As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about productivity and efficiency and getting a lot of things done everyday, you would think that I would be someone who really likes goals. In reality – I sort of hate them.
For a lot of people goals hurt more than they help when it comes to accomplishing things.
So why do I hate goals so much, and what do I recommend using instead that works so much better?
The Problems with Focusing on Goals
For some people goal setting can be an enormous help. It can serve as a motivating factor, something to keep you on track, and a way to maintain focus. For others though they can wind up doing a lot more harm than good, and a lot of that comes down to how likely you are to fixate on that goal. The more you fixate, the more problems they tend to cause. These are the ones I tend to notice most often in people who become too goal oriented.
Goals Hamper Long Term Progress – I realize this sounds contradictory, but the nature of goals means that unless you’re good about constantly creating new ones they will eventually get in the way of long term progress for a handful of reasons. Goals are built as fixed points of achievement with a clear, definitive ending. Because of this it’s common for people to stop their progress once they’ve reached their goal.
If your goal is to finish the book you’re writing, it’s easy to reach that goal and then completely abandon your writing for a long while. If your goal is to run a 5k, once you’ve done it it’s easy to slack off on your training because you’ve hit your goal. You’re done.
This attitude ruins continual progress because it makes it feel natural to stop after you’ve hit your goal. With many things you then wind up backsliding in regards to progress and by the time you set another goal you might be back to where you started the first time. That’s not a productive method if you want to be making constant incremental improvements.
Goals Bring You Down – Another thing I see a lot is the way in which goals, again mostly just due to their nature, start to bring people down and instill a very negative view in them.
Even if you don’t originally intend to mean it that way a goal is you saying to yourself, “I am not good enough. I will be good enough / happy with myself when I have accomplished X.” You have a goal of losing ten pounds because you think you’re too fat, you have a goal of reaching a business benchmark because you’re not successful enough. All of these things essentially are you saying that you will be happy when you accomplish this certain thing, which implies that you aren’t happy now.
On top of the negativity already inherently implicit in that kind of thinking, there’s also the stress of potential failure and the hard hit to your self-esteem if you aren’t able to reach your goal.
After all the built up pressure of trying to meet a goal by its deadline, and the ingrained feelings of not being good enough until you meet this goal, it can be absolutely crushing if you don’t make it. In my time as a personal trainer I’ve seen people set (against my advice) very ambitious weight loss goals, invest a lot of emotional energy in them, and then completely fall apart when they don’t reach them – which usually leads to them falling into worse habits and gaining weight as a result of being distraught and feeling like a failure.
Goals Assume Too Much Agency – This ties in strongly to the above point on making you feel like a failure if you don’t accomplish them, but goals make you feel like you’re in more control of things than you really are.
Initially it might sound nice to feel like you’re in control, but in the end it just sets you up for feeling worse if you fail. Going back to the example of people losing weight, there are a lot of factors physiologically that can determine how easy it is for you to lose weight (or gain muscle). Some of these are mostly out of your control. The problem is focusing on a goal tends to make you gloss over the fact that these things can be outside of your control so when you fail to reach it – even if it was through no fault of your own – you’re still likely to feel like you have failed somehow. Beating yourself up over things you had no say in is not going be conducive to making progress.
So with all these issues with goals, what’s the better option?
Systems Focus Over Goals Focus
Instead of a goal focus, try having a system focus instead.
A system focus is where instead of fixating on the end result (the goal) you fixate on the process itself (the system). If your goal is to write a novel your system might be to write 500 words everyday. If your goal is to lose weight your system might be to lift weights three times per week. If your goal is to learn a language your system might be to do ten lessons with an iTalki teacher every month.
Focusing on the system completely bypasses all of the problems listed above with goals, but will still get you to that end point that you’re chasing after. Systems are continual, so they don’t encourage you to stop making progress just because you’ve hit your goal marker.
Systems are both recurring and ideally small enough in scope to not be a set-up for failure. Writing a novel is a huge task, and there is definitely an element of potential failure or far of failure there. Writing 500 words per day is no big deal, that’s like a page and a half or so depending on how you measure. There should be no real pressure that you might not be able to complete that. Even if you do, going back to the recurring nature of systems, it’s not a big deal because you get to try again tomorrow.
This also makes systems much more controllable. Certainly nothing is ever 100% under our control, but since systems focus on actions rather than meeting conditions it’s much easier to make sure you do genuinely have enough control to do them. Using the words example again something might occur that will stop me from meeting the condition of ‘Have Finished Novel’, but it’s much harder for conditions to arise that would stop me from taking the action of ‘write 500 words’. Especially since even if those conditions do arise, I can just make sure to hit my 500 words the next day.
Building Good Systems
Transitioning from goals to systems is easy. Just take your goal and then determine what actions will need to be taken to reach it, then choose the smallest, easiest action that will still create progress and assign it a recurring schedule. Then you’re done.
For example, your goal is to get to a 400 lbs. squat. The action that will lead to that goal is lifting (squatting specifically, but possibly also accessory work) and you can assign the recurring schedule of three times per week. So instead of focusing on “I’m going to squat 400 lbs. someday” focus on “I’m going to squat heavy 3x per week.”
Some goals might break down into multiple systems, so a goal of ‘Lose 20 lbs.’ might break into something like ‘Workout 3x per week’ and ‘Eat within my macro limits at least 6 days per week’. That’s fine, just make sure you don’t accidentally overwhelm yourself.
Do you have any other thoughts or advice on goals? Do you like them or do you find they get in the way more than they help? Share with everyone in the comments!
Photo Credit: Humbletree