On Achieving Goals

Ah the tabula rasa of the New Year where so many of us decide how much better we’re going to make ourselves in the next 365 days. We decide to lose weight or get our finances in order or be more productive. Occasionally we announce to the world these lofty ambitions like Donald Trump boasting how rich he is. Then for a month or six weeks or if we’re really lucky to the spring equinox, we really focus on these “goals”. We go to the gym. We save money. We write blog posts. And then something quietly breaks that we aren’t even aware of and suddenly it’s August and we’ve gained the weight back plus found a new appreciation for that kick ass donut shop that just happens to be on the way to work. What happened?

As it turns out, having goals makes us largely unhappy according to James Clear. This makes intuitive sense because goals so often end in failure for a variety of reasons. Then we are left with a fundamental lack of accomplishment. For several years, I’ve wanted to learn Spanish. That’s a Goal. But having Goals without a clear path to achieving them is destined for failure. What you also need is a system or a habit plus a reasonably accurate, mostly simple way to track that system (not the goal). This kind of thinking leans heavily on “small strokes fell great oaks”. We are creatures of habit but the key is getting into a habit of doing something different from our current habits. As it turns out, lots of small steps are a lot easier on the path to new habits than huge jumps. Yet our Goals are necessarily designed around these huge jumps.

Having a system mediates that. A system involves what you do every single day to achieve a Goal. If you want to write a book, your system is “write for an hour every day and track the number of words”. If you want to lose weight, your system is “I’m going to follow the five rules of the Slow Carb Diet.” If you want to write 26 letters, your system is “I’m going to write one letter every first and third Saturday of each month”. These systems are formalizations of the cues that are necessary to form new habits which lead to progress towards change. The beauty of systems and cues over goals is that even if your goals turn out to be slightly harder than you thought, you can still gain a great sense of achievement by analyzing the results of your system if you track it well.

Let’s say your goal is to win the Masters next year. Your system is hit 500 balls a day. You record this in a spreadsheet and write an easy sum function and an easy averaging function to display progress. In 2017 when you are watching the Masters on the couch, if you have followed your system, you almost guaranteed to be a MUCH improved golfer regardless of the result of the goal. This is key to Clear’s third tenet linked above concerning the fact that Goals make you think you have control over things you don’t. So many times life gets in the way and we lose sight of our goals. But if we have a solid system in place like “Don’t eat white starchy things”, we are more likely to just keep plugging right along. Also, having that system/process viewpoint can help on the days we don’t do well or have slight setbacks. If my system is workout 60 minutes a day, a day where I only do 30 minutes isn’t the end of the world because I can go for a long run on the weekend. I don’t feel guilty about working out less on some days when the system is in place.

Systems lead to progress and we can take comfort in progress even if goals are never reached. I find it helpful to know where I am in my system so I built a basic spreadsheet where I can track activities that move me towards my goals. You could easily copy it and modify it for your goals and progress. I have instant feedback on where I am which helps me feel much better about my progress (or identify places that I’m falling behind. Time to watch a movie!). And this provides the behavioral reinforcement of the system which hopefully results in a very positive feedback cycle. With that in hand, I will be able to look back at the end of 2016 and feel very good about the progress I’ve made regardless of the end result.