It’s an old familiar hum: Every January, we kick off the calendar year with New Years Resolutions: lose 10 pounds, make smarter investments, create an extra $1,500 per month on the side. Yet by February, we’ve returned to life as usual. The discarded New Years Resolution has become a tired cultural trope.
We blame ourselves for these failures:
- “I should work harder.”
- “I should be more disciplined.”
- “I should stop procrastinating.”
But what if we’re approaching this in the wrong way? What if goal-setting itself is the problem? Society says goal-setting is as integral to life as food, sleep, and arguing with your GPS.
Lately, as a thought experiment, I’ve started wondering what would happen if I gave up the practice of setting goals.
I don’t have all the answers, but I’d like to explore these questions. So today, let’s examine the downside of setting goals. We’ll define a “goal” as a specific future outcome (result) that a person or group tries to create.
Problem #1: Goals harm Intrinsic Motivation.
Imagine your goal is to lose 10 pounds. You exercise daily, but you don’t enjoy your time at the gym. You grudgingly endure your workouts, while fantasizing about results. What are the chances that you’ll (#1) reach your goal, and (#2) maintain a lifelong exercise habit? Not likely. But why?
To answer this, let’s look at two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.
- Intrinsic motivation is driven by enjoying the activity itself.
- Extrinsic motivation is driven by an outcome.
If you read books, play guitar, or hike for its own sake — with no expectation of reward — you’re intrinsically motivated. But if you read books to appear smarter, play guitar to make money or attract dates, or hike to build muscle, you’re extrinsically motivated.
Intrinsic motivation is more effective. Given the choice between rewards vs. enjoyment, you’re more likely to do stuff you love.
Problem #2: Goals Can Make you Miss the Bigger Picture.
Conventional wisdom says that goals ought to be S.M.A.R.T. — specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. For example:
- “I want to earn $10,000 per month by July.”
- “I want my business revenue to grow 15 percent by December.”
- “I want six-pack washboard abs by August.”
“Goals focus attention … This intense focus can blind people to important issues that appear unrelated to their goal,” wrote a team of researchers in a Harvard working paper, Goals Gone Wild. (Yes, that’s actually what they called the paper. Legit.)
When we commit to tight, specific goals — “I’m going to save $1,000 this month!” — we risk creating unintended consequences in other areas. For example, have you ever skimped on your health — e.g. eating cheap food like Ramen noodles, or skipping doctor’s visits, or not filling a prescription — for the sake of hitting your savings goal?
Have you ever let friendships, sleep, and exercise slide because you’re too focused on a work or business goal? Yeah, me too. “What gets measured, gets done,” is a famous quote in management circles, but let’s remember its corollary: what doesn’t get measured gets overlooked.
Problem #3: Fear Interferes.
I’ve been trying to write this article for two months. But procrastination keeps getting in the way. I tell myself that I need to check my email. Update Facebook. Buy cotton Q-tips on Amazon. Then I catch myself. I disconnect from wi-fi; I open my writing program. And … I suddenly need a snack. If I’m honest with myself, I’m procrastinating because I’m afraid of the outcome.
- What if nobody reads this article?
- What if people read it … but hate it?
- What if I’m a sucky writer?
Procrastination is rooted in fear: fear of failure, fear of success, fear of change. These are rooted in developing an attachment to a specific outcome — another word for “goal.”
Goals trigger fear, and fear gets in the way of the work. Fear interferes.
In this example:
- I created a goal: write a smart, funny article that my audience will love.
- I developed fear around any other possible alternative. (What if this article is not smart/funny/loved?)
- Fear manifests as procrastination …
- … and this article lives in ‘draft’ mode for two months.
If I gave up goal-setting, fear would become irrelevant.
Problem #4: Goals Make you Dissatisfied with the Present Moment.
One final objection: Goals are built on the premise that now isn’t good enough. You’ll be happy later — after you start earning more after you quit your job after you can live on your passive investment income. Goals fixate on the future. If you’re too goal-oriented, you risk missing the present moment; you live for the next milestone.
We’ve outlined the objections above. Now what? Where do we go from here? If goals are flawed, what’s the better alternative?
I scoured the Internet and found 3 options:
Alternative #1: Abstinence
You could avoid goals entirely. That’s the approach Zen Habits author Leo Babauta embraced when he declared — (mostly) unambiguously — “I live mostly without goals.”
Here’s how he describes goal-free living:
“What do you do, then? Lay around on the couch all day, sleeping and watching TV and eating Ho-Hos? No, you simply do. You find something you’re passionate about, and do it.” He says he plunges into activities — such as writing and teaching — without any specific goal in mind. He doesn’t have ‘sales goals’ for his books; he just writes.
Alternative #2: Moderation
On one hand, goals can narrow our focus, dampen our intrinsic motivation, and diminish our enjoyment of the present moment. On the other hand, goals can inspire, motivate and improve our lives. Maybe, then, we don’t need to eradicate goals. We need to create better goals.
“Just as doctors prescribe drugs selectively, mindful of interactions and adverse reactions, so too should managers carefully prescribe goals,” wrote the researchers in Goals Gone Wild. Okay, great. But how?
Alternative #3: Re-Direction
Focus on actions, not results. Instead of: “My goal is to lose 10 pounds.”
Try: “My goal is to exercise daily, cut back on sugar and alcohol, and eat more veggies.”
It’s a subtle difference, but in the latter example, you’re not trying to achieve any results. If some natural consequence (like weight loss) stems from your actions, that’s fine — but that’s not the point. You have no expectations, no self-imposed barometers. You’re only thinking about your actions. The results are outside of your control. You won’t be disappointed if a specific result doesn’t unfold; you won’t cross a ‘finish line’ if it does.
You Cannot Control Results.
- I can create an online course, but I can’t control whether or not people are interested.
- I can create a podcast, but I can’t control whether or not people will listen.
- I can be kind to others, but I can’t control whether or not people will like me.
Results are outside of your Circle of Influence. But actions are inside of your circle.
- I can create an amazing course. (Actions: outline, research, edit, edit, edit, tear up, re-write, edit.)
- I can prepare for the podcast. (Actions: research guests, prepare for interviews, etc.)
- I can be kind to others. (Actions: for starters, just don’t be a dick.)
I can’t control the consequences. All I can do is act.
This brings us back to the original question: How can we apply this framework towards setting better goals? Here are a few examples:
Instead of: “My goal is to retire in 10 years.”
Try: “My goal is to invest at least 50 percent of my income into index funds and rental properties.”
Instead of: “My goal is to earn $X this year.”
Try: “My goal is to identify three things that I’m doing that are a waste of time. Then I’d like to redirect this time to something more valuable.”
Instead of: “My goal is to learn basic Spanish.”
Try: “My goal is to use a Spanish language-learning app for at least 20 minutes a day.”
Instead of: “My goal is to write a book.”
Try: “My goal is to read and write from 9 am to 11 am.”
This is a low-stress approach. You cannot fear failure, because you’ve surrendered the results. Your only goal is to act. As fear subsides, you’re more likely to quit procrastinating. You won’t distract yourself as much with email, Facebook, and buying Q-tips on Amazon.
Article Credit: https://affordanything.com/goal-free-existence/