Leonardo da Vinci’s Top 7 Tips for (not) Goal-Setting

Why there’s a 50% chance that setting SMART goals won’t work for you; and what to do about it

As I write this, it’s mid-December and I expect some people are thinking about setting goals, objectives or even resolutions for next year.

What you may not know, is that all of the great advice about setting SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-targeted) is useless for about half of the population.

It used to be that psychologists would talk about Type A and Type B people.
(Google this if you’d like to know more about how it may not be that well regarded now. And how it actually came from research into heart disease that was funded by tobacco companies!)

But if we put that Type A and Type B research to one side, I think we can say that there are some people who are naturally organised, who like to plan ahead and who tend to think in step-by-step procedures. Doing goal-setting work with these people is almost too easy.

Then there’s the other half of the population, people who tend to think creatively, who like to dip in and out of many projects, and who love doing things their way, even if nobody else does it like that.

If you’re one of the second group, read on…

A couple of years ago there was a great exhibition here in Manchester of some of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches and scientific research. As well it being a great chance to see that work first-hand, the thing that stood out most for me was information about what a terrible completer-finisher Leonardo da Vinci actually was. I forget the total number, but in my notebook I copied down part of the curator’s words:

“Leonardo wrote copious notes and intended to publish several treatises, but, like many of his artistic projects, these were never finished”.

I got to thinking about Leonardo’s approach to productivity and how he might have approached setting some goals for the new year. So, in my best attempt to channel the inner Leonardo, here’s some goal-setting tips for the creative, multi-tasking, individualistic renaissance genius in all of us:

Tip 1: Forget setting SMART goals. Seriously, just forget it
Unless you know that this approach already works for you, or are feeling really, really happy and relieved at the thought of getting all organised and writing numbered lists, with deadlines etc, let it go. If you absolutely can’t let it go (perhaps because you work for a Type A person or have HR people in your company who feel more comfortable with boxes on forms), then I’m afraid you will need to game the system as best you can, but make sure you do the following stuff too, as this is where your strengths really are.

Tip 2: Think vague thoughts, set broad-brush outcomes not specific goals and take time to dream
Do you like to scribble in notebooks (you probably have more than one notebook on the go at once)? Do you think visually (you’ve probably already got into making vision-boards or scrapbooks of things you intend to try doing)? Maybe you’re a talker and like to think out loud? Whatever your method, make sure you set aside time for dreaming (call it “Visioning” if you’re at work, it sounds more official to Type A’s).

Tip 3: Have a Someday-Maybe list/notebook/file
It’s very important to have somewhere to ‘put’ all of your great ideas and stuff that you might work on someday. Not because it’s important that you don’t forget it. After all, ideas come relatively easy for you, like buses, there’ll be another one along in a minute. No, for you, having a Someday-Maybe file is an important way to stop your head exploding with the awesomeness of all your ideas and initiatives.

Tip 4: Do it your way
There really isn’t a right or a wrong way to set goals. They are only a means to an end, a way, for some people, to drive their performance towards something important. What’s important is that you find the way that helps you to achieve what you want to achieve at work.

Here’s one exercise I often use with clients who aren’t sure yet what their way is.
Think about a time at work when everything was going just right for you. When you felt alive and were getting the results you wanted. What was going on around you then? What conditions were important to you for for getting those results? What was in it for you – why was that outcome important to you?

Tip 5: Get used to juggling stuff
You’re probably at your best when you’re like one of those circus plate-spinning acts. You’ve got loads of plates spinning on loads of poles. Some will be teetering and need your input and some will be doing fine. And some will be lurking in a corner, forgotten. As you write your version of your ‘goals’, you will need to learn to recognise when you’re about to set one too many plates spinning.

Tip 6: Love to fail, but hate to quit
If you’re a subscriber to my newsletter, you might have already seen that I’m running a series of exclusive video blogs along this theme – that failure is a really important part of progress and is actually the antidote to quitting. I think it’s also an important part of goal-setting for non-linear people. You will need to try more things than you can achieve. You will need to go down some blind alleys. Like Leonardo da Vinci, you will probably have a pile of unfinished projects. When you’re writing down whatever your version of goals for next year might be, make sure they’re listed as things to “Try”, “Experiment with”, Fail at” or “Learn about”.

Tip 7: Take a look at Da Vinci’s own to-do list
Reproduced in a great article here: Leonardo’s to-do list

Note how much of it is listed as “discover…” or “find…”


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