Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver

‘Begin within the end in mind’ is a neat phrase that gets at the heart of goal setting.  It is also the subject of this blog, which is part of a series looking at the science (or not) of Stephen Coveys 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Covey took his end-in-mind challenge seriously, asking people to think of the ultimate end: their death.  This end-of-life thinking is aimed at helping get at what we most value in life.  As the stunning poem by Mary Oliver asks us; what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

In his book chapter on Habit 2 Covey covers mission statements (personal and organisational), goals, roles, values and more.

So, what is the science of this stuff?

My PhD supervisor, Professor Kerrie Unsworth, has contributed to the science of goal setting, and yes there is science there – but, there is also a but.

This from her:

“yes, goal-setting can help. But it’s not a miracle cure (there aren’t any miracle cures when it comes to people at work; anybody that tells you differently is selling snake oil).”  


Kerrie and her equally smart chums’ research found that self-concordance matters too.  What is self-concordance you might ask?  Loosely, if a task or activity supports your long-term goals, dreams, values and important roles in life, then it is self-concordant.  Then (and only then) you are going to be motivated to do it.  Maybe even if it is downright horrible, or your boss is pressuring you to do it.  As Dr Elisa Adriasola (Chile) says it’s like changing dirty nappies – no fun, no one wants to – but it’s so important to your role as a parent, you just do it.

So what do other academics say?  Searching all articles with “goal setting” and ‘review’ or ‘meta’ in their title – bought me a few ideas:

  • Research considering goal setting in the work setting concluded that goal setting in groups helps group performance.  But, only under certain circumstances and conditions (Kleingeld, van Mierlo, & Arends, 2011).
  • A summary of 35 years of goal-setting theory (Locke & Latham, 2002) provided lots of info including – the difficulty is important (you don’t want things too easy nor too difficult, although actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that); and success is dependent on good feedback systems (i.e. to know how you are tracking towards your goal).
  • But. Wait. There is more.  A review of diet and exercise changes and goal setting found … um … inconsistent results (Shilts, Horowitz, & Townsend, 2004).

This all makes me think this: half an idea is a bit like half a car.  That is, goal setting alone, not implemented well or linked to what really matters, won’t take you far.  The trick is knowing how to implement your goals best in the setting and situation that concerns you.

My personal take out is:  Watch my goal-setting a bit closer, maybe even make some notes.  I’ll first get really clear on exactly how my goals link to my core values (fortunately I’ve been working on this in coaching for 15 years so this bit I’m comfortable with).  However, if that was all, all my goals would be met, would they not?  I’d be ready for my very own end-of-life video.  Hence I’m going to also think about my roles in life, my projects, my short and long-term goals as well as what I value –  this is what Kerrie calls my ‘goal hierarchy’.

Links, Reference and all that Jazz

This is part of a larger series on Stephen Covers 7 Habits, being:

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin with the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win-Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the Saw

Coveys motivational video, watch it, it’s cool:


Quote from Professor Unsworth from – The Leeds University Business school Alumni Magazine 2017 Issue.

Adriasola, M. (2014). Motivation for Multiple Goals at Work: The Role of Goal Hierarchy Self-concordance. University of Western Australia.

Kleingeld, A., van Mierlo, H., & Arends, L. (2011). The effect of goal setting on group performance: a meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(6), 1289.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57(9), 705.

Shilts, M. K., Horowitz, M., & Townsend, M. S. (2004). Goal setting as a strategy for dietary and physical activity behavior change: a review of the literature. American Journal of Health Promotion, 19(2), 81-93.

The opening paragraph is an exert from The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

Photo by Rosemary Ketchum from Pexels