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All the Feels: How Emotions Help You Achieve Your Goals

April 6, 2021 | Katie Aldrich

Emotions often get a bad rap in the workplace. How many times have you been told to “leave your emotions out” of a decision or meeting? But when it comes to goal-setting — a critical part of any professional development plan — they’re actually one of our most powerful tools. 

That’s because goals are only useful to our career growth if we can stay motivated as we work on them. And motivation requires our emotions as a guide. 

Getting Emotional 

We’ve all had goals in life that other people (or society) have set for us — things that we felt like we “should” want or do. While some people are driven by this external motivation, it doesn’t typically serve most of us well in the long run. These types of goals are more often the ones we either abandon outright or feel crappy about in the process of achieving them. 

For goals to really help us grow and learn more about ourselves as professionals, we need to feel connected to them. This is where our emotions come in handy: We can check in with our feelings during our upfront goal-setting as indicators of how likely a goal will be in driving meaningful self-development. 

This might seem challenging at first, but it simply requires paying attention — when you imagine yourself working toward or achieving that goal, notice what thoughts, physical sensations, or emotional charges arise. Then consider whether each of these reactions feels predominantly good, bad, or neutral.  

The best, most realistic, and most impactful goals for our growth give us a positive emotional charge, such as excitement, curiosity, or anticipation. In contrast, if we don’t feel much of anything when thinking about a goal, or worse, we feel complete dread, then it’s a good bet this goal isn’t right for us at this particular moment in our journey.

Fear during goal-setting is a bit trickier to interpret because it shouldn’t be immediately dismissed as negative. Some goals should feel really scary. The key is to get curious. Is the fear the exciting kind, like when you’re about to jump out of an airplane or go on a first date? Or is it the constricting kind, like when your instincts are screaming at you to not go a single inch further and you’re swatting away red flag after red flag? Our really worthwhile, stretch goals should have an element of fear attached — but only the exciting kind — because that’s a sign that we’re pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone and are close to experiencing significant  growth.

Really Feeling It

Once we’ve set our goal and confirmed our emotional connection to it, we can tap into our feelings once again to actually get it done. We can do this by paying attention to our emotional states all along the way, investigating their causes, and responding thoughtfully. 

The table below might help jumpstart the curiosity and creativity needed for this exercise. We can use it to start getting more familiar with our emotions and the direction they’re pointing us. Ultimately, however, our emotional responses are pretty unique, so you can add to or adjust these suggestions as you get more familiar with what your emotions are telling you. 

Listening to Our Emotions During Goal Work 

Emotional Response What It’s Telling Us Potential Action
Frustration, disappointment This approach might not be the right one right now. Pause, take a step back, and get creative about new paths toward the same or similar goal.
Guilt, self-blame We might not be doing as much as we want for our goal. Revalidate whether this specific goal actually matters to us as much as we thought. If it does, then allocate more time and energy to it.
Engagement, a flow state We’re on the right track. Keep it up, and keep going!
Indifference, ambivalence This goal might no longer be serving us. Check to see whether this goal still holds emotional resonance. If not, choose a new goal.
Self-doubt, fear of failure We’re about to take a big step toward meaningful change. Let these feelings motivate us to take a little extra time to prepare or learn for this goal — and then take the leap. Welcome these emotions as signs of growth that shouldn’t hold us back.

Of course, listening to our emotions during the process isn’t always straightforward. Working toward our goals — especially those really big stretch goals — might generate a mix of feelings, or our feelings might change over time. And there will likely be very tough moments that can create distracting static in the signal of our emotional cues. The key when we’re in these valleys is to check in with ourselves to determine if we still feel a sense of long-term purpose and meaning in this goal. If it still feels worth it despite the effort, then we can trust that we’re on the right track.   

Our emotions are critical to effective goal-setting and to our ultimate success in achieving them. Getting curious about what we’re feeling and why can help us not only set the destination but also plot the course to getting there. In the workplace, this emotional tactic might be as practical as it gets. 

For support with setting your goals or kickstarting your professional development, consider connecting with one of our Fringe PD coaches