Goals Are Bad

Goals are bad.  Maybe not all goals, but most goals are definitely bad.  I spent 20 years failing at goals by definition, i.e. "A goal without a deadline is not a goal, it's a wish."  Okay, so my goals have been wishes.  I've still failed at them.  That all ended a few years ago, though.  I'll get to that.

Right now people are preparing to make New Year's resolutions.  By preparing I mean eating a lot more and exercising less during the Holiday Binge.  I read in the NYT that "Research shows that about 80 percent of people who make resolutions on Jan. 1 fall off the wagon by Valentine’s Day."  Of course that's garbage, because it's more like 95% by Groundhog Day.  Worse, they're the same goals that failed last year.

Don't drive angry. Don't drive angry!

Why do we fail at goals so badly?  Were you paying attention?  GOALS ARE BAD.  That's why.  They're like drugs.  We feel good when we're setting them.  Then we finish setting them and the misery sets in.  Soon we hit bottom and the the only thing that will make us feel good again is some more goal setting.  We should have an anonymous group for goal-setting addicts.  Or we should just quit, cold-turkey, which is what I've done.

"So you just do nothing?"  No, I do a lot.  I just don't use goals to manage my endorphin and serotonin levels.  "But it's impossible to maximize accomplishments without goals!"  No, it's impossible for most people to succeed with goals.  I'll explain why.

By the way, I'm an expert on this topic.  For ten years I failed royally at the Franklin Day Planner system.  It's brilliant, and it's leather.  It works like this:

  • Determine your core values.
    • Set long-term goals to achieve your core values.
      • Set medium-term goals to achieve your long-term goals.
        • Set short-term goals to achieve your medium-term goals.
          • Create Daily Tasks to achieve your short-term goals.
          • Knock out your Daily Tasks consistently.
        • Thereby achieve your short-term goals.
      • Thereby achieve your medium-term goals.
    • Thereby achieve your long-term goals.
  • Thereby become a values-oriented, successful, happy person.
You can chuck the whole chiasmus, though.  If you miss a daily task, simply forward it to the next day.  That was the part that they designed for me.

Here are six reasons that goals are bad:

1. Goals are largely arbitrary.  We pick numbers and dates that have nothing to do with our desires and capacities, which will determine our ability to deliver.

2. Goals are rigid.  They don't allow for our priorities and interests to shift, or for us to get bored or lazy.

3. Goals are cheap.  The ambition required to set goals is significantly less than the ambition required to accomplish them.

4. Most goals are negative.  "Stop eating garbage."  "Stop yelling at the kids."  The problem is that, like magnetic repulsion, the farther you get from the problem the weaker the motivation gets.

5. Goals cause imaginary baseline shift.  Our goals represent an ideal; they depict how would behave if we weren't behaving the way we do now.  But once we set a goal, we treat it like it's our new baseline.  Of course we can't sustain it, or we would have been doing so already.  Eventually we come up short and feel like losers.

6. Goals report progress as failure.  When we miss a milestone on the way to accomplishing our goal, we think that we've failed.  This saps our motivation, weakens our resolve, and sends us on the path to abandoning our goal entirely, which happens around Valentine's day if you believe the NYT.

That last reason is the very worst.  Imagine that you decide to do 100 sit-ups every day.  You do great for two weeks.  Then, in week three, you miss Wednesday and Friday.  If you didn't have a goal, you would be 500 sit-ups ahead for the week.  You, however, have a goal.  You are 200 sit-ups in the red, and YOU JUST FAILED.  Your motivation will wane, and by Valentines day you won't be doing any sit-ups at all, chocolate abundance notwithstanding.

Nom nom nom.

By the way, in Korea, women give men chocolate for Valentine's day.  대한민국!

A few of you are thinking, "Matt, what are you, some kind of loser?  Where's your positive mental attitude?"  If you're the A-type folks who can do anything through brute force of will, I salute you. (Hi Mom! Hi Danny!)  If you're just self-improvement seminar junkies, you need to believe that you can have your accomplishments without beating yourself up and without spending a fortune to learn new jargon once a year.

Q: With what might one replace goals?
A: Setting direction.

I determine the direction I want to go in key areas of life and I do whatever I can reasonably do, whenever I can do it, to nudge myself in that direction.  I'm talking about daily, deliberate, introspective refinement within the bounds of reality.  This approach yields long-term lifestyle change as well as understanding and satisfaction.  I'm going to blog on this topic for a bit.  Somewhere out there some guy is getting an ulcer because he just forwarded eleven tasks in his day planner and I hope I can get to him before he has to order a page refill.

Update: The post on Succeeding by Setting Direction is here.

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