Conjuring Good Magic: How to Set Powerful Goals

Photo by Sheeshoo

Photo by Sheeshoo

“Life would be so great,” said Ilsa, a fledgling entrepreneur, “if I could just start a business to pay all my bills.” Another client, Sue, wanted to have a baby. “Being a mom would make me happier than anything in the world,” she told me. Like any codependent life coach, I wanted everything for Ilsa and Sue that they wanted for themselves. I longed for a magic wand that would let me bippity-boppity-boo their dreams into reality, fairy godmother–style. Instead, I did the next best thing: I worked with them as they made to-do lists and financial plans and stocked up on computer software and folic acid.

Although it seemed like a good idea at the time, my boosterism had some significant blowback. You see, Ilsa’s business did succeed, but its rapid growth required her to work like a pack mule. Sue eventually had a baby, who filled her heart with love—and her ears with colicky shrieking that nearly unhinged her. Both women were in more distress after achieving their goals than they’d ever been before.

I blame myself. In my fairy godmother role, I should’ve paid less attention to logistics and probed deeper into the reasons Ilsa and Sue had focused on those particular ambitions, because stated goals are quite magical. They dictate our attitudes and behavior and where we put our energy. But using magic inexpertly, as most fables (and almost every Harry Potter movie) can attest, is a bad idea. After years of helping clients like Sue and Ilsa, I learned how to help people set goals to get what they want without unintended consequences.

Words of Power

The difference between a dangerous spell—um, I mean goal—and a safe, effective one has everything to do with parts of speech. Most goal setters use mainly nouns and verbs (“I want my business to succeed,” “I want to have a baby”). This frequently leads to either outright failure or the kind of success that doesn’t make people nearly as happy as they expect. But there’s another class of words that work much better—adjectives.

I’ve come to depend on adjectives because goals made of nouns and verbs are risky: They bring to mind “imagined situations,” as opposed to “imagined experiences.” The two are subtly but crucially different, and experiences, not situations, are always what we really want. Ilsa expected business success to produce feelings of contentment; Sue thought a baby would make her feel loved. Neither fully anticipated what would happen after they achieved their goals.

By using adjectives, you can avoid this trap by focusing all your efforts on the quality of the experience you want to create. This process is harder than “normal” goal setting—it requires some serious soul-searching and perhaps a good thesaurus—but it does pay off.

Step One: Pick a goal, any goal.

Think of a typical noun-verb goal, something for which you frequently hanker. Be honest rather than politically correct. Some people may have deep desires to establish world peace, stop global warming, and end poverty, but maybe you actually think more about, I dunno, reaching your target weight. And that’s okay. This is not a beauty pageant (those contestants can afford to wish for world peace; they’ve all reached their target weight). What I want you to do is fess up to your real desires. Now pick the biggest, most ambitious one.

Step Two: Gaze into the future.

You don’t need a crystal ball to see what’s up ahead; the three pounds of gray matter between your ears will do fine. Use your brainpower right now to imagine what your life would be like if you realized the goal you just identified. Create a detailed fantasy about it. Loiter there awhile, observing your dream-come-true with your mind’s eyes, ears, nose, skin. Then, clear your mind and your throat: It’s time for the magic words.

Step Three: Generate adjectives.

This is the heart of a really effective goal-spell. Begin listing adjectives that describe how you feel in your dream-come-true scenario. This is a simple task, but not an easy one. It requires that you translate holistic, right-brain sensations into specific, left-brain words. Author Craig Childs compares this to “trying to build the sky out of sticks.” Spend enough time in your imagined situation to let your brain leaf through its vocabulary, scouting out accurate adjectives. In goal setting as in fairy tales, the minimum magic number is three. Don’t stop until you have at least that many ways to describe those lovely feelings.

My clients frequently try to squirm out of the process by muttering, “It’s hard to explain,” or “Oh, I don’t know,” or “I can’t describe it.” Well, of course it’s hard to explain; yes, you do know; and if you keep trying, you can too describe it. Your adjectives don’t have to be eloquent; use simple words like energetic, focused, delighted, and fine. But you owe it to yourself to persevere until you’ve found some reasonably descriptive words. Three of ’em. Write them down and then share them below in the comments:

1.____________________

2.____________________

3.____________________

Step Four: Focus on anything that can be described with your adjectives.

Drop the fantasy situation you imagined in step two and concentrate on those adjectives. You might notice that these three words bring your stated goal into sharper focus. For instance, if your New Year’s resolution is to lose ten pounds—a noun-verb goal—but your adjectives are strong, confident, and healthy, you might realize that your actual aim is to get fit. You would see that the strategy you came up with to diet (i.e., eating your weight in hydroponic cabbage) might leave you thinner but also recumbent on a couch without the energy to leave the house—which isn’t what you really want. Thanks to adjectives, you can fine-tune your strategy: Swap a fad diet for a meeting with a nutritionist, and sign up for weight training classes at the gym.

Sometimes tweaking isn’t enough. Your adjective goal might utterly contradict your stated goal. Time to rethink that original target. For example, if you think you want to win an Academy Award, you may imagine your Oscar acceptance speech, and feel “valued, satisfied, and unstoppable.” If you think that only a night at the Kodak Theatre will lead to those feelings, you might spend years obsessively pursuing movie stardom, ignoring everyone and everything except your ambition. Odds are you still wouldn’t win an Oscar, but you’d probably get a rapacious ego that could inhale all manner of rewards without even noticing them. On the other hand, if you immediately begin focusing on aspects of your present life that make you feel valued, satisfied, or unstoppable, you’ll feel an instant lift. All sorts of things may happen. Sure, you might win an Oscar. But if you don’t find yourself onstage, blurting out that the statue sure is heavy, you’ll be left with…a pretty good life. You might even find that as you follow the things that make you feel appreciated, you’ve tripped into an entirely different career. So starting now, survey your life for anything (I mean anything) that can be described with any of those three words. Putting all your attention on those aspects of your life will make you happier right now and help you create future situations that fulfill your true desires.

The Science of Good Magic

I realize that all this sounds a little woo-woo, but psychological research on happiness backs up my strategy. Over and over, researchers studying happiness have found that the situational elements people crave—money, social status, possessions—don’t reliably lead to an experience of well-being. By contrast, learning to find joy in the present moment (a.k.a. focusing on experiences you truly want in your life) increases life satisfaction, improves health, and allows us to live longer, more fulfilling lives.

My clients form my own database of sorts, convincing me that good goal-setting magic is (to use the social science terms) robust and valid. For example, when I asked Ilsa to go back in time and imagine what she once thought she’d get from a successful business, she described herself with the adjectives relaxed, joyful, and secure (ironically, the demands of her wildfire success made her feel tense, joyless, and insecure). When she scanned her life for activities and relationships that made her feel aligned with those adjectives, she found them everywhere: in gardening, reading novels, playing with her niece. “Damn!” she told me. “I’d already succeeded before I succeeded!” Indeed.

In Sue’s case, remembering how she’d expected motherhood to make her feel yielded the adjectives loved, rejuvenated, and emotionally replenished. She realized that her noun-verb goal (having a baby who’s beautiful and also colicky) actually created the opposite of her adjective goal—she felt unappreciated, haggard, and drained. It turned out that her magical adjectives described the way she felt when connecting with old friends. Both Ilsa and Sue managed to give more attention and time to the things that evoked the feelings they really wanted. (That’s the beauty of adjective-based goals: They can work even when you’re already suffering the consequences of unwise noun-verb spells.) Ilsa carved out time for reading and gardening; Sue put the baby in the bouncy seat and caught up with friends on Facebook.

These efforts helped Ilsa and Sue work and parent better, and handle the difficulties conjured by their original goals, all of which eased my fairy godmother guilt.

In other words, we lived happily ever after. So if you find yourself longing for some idealized goal, take a moment to go fishing for adjectives. Then use them to identify the aspects of your life that are already drawing you toward your heart’s desires. Focusing on these people and activities will lead you gently toward even more fulfilling experiences. One day you may find yourself in a situation more interesting and delightful than anything you ever imagined. Listen closely and you’ll hear my annoying little voice in your head, whispering, Bippity-boppity-boo.

52 replies
  1. TD Hickerson
    TD Hickerson says:

    Excellent ideas and a simple recipe for setting meaningful goals! Thank you so much for this timely post. For the record, my three adjectives are relaxed, curious, and light. Looking forward to an excellent year!

    Reply
  2. Lizzie Merritt
    Lizzie Merritt says:

    Dear Martha,
    Thank you for explaining the difference between adjectives (the feelings we want) and the nouns (the Thing we think we want).
    Another effective exercise to try that allows us to talk to the non-verbal right brain is this: Type your desired goal into Google images. When pictures of your goal appear, copy and paste ones that catch your eye into a blank document. Once you have a collection of pictures, look at them for themes. This exercise has a way of showing you what you REALLY want beneath the surface goal.
    Thanks!
    Lizzie

    Reply
  3. Kathy Mulholland
    Kathy Mulholland says:

    Useful. Wise. Valued. It seems I’ve stumbled into a very nice life; somehow (magically), even with all the changes in my “plans,” these adjectives have been like steering-currents, unseen and under-appreciated.

    Reply
    • felicia
      felicia says:

      I am laughing with myself in this moment. I woke up and realized, I hadn’t exactly written adjectives. 😉 Too much Clairette on a happy New Year’s Eve!? I’ve added ‘aware’ to my list, and here are the others in proper form: visible, audible, valued. 🙂

      Reply
  4. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Love the magic and it’s all around us, my goals are many but I’ve brought them down to three -. Relaxed, content, free – so mote it be <3

    Reply
  5. Pat Donovan
    Pat Donovan says:

    My words are creative, magical and vibrant! Thank you for this wonderful post and for all of your books. I’m re-reading Wild New World as we enter the new year and am officially UNEMPLOYED as of today and loving it!

    Reply
  6. Kerry Jones
    Kerry Jones says:

    thank you Martha for this delightful twist in the goal-setting plot! My adjectives are Inter-woven, saturated and inspirational. May your 2015 be magical!

    Reply
  7. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    I love your writing, Martha. My (four) adjectives are: free, unburdened, respected, loved. And I can now see how silly it is to think that completing my Ph.D. will magically make me feel this way.

    Reply
    • Martha Brettschneider
      Martha Brettschneider says:

      Jindra, my friend! Thanks for turning me on to Martha Beck! And thank you, Martha Beck, for your inspiration. Must we limit our adjectives to three? Mine are purposeful, fulfilled, grounded, mindful, balanced, valued, inspired, inspirational, and healthy (not just my body, but my mind and spirit as well).

      And for the record, my long-time and very dear friend Jindra is the epitome of effervescent, celebratory, and equitable. 🙂

      Reply
  8. Martha
    Martha says:

    Thank you Martha! I enjoyed your book Steering By Starlight so much that the loaner is going back to the library & I bought a copy to keep.

    My 3 words are: supported, elated, connected

    Reply
  9. kelly
    kelly says:

    A terrific post on goal setting with a simple insightful framework to follow. So often we jump into goal setting without really thinking about why we want to achieve the goal and if it will make us happier.

    Reply
  10. Andrea SB
    Andrea SB says:

    My biggest, most grand goal is to purchase my dream home in the SF bay area, (I said it was grand). When I lose the noun and the verbs I am left with, “blissful, settled and relaxed”, and if I’m being honest here, a fourth one; “redeemed”. I’m off to conjure some major magic. Thank you Martha!

    Reply
  11. Eve DesJardins
    Eve DesJardins says:

    Nice post. Your emphasis on adjectives reminds me of Danielle La Port’s Desire Map approach to goal setting: that it is the feelings we are aiming for…and to know what they are and make choices as we work towards our goals based on those feelings being present as a result of how we do things.

    So grateful fro your work Martha! Eve in Vt

    Reply
  12. Suzanne Conlon
    Suzanne Conlon says:

    I absolutely LOVE this. What a fantastic way to reorient our thinking. Daniel Gilbert talks about this in his book – Stumbling on Happiness. We often think we know what will make us happy (noun goals) but they usually don't – just like Ilsa and Sue. This is a great strategy for overcoming our mind's tendency to choose a direction that doesn't get us where we actually want to be!

    Reply
  13. T
    T says:

    I think this article for today might save me having a stroke (and not the kind of genius stroke like Jill Bolte Taylor had, but the kind that leave you foaming at the mouth. I seem to often know what I don’t want and for the life of me can’t seem to access my right brain where I know the wise part of me, the one that knows resides, the one wrote two poems seven years ago amd me not being a writter. So your suggestion for today, to name the feeling as opposed to the thing I think I want, might be the portal I need to access my way out of this shithole job I have and into what I was put here to be and do. This morning for breakfast I had yet another serving of my boss and her boss missapropriating one of my ideas as theirs (yet again), so I was boiling until I read this article…if everything in our lives we manifest what are these ego driven, soulless, shameless people I work for say about me? I run circles around their intellect with room to spare and yet they are my bosses…hum? interesting….anyway my six feelings were:

    Fulfilled
    Satisfied
    Contributor
    I matter
    I create
    I make a difference

    thanks
    T

    Reply
  14. rob white
    rob white says:

    The purpose of life is to dream big, grow into and occupy that dream, outgrow that dream, and dream even bigger. You blog is a wonderful tool to help with purpose, Martha. Nice job

    Reply
  15. Fialka
    Fialka says:

    Deeply content
    Radiant
    Elegant

    Belonging – can’t think of the right word but I mean, when you feel ‘in place’ as opposed to out of place and disconnected. Anyone have a good word for this?!

    Reply
  16. Taryn
    Taryn says:

    Useful – no, Indispensable
    Secure – no, Prosperous
    Competent – no, Masterful
    Challenged – no, Awestruck, Enthralled, Wonder-full
    Healed – no, Hopelessly Optimistic

    Thank you Martha – and thanks to everyone who commented and shared their adjectives. I’m grateful for the inevitable contextual synchronicity of this post’s appearance and my reading it in this particular Now moment – as I always am when I get exactly what I need whether I know it beforehand or if I have to wait a few moments to realize it. Much love and light to you all. Namaste.

    Reply
  17. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    My adjectives were learning/creating; encountering novelty; and luxuriating. Martha, I’m so grateful for your books. You’ve changed my life. I broke up with my boyfriend, went on vacation to Universal Studios Hollywood, bought a really great electric piano, started performing a series of house concerts, and decided to send my three-year-old to preschool so that I could have more time to concentrate and work on my career. Shackles off!

    Reply
  18. Heidi
    Heidi says:

    Thank you for this. I always became so frustrated with other goals-related guidance or advice because there was always some missing piece that I couldn’t identify. I always felt, “Yeah, but…”

    THIS IS IT. The emotional why for our physical goals. Excellent. Thank you!

    My adjectives are: safe, content, peaceful.

    Reply
  19. Nancy Darling
    Nancy Darling says:

    Pretty scary! Going to work on it. My fantasy is kind of like the Wizard of Oz-the truth is hiding behind a curtain. Now-to peek in cautiously….

    Reply
  20. Ashley
    Ashley says:

    My noun-verb goal is to live by myself somewhere beautiful & fun. My three adjectives are: grounded, ecstatic, and safe. Conjuring good magic as we speak…

    Reply

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