typically arises from the fact that many or most people who have succeeded in their schooling have figured out ways that worked for them to get their work done and are happy now to share those tips with those less well-organized. They may be happy to do this via coaching or ebooks.

    What is a shame, and what I think you raise well in your article, is when people promote the tool they happen to have (which may be well suited for one specific purpose, like productivity in rote endeavors) as the ideal approach to every possible problem. Wasn’t blood-letting at a time treated as such a medical panacea, regardless of the illness?

    • Thanks FJR – Blood letting is a great metaphor. There’s an old saying that “history is written by the winners” (or something like that) and much of the material on finding your passion is written by people who have found it easy and are genuinely puzzled by how slow we are to follow suit. If it’s that easy then why doesn’t everyone do it? Hence their book, blog, manifesto etc. What’s missing is the nitty-gritty specifics of HOW you actually find your passion/discover what you want and that’s what I wanted to address in the book.

  2. Your questions about using your senses to find what you want is terrific. What I want has changed somewhat as I’ve grown older and I’ve learned from many mistakes to listen to my senses and feelings about possible ways to grow.

    And I would love to hear more from you. You’ve got some great insight.

  3. Using your senses seems like a weird answer, but I agree – small things are often clear signals for us that we ignore. Every time I take myself off to a cafe for peace and quiet and good writing time, it works. So coffee reminds me that writing full-time is my goal, and making excuses not to work towards that goal is pointless.
    When I go back to my day job, or am at home wasting time, thinking of that coffee and the writing time which goes along with it reminds me of what I need to focus on!

  4. I absolutely loved this post from Andrew Halfacre and would love to hear more from him in the future.

    I could really related to your second suggestion of thinking about our feelings. I think it is something that is easily overlooked in our society. And probably the most important part is the listening component. I started listening and was able to pull some really cool ideas out of the ether which has propelled me to start my own business.


  5. Great article. Knowing what you don’t want is indeed very powerful. And I can see that getting to the details of what you do want is really valuable – I think you have to visualize it very specifically, and using as many senses as possible, but somehow it’s still tough to do.

    • Laura, Nick, Sherryl – thank you, these are great insights and will encourage other people to pay a bit more attention to what their senses might be telling them. Someone told me that many of us “spend too much time upstairs” i.e. in our thinking and that sometimes it can be helpful to “come downstairs” and see what other information is available.

  6. Here’s the funny thing for me. When I was in my early 20s, I knew what I DIDN’T want to do, write. Then I became a writer. (My family owned a struggling weekly newspaper so, essentially, I had no choice.) I hated it for many years and suffered from the most godawful case of writer’s block. I left the family business and started working for a daily, still suffering from writer’s block. Eventually, I left newspaper world to freelance…still hating writing!

    But the story has a happy ending. Ultimately, I fixed my writer’s block and now I LOVE being a writer. And I also help coach others how to deal with writer’s block.

    • Daphne – that’s a great story, thank you. I wonder if you always loved it but were blocked or whether the love came with a change of circumstances? Also shows the value of (sometimes) starting with what you don’t want.

  7. Wow. This really hits home. This is exactly what me and my husband are looking for. I’m definitely interested in reading more and would love help. I sort of struggle with not knowing exactly what I want to do. I have a good idea but I really struggle with refining it, setting goals, and then making it happen. I always wonder “yeah but is this REALLY what I want to do?”. It nags at me CONSTANTLY but I’m stuck in this weird scared and overwhelmed state that has essentially debilitated my creativity. And my husband falls perfectly into this category too — he has a very vague instict of what he would like to do but it’s so vague (or possibly scary) that he is really lost in finding the answer. And it deeply affects him. I look forward to more articles by you and look forward to the help. I have checked out your blog and have downloaded the free journal. Working on it right now! Thank you!!

    • Yep. It’s an underreported problem so well done for posting – it will encourage other people who think they are the only one missing the “passion-finding gene”. If it’s any help, you are in the majority. When you find out what works for you, please come back and tell us.

    • i think i know how you feel, i think i fear that what i’m doing won’t work, and then i will have wasted my time. But i’ve been thinking that way for over 4 years now, and i have been wasting my time while trying to figure out if it’s safe to do anything. fear of failure to me means fear of being embarrassed, so i must of had something in my past occur that embarrassed me in public, and my subconscious keeps trying to protect me by reminding me to play it safe. i tried to see a hypnotist to get that out of my head, but i wound up wasting $250 on 2 sessions when i should have run out of the room within the first 2 minutes of realizing he wasn’t a good hypnotist for my needs. another fear to speak up issue i have, fear of being embarrased, etc.

  8. Oh, I am so familiar with problem #2. I spent so much of my life doing what other people thought I should do, or what I thought made good sense I never figured out what I really want. It hurts. It’s so debilitating. It’s an awful way to live.

    It took a major crisis in my life and some serious follow up to figure it out. Just yesterday I had a WOW moment. I realize I finally — finally — have goals and I’m working for them. Goals I want. Goals that excite me and come from my deep passion. With enough confidence to just smile at the people who tell me I should be doing . . .

    What a different way to live!

    For me, finding my passion took stepping away from all the shoulds put on me by other people, by the pressures of society, by whoever or whatever. I would suggest if you don’t know what you want to do, stop listening to all that other stuff. (Yeah, I know that can be really, really hard) While you’re trying to figure out what you love, don’t let others tell you what you should love. While you’re trying to find your passion, don’t let the world tell you what is sensible (hey, if you love it, you can make it work!) This is YOU. Not them. Go for it! I promise, you’ll never go back.

    • Great advice Heidi. Hearing a lot of “should” is often a sign you are working on someone else’s agenda. I think it was Tony Robbins who said you have to be careful that you don’t “should all over your self”. “You’ll never go back” – I like that.

      • i think you mean we can’t go back in time, so the “should have” is a waste of thinking, but we all practice it somehow… one of those mysteries of how the mind works (or doesn’t work lol).

  9. I think it was also Tony Robbins who said (sic) “decide what you want, decide means to cut away everything else.” But I always had a hard time figuring out what I wanted, but I knew what I was going through at the moment was what I DIDN’T want. i didn’t want to have to work with these customers that I felt were idiots & didn’t know how to do anything right. I didn’t want to have to beg for work, or negotiate my prices etc. All those things were causing me pain, making me unhappy. so when you say senses, I interpret that as “emotions”, i.e. I realize my emotions are making me realize what I don’t want, and sometime a good emotion will make me realize what I do want more of.
    But I find I need self-discipline to do these types of exercises to figure out what I want. There is always something popping up that takes me away from “sticking-with-it”. Mark’s Lesson 1 worksheet “What do you want to be…?” – I printed it out 5 days ago, and everytime I look at it, I get writers block and feel that I don’t have time to get into it, to think about it, it “WORK” on the answers. I’m 44 years old, I feel burned out, I feel like I’ll never be successful, I’m in debt for $85,000 and I turn to these websites because i want to succeed, and I believe it could be possible, if I knew how, if I could figure out what my problem is and learn what to do.

    • Stu, someone will give you a full response, I know, but until then, could you perhaps take the time (while you are eating or something so that you don’t feel you are wasting time) and make yourself a real list of what you have been successful at? Give yourself credit, look at what you have done well and the conditions you were in then? I think you need to remind yourself of your successes to regain your confidence. Also do some things this very week that inevitably make you feel good but that aren’t the sort you will look at with disdain later. A collection of “random acts of kindness” might work. As I wrote, someone will respond more about your passion-finding/goal setting, but I just hate for anyone to sound so down and stuck, so I thought I would throw this in. And remember Mark’s worksheet doesn’t need to be filled out in whole sentences!

      • yeah, i need to get my mind back to that time when i was starting out and I had all the confidence in the world that I would be successful. before things started to fall apart. it’s pretty hard now to try to make that list of accomplishments, because the voice inside asks “what’s the point, that was then, and everything is different now”. so it’s almost like i need a mind eraser. a reset button. a new inspiration to give me hope for the future & confidence.

        going back to emotions, i notice when my wife makes me mad, i get things done without letting thoughts or feelings get in the way, like I’m in crisis mode, i don’t worry what someone will think about me if I push for what I want / need, i rush through to get the thing done. i think she does that on purposes because she understands when i’m being my own worst enemy, and she knows the anger makes motion and things get done. so i also need to figure out how to make that a lasting consistent characteristic, for me to “just do it”, without over-thinking. to get that “winning outlook”, unstoppable, confident mindset.

        • That’s excellent advice from FJR.

          When you’ve got into the habit of focusing on all the bad things about yourself, it pays to make a real effort to interrupt the pattern and switch it round.

          Another way of dealing with the critical inner voice is to notice what it’s saying and they ask yourself “OK that’s what my worst enemy would say about me. What would a good friend have to say in response?”.

          It sounds like your wife has noticed you can accomplish something meaningful if you act quickly instead of thinking. Getting angry is one way to do it – although the side-effects aren’t so good!

          Did you see my piece about How to Panic Early? It shows you a way to get going quickly (without getting angry).

          Or if you’re really feeling stuck, have a look at 7 Ways to Smash Procrastination.

          And don’t sweat about the Creative Pathfinder worksheets. They are there to help you, but don’t let them become a chore. 🙂

    • Hi Stu – I know you’ve had a lot of good advice already but I wanted to highlight one thing about the experiment with your senses. It’s one of twelve experiments in the book to help you figure out what you want (get the free PDF) and some of those involve thinking and emotions but NOT this one. I really do mean senses, not emotions. When we spend a lot of time in our heads we sometimes miss information available elsewhere. If over-thinking isn’t working then you can Stop Thinking and Come To Your Senses, literally.

      What are your favourite smells? How could you smell more of them, more often? What would your hands like to do? (Clue: They really want to build something). What kind of aural world have you built for yourself – traffic noise, angry voices from TV? What would you like to hear instead? Laughter? Touch the desk where you work – do you really like that surface? What would you prefer to touch? How and where would you prefer to be touched more? By who?

      It’s pretty hard to straighten out your results if you ignore or numb out the basic things that could bring you pleasure. Recognising what they are and taking a few small steps to delight your senses is part of teaching yourself to know and work on what you most want. They are not a guarantee of success but recognising what your senses like and then doing it makes it easier to find and calibrate your inner compass.

      Simply putting a few green plants on your desk could be all it takes to start. No form filling. Stop thinking and come to your senses.

      You’ll notice that a lot of people who like this approach have commented here. Have no fear though. If this does not work for you, there are eleven other experiments to try. (and none of it is compulsory 🙂 )


  10. I nodded in agreement all through reading your post, Andrew 🙂 Love the ‘elephant in the room’ photo as well. the bit about that guy’s favorite smell gave me goose pimples. Such a thoughtful and effective way of eliciting a response – you must be an awesome coach 🙂 Headed right over to your blog to take a look.

  11. This is so true its not funny!
    I spent my first few years out of uni working administration roles which I was good at but wasn’t content with, but having no idea what else I wanted. Your steps above actually hit me by accident – I was at my grandfathers funeral, listening to all the eulogies mention what a great and passionate teacher he had been, and that’s when it hit me that I don’t want anyone standing over my coffin saying “she was a good office worker”. Grief has a way of naturally slowing you down and forcing you to acknowledge what you’re feeling, and by the time I was done grieving, I had a much better concept of what I did want!

    • Hi Opal
      Great story. Working backwards from the end of your life is another useful way to understand what you want. It’s so important to “live now” and not postpone what you want into some mythical future when the time and opportunity will be right. Thanks for sharing this.

  12. Wow! This is exactly what I needed! I don’t feel so alone in not being able to specifically know what it is I do and do not want. I just wrote down the first 2 questions you asked and answered them..what I don’t want and what I do want. I live very much by my senses but I never thought about putting them in a question that would help me discover what my true passions are. I know I want to be an artist that inspires those who love my work..I know what I am drawn to..senses wise…so that is the direction I want my art to go. I am going to buy your book…it seems to me to make the most sense. I don’t like reading how someone else became a success and how if I just apply myself I can be successful too. Duh, I know that already, but HOW do get to that point of finding my deepest passions? Because we all come from different places and experiences in our lives that affect how we see ourselves and what it is we want to do so those kinds of books don’t really help me. But to put the questions on myself..what is it I want to do and what is I don’t want to do…what a radical way to look at it. I am so excited to get your book and apply those ideas to what I want. I panic because I am older and feel like I don’t have the luxury of alot of time to work thru alot of things. But as an older person I have also learned to listen to my senses more so this book will be perfect for me. And I would love to read more on what you have to say on this please…write away!!!! Thanks, Chris

    • Chris, thanks for your story, you are not alone. I find that I almost always know what I want in the next 10 mins. After a while you can fill a whole day like this. It’s never too late to start making the next 10 mins count. Make that a habit and you’ll stumble across your passion soon enough. Andrew

  13. The problem is sometime what you want is no longer that once you get there.
    When I was a kid, I loved computer and wanted to work with them. I went to college and got a couple of degrees and are now working for one of the big computer corporation. It was good in the beginning, but after 15 years, I don’t like it anymore. The stress, long hours, and corporate culture turned what I wanted into what I don’t want.
    I like your tips on using your senses too. Many of us are trapped in our jobs and are just trudging along day to day. I’m working on the next phase of my life and it would be good to figure out what I really want.

    • Hi Joe, you can use this. Stress – what do you want instead? Long hours – what do you want instead? Corp Culture – what do you want instead? Use what you don’t want to help you find a new direction/s to go in. One tip from me is not to waste your time looking for a single, all encompassing answer to what you want. Find lots of small portions of what you want and it will add up to a satisfying buffet. Let us know what you find. Andrew

  14. Great advice. Love to learn more about your other goal setting ideas.

  15. Confusing passion with goal is a common mistake. You need passion to succeed but it is not your goal. For example, you may be passionate about sports but your goal could be to become a MLB player or write for .

    In my coaching, I have found that sticking to the goals is a much bigger problem than setting goals. For years, I have been teaching folks it is sticking to your goals that takes you there, not merely setting the goals.

    Sticking is difficult because it requires us to change and develop new habits.

    Keep the good stuff flowing.