Common thought seems to be that if you want something in life, the best way to achieve it is to set a goal. It doesn’t matter whether that’s paying off debt, getting fit, building a company, getting a specific grade, etc. If you want something you set a goal and work hard, and it’ll be yours (right? RIGHT?). But does goal setting actually work?
I’m not going to lie; I’m HUGE on setting goals. I’ve come up with the most beautiful plans and lists you’ve ever seen. However, not all of those goals succeed. In fact, many of them fail. I’m a bit of a goal setting squirrel: I run around spastically collecting ideas and plans to store away for a better future. I often lack the patience to see them through though, so many fall through the cracks. Sometimes this is good because I set my sights on something bigger, but often I just feel like I’m constantly failing at hitting the milestones I mentally create.
This got me thinking.
Does goal setting actually work?
Two different people could set the same goal… let’s pretend it’s paying off $10,000 of debt in the next year. One succeeds, one fails at it. Why? You could argue that maybe one person was more focused on the goal; maybe they had a higher paying job so it was a little easier; maybe they had less going on in their personal life; maybe they’re more driven…. maybe, maybe, maybe. However, if both people had the capability of meeting that goal, and one failed while the other succeeded, does goal setting actually work? If both winners and losers have the same goal, goal setting cannot be what differentiates them.
You often hear about people that have accomplished huge things, and they attribute it to having a dream/goal/desire. However, you don’t hear about the people that set identical goals but didn’t succeed. So what is the secret?
I refuse to say goals are a waste of time. The idea of living without goals scares me; I feel like I’ll end up being a puddle on the couch with no purpose in life.
Typically goals set your direction and make your intentions clear. That’s not meaningless. However, goals don’t actually get you anywhere; they just explain where you want to get. I think of goals as a spot on the map; it’s where you want to end up. However, that’s useless without a compass telling you whether that’s where you’re headed!
Goals are good for planning your progress, while methods are good for actually making progress.
There are two dark sides to goal setting as well:
1) You often postpone happiness until that goal is met (I’ll be happy once I’m 10 pounds thinner/debt free/ a marathon runner). Rather than enjoying today you’re constantly trying to peer around the corner to your “better” future.
2) Having specific goals makes things delightfully black and white (I like when I can put things in boxes). But is that actually healthy? Likely not. When I was working casually (ie I had absolutely no clue how much money I would earn each month) I still committed to putting $1150 on debt monthly. Met that goal: happy! Didn’t meet that goal: Sad. I was in a constant conflict of either/or. Either I achieved it and felt successful/happy, or I came up short and disappointed myself/failed. But what about everything else that happened that month?!
At their most beautiful goals can shine a spotlight on what you’re trying to accomplish, but at their darkest they can put blinders on so you can’t see all the progress & good that ISN’T in that spotlight.
Are goals still useful?
Maybe it’s not goal setting that fails though; maybe it’s the goals themselves.
Do any of these look familiar to a goal you’ve set before?
- I’m going to pay off “insert number” of debt by “insert date”
- I’m going to lose 10 pounds
- I’m going to get an A in this class
Unfortunately, you can make choices but you can’t control what the outcome of those choices will be. For example, you can put $500 a month into retirement savings every month, but since you don’t control the stock market returns you won’t know exactly what those investments will be worth at retirement. That part is out of your hands.
Since I enjoy having control, we can spin it a different way: You may not be able to control the outcome, but you CAN control the process.
That’s also where you can create healthier/smarter goals that ACTUALLY work. Make the process & actions your goal rather than the result. Focus on the compass, not on the map.
Instead of saying “I’m going to pay off $10,000 in debt this year” say “I’m going to stick to my budget”.
Instead of setting a goal to lose 10 pounds, set one that you’ll eat vegetables once a day and exercise for 20 minutes on weekdays.
You’ll likely pay off debt and lose weight by doing those, but the RESULT stops being the focus. Instead you’ll be building sustainable habits that last. Your focus will be on the method, not on the result.
You’ll notice with these goals there’s no finish line or “moment you’re done”.
This summer I committed to a 10km race with my friend. I’m not a runner, but I set the goal to run that race and did it. Yay, victory! However, since that race I have not gone out running once. I was so focused on the result (finishing the race) that I forgot to do it for sustainable reasons: learning to love it, appreciating how it felt to run free, clearing my head. My goal was to run 10km. Once I achieved that, I lost all motivation.
Achieving a results goal only changes your life for a brief moment. Improvement is not about results however, because results are temporary. You actually need to focus on the method, because then it becomes permanent. It also lets you focus on what you CAN control.
For example, I would love to grow this blog and have more readers. However, I cannot control how many social shares it gets. I can’t control whether people like my articles. I can’t force them to come back and read new posts. All I can actually do is write about topics I find interesting in the best way I can, and the rest is not up to me. Focus on the process, not the results of the process.
You don’t want to pay off debt or lose weight and have it rebound (which it will if the “finish line” was your only focus). You want to change the behaviors that created those issues in the first place. Change the inputs and the outputs will change themselves.
Thinking this way can be a difficult transition. Trust me, I know. I want to know the exact date I will be out of debt, and I can only know that if I know exactly what my monthly payment is until I’m debt free.
I tend to want everything wrapped up with a pretty little bow with a “likely achieved by” date stamped to the side.
However, I can’t control exactly what my income will be. I can control my spending though, hence making the goal out of that (Read: Creating a budget that actually works).
With the right methods, your debt will fall. You’ll lose the weight. Results won’t disappear because you stop fixating on them.
Goal setting can work; they just need to be the right goals.
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