What I Wish I’d Known When I Was 18: Some Advice from a Creative Business Owner

What I Wish I'd Known When I Was 18 | Eleanor Snare

Last week I spoke at the Glug Leeds networking event along with four other people. We each shared our thoughts on what we wish we’d known when we were 18.

After a lot of thought in preparing for the talk, I realised there were only a few really important things that I wish I’d known. Some of them I’ve only just come to in the last few years, and I think that’s an important point; it’s never too late to take on board advice, and it’s not useful to berate yourself for not knowing it earlier.

We’re all on a journey and we can’t get to where we are now without having trod our unique path.

What I Wish I'd Known When I Was 18 | Eleanor Snare


The first thing I wish I’d known when I was 18 is that relationships are everything. As an 18 year old, I believed I had to make it in the world. I was the one who was going to achieve great things, and I had to do it on my own merit. It couldn’t be part of the team; it had to be me and me alone.

What I’ve realised as I’ve got older is that success is not an individual accomplishment. There are many, many people here helping us do what we want to do with our lives. That might be as small as someone explaining how to use specific tools to run your business more effectively, or as big as a bank manager giving you a loan.

It’s easy to believe in the culture of individualism that we’re living in, but our success and failure in work and in our lives is dependent on the relationships that we have with others.

What I Wish I'd Known When I Was 18 | Eleanor Snare


The second thing I shared with the Glug audience was that boring stuff is surprisingly important. I’ve worked with lots of different businesses since I was 18 – in fact, in the last six years I’ve worked with over 40 brands – and one thing all the most successful businesses have in common is that they run their business in an effective way because they care about boring stuff.

That might mean they focus on doing well all those things which frankly sound completely dull, like HR, operations, facilities management, health and safety and progression plans. Working for myself, I’ve had to be in charge of all the boring things (as well as all the exciting thing) and I’ve gained a newfound respect for how important these elements are in running a business.

Lots of modern marketing businesses attract people with perks. These might be a ping pong table in the office, free massages, beers on a Friday afternoon, company days out or some other fun activity. These are great for team building and for lifting people’s spirits, but ultimately they’re not a replacement for running a business sensibly and effectively.

I think it’s easy when you’re 18 to be distracted by these perks and not ask important questions of the employer you’re talking to, like “How does your HR department work?”,  “What’s the progression plan you have in mind for me?” and “What’s the pension scheme like?”. Thinking about these things feels very boring, but getting it right can aid you in business success; you won’t be worrying about small things because they’ll be sorted, so you can focus on the big, fun, exciting stuff instead.

What I Wish I'd Known When I Was 18 | Eleanor Snare


The third thing I wish I’d known when I was 18 is not to ignore the causes of mental health problems. I think this was something which resonated with a lot of people in the audience, and it’s because we don’t talk about it enough.

During my second year of university, I realised I was suffering very badly from depression. Since that point I’ve undergone therapy a number of times, most recently last year when I suffered with anxiety for the first time in my life. I feel very lucky that I had access to therapeutic practices when I needed them, and was able to address the causes of my mental health problem – not just the symptoms.

When we’re busy or when we have limited funds, it’s very easy to try and find solutions for  the symptoms of mental health problems, rather than the causes. The symptoms are sometimes easier to treat, because they may have a medical solution. For example, if anxiety gives you problems with your digestive system, you can take medication to calm this down. Sometimes, it’s essential the symptoms are treated rapidly to protect your health and the health of others.


I see a lot of my students who are struggling with mental health problems for, perhaps, the first time in their life being given access to symptom treatment but not cause treatment. The reasons for this are many and highly political (hey, stop cutting funding and resources!). But it’s also on us to recognise that mental health problems are often rooted deeply in our past and the lessons we’ve learnt about how to behave or how to think, even if those lessons have been unconscious.

By addressing the causes of mental health problems, not just the symptoms, we can start to work on how we feel and how we relate to each other in a much more meaningful way. I don’t think symptoms should be left untreated, but neither do I think the causes should be ignored. Having the time and space to talk about some of the causes behind my mental health problems dramatically improved my happiness, as well as my empathy for others.This in turn has increased my successes.

What I Wish I'd Known When I Was 18 | Eleanor Snare


With that in mind, the fourth thing I wish I’d known when I was 18 is to lighten up.

My mum will tell you I was always a very serious child; very thoughtful, often with my head in a book or distracted, often thinking about the problems in the world or the problems that I was involved with. As I got older, this translated into an attitude where I was unable to laugh at myself. I took myself and my work very seriously, to the point of which I became po-faced and sometimes paralysed with fear of being embarrassed or laughed at.

Over the last few years I’ve learnt that I can be silly, funny and even ridiculous – and I can still be respected and liked. For all of the problems in the world, which we should absolutely be fighting against and looking for ways to solve them, the world is an irrational, bizarre, ridiculous and joyful place. Things happen for no reason. The universe is chaotic. We have a silly streak inside of us that makes us do things we didn’t anticipate.

It’s really important we embrace this and make it part of who we are. When I did this, I realised I could let go of the way I thought someone should act if they were successful or happy or cared about their work. Instead, I could just get on with actually caring about my work, being happy and being successful.

What I Wish I'd Known When I Was 18 | Eleanor Snare


The final things I shared with the Glug audience that I wish I’d known when I was 18 is a quote from Brené Brown.

Brené Brown’s TED Talk videos on shame and vulnerability came at a point in my life where I really needed to hear those messages. Since then I’ve read her work, watched her Facebook live videos and tried to integrate the messages she shares from her research into my own life.

One of these messages is this: you are worthy of love and belonging.

This is one of the most powerful statements I have ever read. When I first shared it with my partner, he immediately began to say “…if you do what?”. This is the point of the statement; knowing that we are worthy of love and belonging not because we have done something or said something or acted in a certain way, but just because we are human.

Acknowledging this statement has enabled me to feel happier with myself, care for myself more and care for others even when they are acting in a way which makes me feel frustrated or sad.

In this article about valuing your time I said this:

I want you to know your time is worth something, because it’s precious. You do not have much of it and you must value it because of that. It’s not about your skills or education or any other factor; you must value your time simply because one day it will run out.

My ideas on this are inspired by Brené Brown. Your time is precious because it is limited, not because of who you are and what you do. Because you exist, you are worthy of love and belonging.

I wish I’d known this when I was 18, because so many things in my life were done out of the belief that I was not worthy of love and belonging. I think lots of us do things because of this belief.

We’re in relationships we don’t like because we think we’re not worthy of real love. We’re in jobs we don’t like because we think we’re not worthy of being at a better company. We shy away from making new friends or trying new activities, because we think we’re not worthy of being accepted into a community or being shown affection and care. I definitely did all of these things at some point in my life out of the mistaken belief that I was not worthy.

Acknowledging that you are worthy of love and belonging is hard because we’re conditioned to believe we are only valuable if we do something ‘valuable’. What Brené Brown is asking us to do is give unconditional love to ourselves. Many of us struggle to even give unconditional love to others, let alone our harshest critics. But even beginning to think it could be possible that you are worthy of love and belonging will change the way you feel about yourself.  

It’s not easy to remember it, and it’s not always easy to practice it for yourself or others. Here it is again so it’s clear in your mind:

You are worthy of love and belonging.

What’s next?

I loved doing the Glug talk and really enjoyed watching my co-presenters share lessons from their lives.

If you can this week, spend some time thinking what you wish you would have known when you were 18.

What one lesson or piece of advice would you give that person? Even more importantly, do you think you are living and remembering that advice now, when you have the opportunity to put it into practice?

Please do share your thoughts with me on Twitter @ebsnare.

What I Wish I'd Known at 18 - Eleanor Snare

I Found Ikigai and I Decided to Use It To Help My Students

I Discovered Ikigai and I Decided to Use It To Help My Students | Eleanor Snare - Sustainable Marketing for Creative Businesses

Back at the end of 2015 I learned about a concept called ‘ikigai’. You might’ve heard about it, because it’s going to  be the new hygge.

Once I’d found out about it, and worked on exploring and finding my own ikigai, I wanted to use it to help others.

(After all, my ikigai is to help fulfil potential).

I decided to create an employment programme for my final year students based on the idea of ikigai. It seems that lots of people come to their ikigai at an mid point in their life; how could I bring my students closer to this concept earlier on?

How could I introduce it to them so they would start to make employment decisions based on that, not on external pressures?

This is the story of how and why I came to develop that programme.

In 2015 (my first year as a lecturer) I wanted to write an employment programme for final year creative students which was based on a more holistic view of ‘work’ and ‘career’. I wanted it to anticipate the blocks they may face in pursuing a creative life while giving them specific knowledge about how to develop a career in which they are confident and satisfied.

Rather than approach this through providing an outline for the sort of person they need to be or career they need to have in the creative industries, I was interested in helping them work out what was important to them first – then designing a career around that.

I hoped this approach would help students realise they have some level of autonomy in choosing their work. I also wanted to move away from working on CVs and LinkedIn profiles, and towards exploring basic yet deeply rooted elements which are essential to happy work and life.

Ikigai and self-actualisation

My starting point was ikigai, which you’ll have heard of by now. It’s a Japanese term originating in the Okinawa area (although that has been contested).

Loosely translated it means “the reason for which you wake up in the morning”. It is not necessarily about work, but about anything in one’s life which is this “reason”.

This concept has been identified as key to the long and fruitful lives of people in the Okinawa region, including in a seven-year longitudinal study of around 50,000 Japanese people which found that those who had not discovered their ikigai had a significantly increased risk of mortality (in a 2008 study by Sone, et al.).

I saw ikigai as similar, in some ways, to the ‘final destination’ of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: self-actualisation and the transcendent needs (helping others to self-actualise).

(If you’ve not heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs before, read this).

One way they’re similar is because ikigai and self-actualisation can take any form; they don’t have to be high-brow. For example, the love of family might be your ikigai, which would be classified as a ‘lower’ need in Maslow’s hierarchy – but can also be a way of you self-actualising.

Another similarity is that ikigai and self-actualisation are dependent on the individual and their social context. I love this quote from Maslow about how the self-actualisation desire is different in different people:

“The specific form that these needs will take will of course vary greatly from person to person…the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically…in painting pictures or in inventions”

For me, one of the most important similarities – and actually one of the most important things about ikigai as a whole – was that they are a continuous practice. It is the reason for waking up every morning, not just one single morning.

And from Maslow:

“[self-actualisation] might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming”

You don’t just ‘get’ your ikigai and stop. It is the complete opposite of our pervasive #goals culture; it’s something you find, embrace and just keep doing because every time you do it you become more you.

I believed ikigai and self-actualisation were key to talking about creative careers in a supportive and student-centric way. I saw that they placed the holistic development of the whole person at the heart of any activity.

They were the ‘colour’ of the colouring in, rather than the prescriptive outline.

 Discovering ikigai and self-actualisation

The next step I took was to understand the process by which someone could achieve ikigai and self-actualisation, the behaviours needed to do so, and then develop this into a programme.

In his work as a coach and entrepreneur, Marc Winn created a visualisation of how a person could achieve their ikigai. This diagram has been shared a lot so all credit to Marc; it’s a brilliant representation.

ikigai diagram by marc winn

This diagram has similarities to the one designed by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great, showing the key characteristics of companies which significantly improved their operations.

Collins’ diagram consists of three overlapping circles: ‘passion’, ‘best at’ and ‘driving resource’. These translate in turn as ‘what lights your fire’, ‘what could you be the best in the world at’ and ‘what makes you money’.

The corresponding values in Winn’s diagram would be ‘passion’, ‘profession’ and ‘vocation’. But by adding ‘mission’, Winn saw the link between internal fulfilment and external, social need – which can be central to ikigai and self-actualisation.

When I saw the links between Winn’s ‘path to achievement’ diagram and the characteristics Collins discovered of significantly improved businesses, it suggested the principles in Winn’s diagram could be successfully applied to individual career development.

I felt confident that an employment programme based on ikigai would work.

Mr Arden steps in

From there, I looked more closely at some of the behaviours Maslow identified of people who he believed had achieved self-actualisation, which he shared in his 1970 book Motivation and Personality. These included absorption, experimentation and honesty – and a few more too!

One of my favourite books ever is Paul Arden’s It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To BeI saw links between his chapter subjects and the behaviour he encouraged in creative business people, and the behaviours Maslow identified.

For example, Arden has a chapter called “It’s all my fault”. One of Maslow’s self-actualising behaviours is responsibility.

Arden has another called “When it can’t be done, do it. If you don’t do it, it doesn’t exist”. Maslow lists experimentation as another self-actualising behaviour.

I saw that Arden was articulating – maybe unconsciously – Maslow’s self-actualising behaviours, and matching them to success in a creative career. I realised that adding this into the ikigai mix could make for a great employment programme.

The results

With ikigai at the very heart of the programme, I added an understanding of Maslow’s self-actualising behaviours.

I was inspired by Winn, Collins and Arden that this combination of ideas could work when teaching students about getting a creative career they were fulfilled by.

So I designed and ran an 11 week programme with around 15 students.

And it wasn’t half bad.

Read more about the results of the programme right here.

When I Taught My Students About Ikigai, Here’s What Happened

When I Taught My Students About Ikigai, Here's What Happened | Eleanor Snare - Sustainable Marketing for Creative Businesses

In this article I shared how I came to devise an employment programme for my final year students that had ikigai at its heart.

Here, I want to explain some details of the programme and some of the results I gained.

What was the programme?

The programme was run over 11 weeks with my final year Fashion Marketing students, with seven in-person sessions and four self-directed sessions over the Easter break.

I sent a weekly email newsletter to the students for 10 weeks, which had a session recap and homework as downloadable PDFs. I included creative activities, video and images (no-one likes a boring email).

Because these were my marketing students, I used marketing concepts to help them approach ikigai. In marketing you have your objective (the goal), strategy (overall way of getting there) and your tactics (ways of implementing the strategy). So:

  • Ikigai was the ‘core objective
  • Strategies were for achieving ikigai
  • Tactics were for implementing the strategies

Many careers programmes focus purely on tactics (such as writing a CV) without considering the ‘core objective’ – the ultimate purpose of the activity. Keeping the objective in mind meant the strategies and tactics we discussed were meaningful and relevant for the students – they were writing their CV for a purpose they believed in.

The sessions I facilitated were a combination of explanation, discussion, and independent and group activities, and were very relaxed. We covered everything from ikigai to salary to skills and vision boards. I also got to dream up ikigai-achievement strategies with the students, in a mentor/coach capacity.

My favourite aspect of the sessions was the way the group bonded with each other; they went from 15 or so strangers to 15 friends who understood and cared about each other’s passions.

That, for me, was worth all the work.

The results

I managed to wrangle feedback from the students before they left to get into the big, wide world, and the results made me do a happy dance.

They’d approached the course expecting it to be tactical – as one said, “more about cvs and cover letters”. Ikigai was a brand new concept, and they found applying it to a range of ‘normal’ employment ideas was quite challenging.

This was some of their feedback on that:

“It let me know that it is important to know myself in order to know what I can do and should do.”

“…it was more about actual purpose which I really liked”

“[Elly’s] approach to careers was on a larger, more thought provoking scale. The programme’s focus on Ikigai made us look at our whole lives rather than just a job.”

Although my sample size was small, I was really pleased to see that they’d started looking at their work differently; rather than succumbing to external pressures, they’d started to turn inwards to make decisions. Importantly, one of them said they no longer expected there to be “one exact right way” to continue their career.

For a generation plagued by social media comparisons and FOMO, this was massive.

But my favourite bit had to be when I asked them what one thing they would take from the course into the future. Here’s what some of them said.

“…knowing that we’re all in the same boat and it’s okay to not know exactly what you’re doing”

“That there is no one path to achieve your goal”

“To look for personal fulfilment in a job.


I just want to share that last one again.


One student would remember and hold with them: “to look for personal fulfilment in a job“.

That’s what they learnt from the course. That means before, it wasn’t seen as important.

Perhaps what we’ve been telling our young people – actually, all our people – has been wrong. We’ve focused too much, accidentally, on external pressures for work, rather than what fulfils us.

That, to me, is the essence of a creative career; moving towards what fulfils you. Living your ikigai.

So, did they find it?

Did my students find their ikigai?

I didn’t ask them.

Why didn’t I ask them?

Because it’s a hell of a lot of pressure to ask a graduating student “Did you discover the reason why you get up in the morning?” while they launch themselves into adulthood.

Do I think they did find it?

It’s hard to answer.

I believe it’s only by attempting, failing, getting burnt and getting back up that we find out who we truly are, and what we truly want to achieve in our lives.

I spent 27 years not knowing why I was here, and doing lots of things for lots of reasons that didn’t make me happy. And I think I was lucky I discovered my ikigai when I did.

My students (now graduates) have a lot of attempting, failing, getting burnt and getting back up to do yet. That’s the way life is.

But they have an advantage; they know there is something out there that will fulfil them. Their ikigai is out there.

By planting the seed of ikigai in their mind, I have brought them one step closer to finding it.

“Even though I do not yet know what my ikigai is, and was reassured by Elly that this takes time to find, being aware of the concept has adjusted how I think about my future career. Having one purpose that drives forward every decision is a powerful thing.

For me, I was always concerned with having that one particular calling; a job title that I could aim for throughout my education. However, I never knew and do not know at this time what this should be.

Finding an Ikigai makes the prospect of choosing a career less daunting as everything becomes broader; with personal fulfilment as the criteria, a lot of avenues appear to open.

One final note: a big thank you to all the students who took part in this programme; you were brave and it was an honour to help you.

What I Learnt From 90 Days of Keeping a Journal

What I Learnt From 90 Days of Keeping a Journal - Eleanor Snare - featured image

In this article, I’ll share with you my experience of 90 days of keeping a journal. Yes, that’s 90 consecutive days, without fail.

Included in this article are the ways in which I journal, how I made it a lasting habit, and a few of the things I learnt. All these are things you can do – and if you’re thinking keeping a journal might be something you’d like to explore, I hope this will give you the encouragement you need.

Through the article are pictures of my organisational journal I share regularly on Instagram – follow me here.
What I Learnt From 90 Days of Keeping a Journal - Eleanor Snare


Journalling is a simple process; writing (or drawing, or whatever) about your experiences. It’s a bit like a diary, except the emphasis is on examining and understanding your response to the situations of your life, rather than documenting them as if you were an observer.

If you re-read your teenage diaries, you’ll notice this; we talk about things that happened and feelings we had in quite a detached and blunt way, without really applying the necessary introspection to get anything out of the experience.

One part of contemporary journalling is the beautifying of journals, particularly organisational ones. But your journal doesn’t have to be all fancy; it’s all about the process.

There are a number of interconnected studies documenting the benefits of regularly keeping a journal. These include improved emotional intelligence, greater ability to deal with mental health challenges and deeper gratitude.

Anyone who has ever written a ‘fuck you’ email – the one you immediately delete after writing it – will know exactly how therapeutic writing can be. Just so with journalling.

For the last 90 days I’ve been practising a reflective and an organisational journal. Here, I’ll be mainly discussing my reflective journal because it’s this process which has given me the most benefits.

I am happy and willing to talk about my mental health challenges, and this is one of the reasons I’d like to share my experience of journalling with you; keeping a journal has had a profound, positive impact on this area of my life, as it has with many other people.



I keep two journals; one organisational and one reflective.

My organisational one is the one you’ll have seen on Instagram if you follow me there; I love creating the different spreads each week and showcasing how you can make a normal working week look exciting (thanks, stickers!).

It’s a public document which combines my love of planning and organisation with an unhealthy obsession with collage, scrapbooking, cute stickers and washi tape. Originally, this journal started as a bullet journal, but over time it’s morphed into a something more art-based and imaginative.

My reflective journal is the personal, in-depth, completely private journal. In it, I explore my day, my emotions and thoughts, and my reaction to the events of my life. It is often a hard thing to write (and even less pleasant to read back). I use a number of prompts to help make the process simpler, which have developed over the 90 days I’ve been writing.

Having two separate documents is a way to manage two separate but intrinsically linked parts of my life; the outer expression of myself, both organisationally and creatively, and the inner expression of the person I am.



I read somewhere it takes 90 days to form a true lifestyle change – compared to 21, 28 or 66 for a habit (depending on the source) – which is why I chose to aim for 90 days.

But it turns out 90 might be arbitrary too, and lifestyle changes are more about personality and strength of will than other factors like semi-random numbers. Who knew?

Whatever the number, it’s been difficult to make it to 90 days. Sometimes I still forget, especially when I’m busy, and end up writing the entry last thing at night rather than in the morning when I would prefer to do it. But I have used some simple techniques to make it into a habit.

Write your reflective journal in the same book each time.
I started by writing in a notebook, then forgot it and wrote on pieces of paper, then in another book – and it got confusing. Pick a nice, portable notebook and do it there.

Form a ritual around writing your journal.
This means picking a time, place and other small habit to go with the writing which will remind you to do it. Mine tends to be after breakfast, with a cup of tea, or at a mid-morning coffee break when I’m teaching.

Don’t worry about it being perfect/right/legible.
At first, I wrote very little in my journal; I was terrified of someone finding it. After a while, you stop thinking about it as a thing to be read and start thinking of it as a thing to be written. Looks, legibility, grammar and spelling don’t matter here.

Mark off the days to your goal.
Each one of my journal entries has a number from 1 to 90 marked next to it, so I could see how I was progressing. It was a small indication of my goal, but remembering that number and where I was up to helped me keep doing it.



Here are some of the many things I’ve learnt over the last 90 days of keeping a journal.

Deeper understanding of my feelings and their context
By writing down my emotions alongside what was happening in my day, I’ve been better able to understand where the regular triggers are, and how to mitigate that.

For example, I noticed I’ll often feel rushed as I’m writing my journal, because I’m desperate to get the day underway – but this can make me feel stressed too. To balance, I’ve attempted to calm myself and be present as much as possible during that time.

More nuanced expression of my feelings
Through reflective journalling I can now express myself more freely to myself – before I would often not write what I was thinking but a more concise, often less sweary version.

Because of this and the journalling process I think I can now express myself more effectively to others, with kindness and tact which before I might not have had.

Knowing what I do each day
Planning the day and describing the activities of the day have both contributed to learning more about what I do each day (you’d be surprised at how un-seeing you are of your day normally).

This in turn has led me to question the activities, and to consider whether that day led towards my life’s purpose – or whether it was a bit of a tangent.

Increased gratitude
My reflective journalling has a specific place which asks about gratitude, but I also record gratitude as I go along in my organisational journal. I am much, much more grateful for my life than I was when I started. This gratitude then helps me smooth over the struggles of a day, week or months and improves my quality of life.

Greater awareness of negative self-talk
Reading through previous journal entries has helped me understand the most common themes of negative self-talk I riff on. The main theme is not appreciating, or sometimes even acknowledging my successes.

Without reflecting on my life, I wouldn’t see this as clearly, and I wouldn’t understand the damage it has on my self-esteem – and I wouldn’t be able to change that.



Journalling, particularly reflective journalling, is an introspective process which has plenty of proven benefits for mental health and wellbeing. Making it a habit can be tricky, but by setting aside a time and place and not worrying about it being ‘perfect’, can help you on your way.

There’s lots to learn from journalling too; practising it can help you understand your emotions and reactions more, increase your gratitude, and lead you to ways you can combat negative self-talk.

You can start a journal at any time, and you’ll see the benefits almost immediately. You can do it in any form that works for you, and document any aspect of your life you like. The key is to spend time reflecting, not just describing, to get the most out of it.

Do you keep a journal? What are your tips for making it a lasting habit?

How The Research Behind Keeping New Year’s Resolutions Can Help You Set Better Goals


It’s been nearly two weeks since the first day of 2017. How have you done with your New Year’s resolutions?

It’s likely after a week you’ll still be on track – 75% of us who make resolutions are successful seven days in. But by six months, this has dropped to around 40% (Norcross, 2012). Not sticking to your goals can make you feel disappointed, ashamed and unhappy, which has an effect the next time you make – or attempt to achieve – goals.

Goal-setting and success is much more complex than it looks; much more complex even than the SMART method you might’ve been taught. But by understanding this you can set more effective goals and enjoy achieving them. In this article I’ll show you the research behind goal-setting and the ways my own experience changed how I’ve set goals for 2017.




To illustrate the complexity of goal-setting, take two pieces of research, around 15 years apart involving some of the same team. In 1981, Locke and colleagues saw better performance in 90% of their studies where participants had specific and challenging goals, compared to easy or no goals. So challenging goals can help encourage high performance.

Conversely, in 2006, a culmination of Locke and Latham’s research showed significant levels of poor performance in studies involving participants who had a challenging goal, but were intimidated by its level. So if the goal is too difficult, it can result in poor performance.

The question is: how do you know what’s a challenging goal, and what’s a too-challenging goal?

How do you know what you can achieve before you’ve achieved it?

Lots of us will feel passionately that setting goals is ‘a good thing’. I’ve always been a firm believer in goals, plans, and anything that can fill up a nice chart. And by setting goals, you can change what happens through narrowing the activities you focus on, encouraging persistence and effort, and modifying behaviour (Locke and Budworth, 2007).

Yet the success of your goal depends on a complex array of factors. For example, the commitment you make to others regarding your goal can be a deciding factor in whether it’s achieved or not (Locke and Latham, 2002). That’s why many goal-setting guides will tell you to tell other people about what you’re doing, or why ‘check in’ weight-loss groups are often effective.

Goal difficulty and goal proximity also have a strong effect on goal setting and achievement (Steel and Konig, 2006). Goal proximity could also be known as ‘the deadline effect’. Set a goal for a year in advance and you might plan carefully and stick with it – or you might lose momentum because it’s too far away to be of concern. Set a deadline of something very difficult for next week and you could be pushed into action, or overwhelmed with the challenge.


So the research shows setting goals is not a simple task, and achieving them is even harder. As an avid goal setter and achievement queen, I found this out first hand.

In the middle of last year I set myself 12 individual goals to achieve by the end of the year, ranging from specific and timely (“Throw myself into researching for the Global Fashion conference”) to general and a bit more exciting (“Book a really good holiday”). I used Lisa Jacobs’ mid-year review to help me, and for any goal-setting nerds like me it’s a refreshing way to put your goals together.

Out of my 12 goals, by the end of the year I’d been completely successful with 50% of them. Five others I did partially, and one I sacked off completely. Can the research into goal-setting help explain why some of my goals were successful, and others weren’t?

To a greater extent, yes.

The goals I achieved most successfully were specific and challenging, but most importantly they had proximity; they were events I needed to attend, or things which had a deadline. They were also the goals where I was committed to others – either explicitly, like presenting at a conference, or implicitly, like writing articles for blog readers.

The least successful goals were vague and too challenging – too much for me to achieve in the allotted time. Importantly, they were also goals where there was no feedback system in place; no-one to talk to about my progress or my “improvement in time management” or whatever goal it was.

The most radical difference between my successful and unsuccessful goals was whether or not I was learning something. Goal-setting research distinguishes between learning goals – where one is exploring and developing knowledge – and performance goals, where something definitive must be achieved.

Where I had learning goals, I succeeded to some extent – even if they were vague, like “Do more interesting research”. Where I had performance goals, I was much more likely to fail.

One of the reasons for this is clear: 

For complex tasks, goal-setting may actually impair performance (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997)

We’re so focused on ticking the box of a performance task that we end up doing anything we can to get there, which might bypass the learning opportunities available with complex tasks. I love learning, so I instinctively strayed from those goals where learning wasn’t a key factor.

Something to consider is our contemporary culture of setting #goals, openly or subconsciously, for every area of your life, from breakfast to relationships. And yet, I can’t think of a more “complex task” than life itself. What’s the effect of this consistent reduction of the complex task performance of life into a series of performance goals? What are we missing out on learning by prioritising tick-box achievements?

My yoga teacher often talks about ‘making the shape’ of the posture, but not really embodying the posture fully. I see the #goals culture in the same way; we are ‘making the shape’ of the achievement, helping it be visible to others, but not embodying achievement as it applies to our idiosyncratic and very complex lives.

In practice

The result from my investigations and my personal experience is to rethink what goals mean to me, and to work with the proven flows of my mind, rather than against it.

First, I’ve significantly reduced the number of goals I have for this year; in the last six months of 2016 it was 12; for 2017 I have just four. My criteria for this year is ‘experimentation’, helping me put learning at the heart of what I’m doing, and my goals are all oriented to learning, which means I much more likely to commit to and therefore achieve them.

I’ve built in clear sharing and feedback mechanisms, not only so I have committed to others but so my goals aren’t lonely. Plus, I’ve made them much more diverse; last year I focused predominantly on work, but this year they cover much broader areas of my life.


Understanding how the process of goal-setting can affect your success in achieving goals is key to making them enjoyable and meaningful, rather than binding rules or likely failures which knock your confidence.

I hope this research and my experience has helped you look with fresh eyes at your New Year’s resolutions. If you’d like some further support read Five Clear Ways to Help You Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions.


Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1997). Finding flow: the psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0465045138. OCLC 36315862.

Latham, Gary P.; Budworth, Marie-Hélène (2007). “The study of work motivation in the 20th century”. In Koppes, Laura L.; Thayer, Paul W.; Vinchur, Andrew J.; Salas, Eduardo. Historical perspectives in industrial and organizational psychology. Series in applied psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. pp. 353–382 (366). ISBN 0805844406. OCLC 71725282.

Locke, Edwin A.; Latham, Gary P. (September 2002). “Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: a 35-year odyssey” (PDF). American Psychologist. 57 (9): 705–717. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.57.9.705. PMID 12237980.

Locke, Edwin A.; Latham, Gary P. (October 2006). “New directions in goal-setting theory” (PDF). Current Directions in Psychological Science. 15 (5): 265–268. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00449.x.

Locke, Edwin A.; Shaw, Karyll N.; Saari, Lise M..; Latham, Gary P. (July 1981), “Goal setting and task performance: 1969–1980” (PDF), Psychological Bulletin, 90 (1): 125–152, doi:10.1037/0033-2909.90.1.125, retrieved 2010-06-01

Steel, Piers; König, Cornelius J. (October 2006). “Integrating theories of motivation” (PDF). Academy of Management Review. 31 (4): 889–913. doi:10.5465/AMR.2006.22527462.

Five Clear Ways to Help You Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions


Despite January being a terrible month for positive vibes, weather and cash flow, many of us are still riding high on the continuing success of our New Year’s resolutions. Whether it’s exercising more, going on Facebook less or simply letting things be, there’s plenty of research behind why setting goals can be effective in helping us succeed.

But there are also many studies which show goals which are too challenging or limiting can significantly impair our behaviour.

From investigating some of the theory behind goal-setting, and my own experiences from 2016, here are five tips to help you keep your New Year’s resolutions – and avoid being one of the 60% who fail after six months (Norcross, 2012).

5-clear-ways-to keep your new year's resolutions

Choose fewer, clearer goals

Last year I decided to write down 12 goals halfway through the year, which I wanted to achieve by the end of 2016. That was an overwhelming number, and my attention was spread too thinly.

One of the strongest reasons for setting goals is to help us focus our attention on what really matters (Latham and Budworth, 2007), so if you have a list of more than five goals for 2017, I suggest stopping right there. And maybe cutting it down a little.

Focus on learning rather than performance goals

My experience from last year showed I was most likely to achieve a goal where I had to learn things (like “Write more blog posts”) rather than one which was focused on performance (like “Be more disciplined about my time”). This is reflected in goal-setting literature, which suggests goal-setting for complex tasks where learning is required can have a negative impact on performance.

Try focusing on learning goals for this year, where you get to explore new topics and develop knowledge; you might find them more enjoyable, as well as giving you a greater chance of success.

Be clear on difficulty and proximity

The difficulty of your chosen goal and its proximity – the amount of time you have to achieve it – are very important, particularly if you do decide to set performance goals like “Lift the biggest weights in the gym” (Steel and Konig, 2006). A distant deadline may give you a false sense of security; regular check-ins are much more likely to keep you on track. Don’t just set a final deadline – set mini-deadlines to help you.

Difficulty is hard to measure yourself – how do you know what you can achieve before you’ve achieved it? – so take time to speak to others who have been successful in their goals, or who are experts in their field. I don’t think you should be too realistic because ambition can be encouraging, but don’t make it so difficult it becomes killer to try and achieve a single goal.

Build in feedback and sharing mechanisms

The success of your goal depends partly on the commitment you make to other people regarding the goal – either by telling them, or by including them in your goal (Locke and Latham, 2012). By sharing your goal with others, it can encourage accountability and realism. More importantly it reduces the loneliness of goal-achieving.

Feedback is also key. Another element which contributes to the success of goal-setting is self-efficacy – the belief you have that you can achieve that goal. Positive and critical feedback from others can help you develop self-efficacy and keep you on the path to success.

Make your goals diverse

The old saying of “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” applies to goals. Last year, nine of my 12 goals related to work. I did well at work, but other parts of my life suffered. This year, I have four goals spread evenly across essential areas of my life.

Take time to make your goals diverse, ensuring you are focusing attention and caring for a rich variety of things in your life. You’ll gain greater pleasure from feeling your whole life being enlivened by your goal-achieving activities, and you’ll make a more interesting dinner party guest.

Having goals is something many of us consider ‘a good thing’, so try making 2017 a year where you set – and achieve – goals you can be really proud of by following these five tips.

If you want to find out more about the science of goal-setting, and my own experience, read How the Research Behind Keeping New Year’s Resolutions Can Help You Set Better Goals.

What are your goals for this year?


Latham, Gary P.; Budworth, Marie-Hélène (2007). “The study of work motivation in the 20th century”. In Koppes, Laura L.; Thayer, Paul W.; Vinchur, Andrew J.; Salas, Eduardo. Historical perspectives in industrial and organizational psychology. Series in applied psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. pp. 353–382 (366). ISBN 0805844406. OCLC 71725282.

Locke, Edwin A.; Latham, Gary P. (September 2002). “Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: a 35-year odyssey” (PDF). American Psychologist. 57 (9): 705–717. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.57.9.705. PMID 12237980.

Steel, Piers; König, Cornelius J. (October 2006). “Integrating theories of motivation” (PDF). Academy of Management Review. 31 (4): 889–913. doi:10.5465/AMR.2006.22527462.