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Struggling with goals? Set yourself an identity

Coach Gemma Perkins by Gemma Perkins
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In my line of work, I spend a lot of time supporting people on reaching their goals;

- Training them in skills that will help them to be more effective
- Coaching people to identify goals and put new processes in place
- Facilitating teams so that they can have effective discussions to meet their goals

While goals are valuable, they can be a sticking point for some people (myself included). I'd like to share with you how going beyond goals to setting an identity can help you overcome possible blocks.


Don’t get me wrong – I am a fan of goal setting and goals can be very useful if they are SMART (Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time bound). However, goals are usually focused on an end destination or a task to be crossed off such as ‘be fit’, ‘keep a journal’ or ‘meditate’. This leads to some drawbacks:

- They may be ‘one off’ activities and therefore not lead to lasting change
- One off goals are easier to procrastinate
- Once a goal is complete, we may not revisit it or take things further
- Some goals require large amounts of time / effort
- It can be hard to be motivated for a single goal

Working on goals usually involves small chunks of action with gaps of inaction. For example, if you wanted to learn a song on the guitar you may do 30 minutes of practice on Monday, 15 minutes on Thursday then 40 minutes two weeks later. This irregular pattern may gradually work towards the goal but can be inefficient and easy to forget about – this is why many New Year’s resolutions fail.

In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear suggests that it is more beneficial to forget about goals and instead focus on systems – the daily habits that make a difference. Changing your process (the way you live your life) can take you further towards the things you want than simply working on goals.


One helpful way of looking at how we change is Robert Dilts’ neurological levels. (Sometimes called the logical levels). This pyramid shows us different layers of change that we can make in our lives. The base of the pyramid is the most concrete and arguably easiest to explore. The upper levels of the pyramid become more abstract and tap into the deeper parts of what it means to be human.
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Environment – the setting we are in, the people we are surrounded by and the stimuli that we are exposed to. We can choose to influence our environment and make changes to it, but our environment can also have an impact on us.

Behaviour – what we do in the world. This is mostly focused on our actions but may also draw from our feelings as they can inform what we do.

Skills and capabilities – how we do the things we do. A number of people may perform the same behaviour (public speaking, driving a car) but their behaviour will differ depending on the skills, knowledge, practice and competencies they have developed along the way.

Values and beliefs – the things that are important to us or what things mean to us. Values may be abstract ideals such as honesty, fairness and autonomy. Beliefs lean towards longer statements about what is or isn’t true in our world view such as ‘I don’t deserve this promotion’ or ‘people who work hard should get a pay rise’. Values and beliefs will often drive our behaviours and it is important to note that some beliefs can limit us.

Identity – our sense of who we are as a person. This may include what we stand for, the different aspects of self, self-worth, esteem and the type of person we are / want to be. Our beliefs and identity can both shape each other.

Beyond Identity – different versions of the model may call this aspect spirituality, vision or purpose. This is the sense that we belong to something bigger than ourselves. This may include family, community, wider humanity or a sense of connection to the divine.

Often when people set goals they are working at the levels of behaviour and environment – this may ‘do the job’ in the short term but can easily tail off if other priorities crop up.
We can apply the general example of a ‘saving money’ goal to Dilts’ Pyramid:

Environment - Choose to spend time with people who also save money. Choose to remove yourself from environments where you may be tempted to overspend (shopping centres, bars).

Behaviour - Tracking your finances. Depositing a pound in a jar at the end of the day.

Skills and capabilities - Learning about how interest works. Reading up on different kinds of bank accounts. Learning to cook fresh food to save on shopping bills.

Values and beliefs – valuing a sense of financial security. Reinforcing the belief that you can live a happy life on a modest budget or the belief that having savings will give you the freedom to do more.

Identity - Deciding to be the sort of person who is prepared for the future and has savings for a rainy day.

Beyond identity - connecting to the idea that having financial security will allow you to support your community or those you love.


At the age of 16 I got involved in a leadership development programme. This meant that from a young age I was already adept at using SMART goals, creating a vision board and reflecting on the changes I wanted to make to my mindset and behaviours in order to get the things I wanted. It was an incredible head start in life and has helped me to accomplish a great many things.

But one area that always felt tricky for me was looking after my body – eating well, exercise and getting a good night’s sleep were low on my priorities because I’d always been much more passionate about my mind and emotions.

I'd had a few conversations with clients over the years who started asking me what I do to look after my health and realised I didn't have an answer… oops.

I had occasionally set goals around trying to feel fitter, exercise a little bit more and eat less chocolate. But those goals often fell flat because there was no motivation behind them. The values and beliefs that I held were not doing the job. I valued my mind and my intellectual development. I believed that as long as I felt comfortable in my skin and chose well fitted clothes for my shape then I could ignore my body.

It was a combination of things that made me dig a little deeper:
- Reading more about the link between the mind and the body
- Finding it hard work running around after my friend’s toddler
- Realising that I may not be being authentic in my work if I’m ignoring a part of myself
- Connecting to what matters

I realised that in order to start looking after my body I had to find something more fundamental to motivate me. This is where the upper levels of Dilts’ pyramid came in – I set myself an identity.

Beyond identity – what is my purpose and vision in life?
Identity – what kind of person do I want to be?

Reflecting on these points I realised a few things:
- My purpose in life is to inspire and empower people to become their best selves.
- If I truly wish to serve people in becoming their best selves then I want to do so with integrity – by walking the walk myself
- Looking after my mind, emotions, spirit AND BODY in a holistic way helps me to serve others
- My top core value is service and so relating my own health to the service of others made it much more powerful for me. Another motivating factor was thinking about my future self. In the coming years I hope to be a parent and this led to more reflections: What kind of parent do I want to be to my children?
I want to have integrity as a parent – to show the value of looking after all parts of themselves; good sleep healthy eating and enjoying exercise.

Being clear about the identity I want for myself helped me to connect with a much deeper motivation than I had ever had before because I have my ‘why’.
All of a sudden, the goal of doing 15 minutes of exercise a day at the behavioural level stopped feeling like a chore and started feeling like me living my values and working towards my purpose of helping people to become their best selves (including myself).

It’s probably 18 months ago that I did this inner work and now I have some regular habits in place that I wouldn’t have dreamed about maintaining 3 years ago:

- Starting my day with 15 minutes of exercises
- Green or white tea in the morning for antioxidants
- Fruit with every lunch time
- Consistently getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night
- Walking for at least 30 minutes 4 times a week

The absolute key for me was working out who I wanted to be rather than setting an arbitrary goal.


So, are there any goals in your life that you're struggling to implement?
What's the block to getting them done?
And if it's a question of motivation, perhaps you can ask yourself…
Who do you want to be?
How does that goal help you to fulfil your purpose?

And if you can't find an answer there, then maybe it's not quite the right goal for you. If you want some help working through your goals and uncovering who you want to be then you can get in touch for coaching.

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