Let’s Talk Semantics 1: Goals vs. Commitments

January 8, 2011 § 12 Comments

Considering that one of the things I love to teach my students is the power of words in general, I have decided to begin a series of posts. From time to time, as the mood hits, I’ll add to this series: Let’s Talk Semantics. In this series, we’ll play with words and their individual power, as well as the meaning behind them.

Let’s begin, shall we?

Let’s Talk Semantics!

Yesterday morning, I met with my friend V over coffee to discuss some dissertation writing plans. We agreed that if we wrote two pages a day, five days a week, and turned in 10 pages every Friday to each other, by the end of April, we’d have every chapter in a full draft form. Considering we’ve been in academia for over a decade, and that we’ve studied English literature/composition for the majority of that decade, we can compose 2 pages a day with little trouble at all. We feel confident we’ll be able to meet these self-imposed deadlines and that we’ll hold each other fully accountable.

And that’s what brings me to today’s topic.

While V and I were writing down our deadlines in our calendars, I glanced over to V’s calendar and saw that she had chosen a very specific word. Rather than choosing to write “Writing Goal: 2 pages a day,” she wrote “Writing Commitment: 2 pages a day.” In that moment, it suddenly struck me that there is a clear difference between goals and commitments. Here’s what I mean:

Goals: something often vague, abstract, and in some distant future. We might say something like “my goal is to lose 100 pounds,” but we haven’t necessarily mapped out exactly how we intend to achieve that goal. So, fine, we map out our plan to achieve it. But does that plan automatically suggest that the goal will be met? I’m inclined to believe, no.

Commitments: something concrete, specific, and immediate. When we make commitments, we are holding ourselves responsible and accountable for meeting those commitments. If we fail in our commitments, we are often held responsible and accountable for them by others as well. For instance, if we commit to raising a puppy, we commit to feeding it, taking it potty all the times it rings a bell needs to go out, walking with it to keep it exercised, socializing it with other dogs, and playing with it to keep it people-friendly. If we fail in these commitments, we reap the consequences of that failure. We might have a poorly-adjusted dog, or (even worse) our dog might be taken from us.

Commitments are more serious goals. Goals say nothing about our level of interest in completion. Making a commitment says to all who are aware of it: “I mean to see this through to the very end. I will not give up.” Goals say: “I really hope/wish I could achieve this.”

So what? Anyone can hope and wish and dream. But commit?

To commit takes some real gumption.

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§ 12 Responses to Let’s Talk Semantics 1: Goals vs. Commitments

  • AMo says:

    Indeed it does. Well said. So have you changed your calendar to read commitment instead of goals? πŸ™‚

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Hehe, I’ve certainly changed the way I’m thinking about it! My calendar just says “2 pages, 2 pages, 2 pages” for five days a week, and then on Fridays it says “10 pages DUE.”

  • Lauren says:

    I learned an acronym for when setting goals (or commitments, hehe) and it might help to keep it mind =) You’re already doing it, I just like the acronym, lol.

    S – specific (instead of “exercise more,” “walk 30 min 3 times a week”)
    M – measurable (instead of “lose weight,” “lose 2 lbs per week”)
    A – attainable (instead of “write 10 pages a day,” “write 2 pages a day”)
    R – realistic
    T – timely (set a time frame for the goal)

    • Mrs. H. says:

      I love that acronym! And I think that that’s really important to keep in mind. I feel like I’m awesome at making plans, but sometimes I’m not as reliable with the follow-through.

  • I like Lauren’s SMART comment. I’ll have to start doing that…

  • Tori Nelson says:

    Sounds like the Princess of Planning had a productive coffee date! I like your point about commitments. They are like goals on steroids, a little more serious than throwing out a “hope” for the future!

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Lol! Goals on steroids! That’s hysterical! πŸ˜€ And I really did have a productive coffee date. I feel like I’m ready to go now! πŸ™‚

  • Brilliant distinction! A committment is the articulation of future reality in present terms. In making committments we actualize the future in a current call to action.
    Looking forward to this series!
    Safely in Haiti,

  • […] At the beginning of the year, just after New Year’s and before the semester began, V and I met at “our” coffee shop to discuss our graduation plans. Of course, our dissertation lies in the way of graduation, and we must conquer it. We have both […]

  • Dan says:

    I realize that this thread is almost 4 years old, but I just had an interesting debate about goals vs commitments with one of my colleagues.

    Since we’re nearing the end of 2014, we are being asked to submit our “goals” for 2015, with emphasis on the S.M.A.R.T. concept.

    Although referred to as “goals”, in our organization they are actually treated as commitments. At the end of the year our performance is evaluated not on or efforts but on whether or not we achieved our goals.

    My issue with ‘committing’ to achieving a specific measurable outcome, is that the only thing in life that we have any real control over is the amount of effort we put into something. Even if our goals are S.M.A.R.T., any number of things can happen that may prevent us from actually achieving them.

    In other words, despite our best intentions and efforts, there is simply no way we can actually guarantee any kind of achievement. The only thing we can truly commit to, is giving something our best effort.

    Although I agree with the concept of taking goals seriously, and with accountability, I will only ever commit to doing all I can to achieve a S.M.A.R.T. goal, but will never commit to an actual achievement.

    To me goals serve as targets, giving direction and motivation, and allowing us to evaluate progress. But accountability should only be based the level of effort we have put into pursuing all possible ways to achieve a goal.

    I strongly oppose the mindset of people who quote Robert Anthony’s mantra: “…there are only two things in life, reasons and results, and reasons simply don’t count.”

    Can you imagine anyone saying that to a surgeon who has just lost a patient after doing all he/she could to save the patient’s life?

    When someone has demonstrably given something their very best effort, then that should be enough; regardless of whether or not they achieved the goal they set out to accomplish.

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