You Don’t Need Goals

I always wondered what was wrong with me.

I read all of these books and articles about how to be richer, sexier, happier and so forth. Most pointed to how important goals are.  With nothing to shoot for, you get nothing done.

This never worked for me, though. I would get all motivated and write down all of these ambitious goals and timelines to achieve them.

Then…I would do nothing.

Weeks or months later, maybe I would revisit them. Then I would get down on myself and wonder what the hell was wrong with me that I couldn’t progress toward these things I wanted so badly to achieve. Rinse and repeat with nothing changing in between.

The problem, though, was I never made a system to progress toward those goals. And without a system, goals are worthless.

Dilbert creator Scott Adams touched on this in the Wall Street Journal recently:

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.


But being systems-oriented, I felt myself growing more capable every day, no matter the fate of the project that I happened to be working on. And every day during those years I woke up with the same thought, literally, as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and slapped the alarm clock off.

Today’s the day.

Writer James Clear also wrote a fantastic post on why systems beat goals. In particular, one example stood out to me as being particularly enlightening:

As an example, I just added up the total word count for the articles I’ve written this year. (You can see them all here.) In the last 12 months, I’ve written over 115,000 words. The typical book is about 50,000 to 60,000 words, so I have basically written two books this year.

There were plenty of side effects too. I now have 100,000 people reading each month. I was featured in articles on ForbesInc, and US News. And I have built relationships with all sorts of wonderful people who found me through my work.

All of this is such a surprise because I never set a goal for my writing. I didn’t measure my progress in relation to some benchmark. I never set a word count goal for any particular article. I never said, “I want to write two books this year.”

What I did focus on was writing one article every Monday and Thursday. And after sticking to that schedule for 11 months, the result was 115,000 words. I focused on my system and the process of doing the work. In the end, I enjoyed the same (or perhaps better) results.

Think about how pronounced that difference is.

If I gave you the option of picking between two challenges, which would seem feasible? Writing two blog posts a week or completing two books in a year?

Our psychology is not wired to break down a huge task like writing two books. It is, however, wired to process small steps done consistently. Both yield the same result, but one actually works.

The difference between goals and systems has become clear in my life. As a naturally skinny dude, I’ve always wanted to be bigger and stronger. So, one  year, I decided to finally make a change happen. I made a bet with five friends that I’d put on a set amount of muscle over a three month period.

The accountability and motivation helped and I came within tenths of a pound of hitting my goal. I made more progress than I ever had.

But when that challenge and goal was over, I slowly lost my progress over the rest of the year. The system was unsustainable and meaningless without the goal.

This year, I chose a new strength program consisting of three days a week of basic power weightlifting. I didn’t set a goal, but committed to completing those three workouts every week and tracking their progress.

Five weeks in, I was curious as to how much progress I’d made on deadlifts. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I’d added 50 pounds to my lift in those five weeks. I’ve continued to progress as I’ve stuck to the system.

Would I have accomplished that if I had simply set a goal to increase my deadlift by 50 pounds in five weeks? Very, very doubtful.

Goals themselves aren’t a bad thing, necessarily. But you have to have the system in place to meet that goal. Without that system, the goal is worthless.

You need the system. You don’t need the goal.

  1. BraddV. said:

    I have always despised the goals questions in interviews and employee reviews for those reasons. Its about having the right mindset and continuously improving, not about having hopes and dreams. Like Mitch Hedberg said “I’m tired of chasing my dreams, I’m just going to ask where they’re going and hook up with ’em later”

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