Why Setting Goals is not Enough
The downsides to goals, and a simple solution.
If your life is anything like mine, then you’ve probably been feeling enthusiastic about the New Year. It’s good, healthy even, to want and expect the best for yourself. You’ve probably written a list of elaborate goals you intend to achieve, made plans on Notion, or created a vision board with Canva, or Pinterest; all of which are great.
If you are the more low-maintenance type, that’s fine. I’m sure there’s still one thing or the other tugging at your mind to change or to improve this year.
But before you move into action mode, let’s sit down and talk for a bit.
See, you’re highly convinced that this year will be different, but the truth is, that won’t happen simply because you have planned for it to be that way. It’s probably not the first time you have wanted to learn a new skill, stop drinking soda, earn more, think more positively about yourself, or get As in all your courses.
This is because success does not rely on planning. It’s in the doing. And in order to execute your plans, you need to consider implementing systems as opposed to simply setting goals.
Here is what I mean:
Goals are nice because they give us a sense of direction. The same way nobody gets into a car and starts driving nowhere (unless they’re trying to kidnap you, or unless you are in a romantic film from the 90s — fuel is too expensive these days) is the same way it’s great to have a general idea of where you are headed. But goal setting is not enough to get you to move. In fact, setting goals can actually be problematic, too, for the following reasons:
Goals don’t pay enough attention to context. Goals focus excessively on outcomes, which may cause you to lose sense of the why of your journey. For example, in High School, we once had a book-a-thon (a reading marathon) where students competed to win a Kindle, based on the number of books they could read in two weeks. I read as many books as I could to win, but I can’t really remember any of the books I read or what I learned from them.
The purpose of the book-a-thon was to encourage us to learn more from books, and our teachers really thought attaching an expensive incentive to it would motivate us to learn. Rather, it turned me into a competitive monster who didn’t glean knowledge or enjoyment from what I read. The same thing could happen with a goal to lose weight. Meeting the goal won’t necessarily make you healthier (which should ordinarily be the aim of such a goal), and one could even develop unhealthy eating habits in the process if they’re too focused on the outcome. The journey matters more than the results.
Goals create a positive fantasy. I once watched a documentary about the dangers of motivational content, and the chief idea espoused was that indulging so much mentally in a desired state could make you lose the energy required to get there physically. The same idea works here. Being overly involved with the outcome of your goals could generate dreamy feelings similar to those you get after having accomplished these goals, which researchers have realised can reduce the energy you need to pursue them. In a way, you get trapped in the good feelings and forget to take action.
Goals focus on momentary change, which is unsustainable. Imagine you have a goal of cleaning your room. You use all your energy to do it, and the room becomes sparkling clean. But if you have the same untidy habits that caused the room to be dirty in the first place, it will get dirty again. Lots of goals are time or event bound. You want to add 10kg before your birthday, or you want to read 4 books in a month, or you want to get 5K followers on Instagram, but what happens once you accomplish them?
We tend not to think enough about our journeys and how to scale the goals we set. Sometimes vowing to do something becomes a lifelong commitment, like positive thinking or learning or hitting the gym. When your goals focus too much on the outcome rather than developing a lifestyle, it’s very easy to return to level one and lose all the progress you’ve made because thinking only about outcomes will yield temporary results.
Goals create a either/or mentality, which is unhealthy. Have you ever thought, “when I achieve this thing, I’ll be happy?” Well, this is what happens when you prioritize goals and place happiness in the backseat. You think, it’s either I succeed at this, or I am a failure. Once I get a job, I will be happy. If I work hard to get my As, then I will be successful. This is wrong because it postpones your happiness. It makes you no different from parents that reward results with love, which we all know can be trauma-inducing.
I think a much better approach is seeing yourself like an oil painting. Like the Mona Lisa. Do you know Leonardo Da Vinci never finished painting her? And we still consider her the epitome of fine art. She was an unfinished masterpiece, and so are you. Life is meant to be a journey, and postponing happiness till you have achieved one thing or the other, removes the fun of enjoying life.
Instead of just setting goals, create life systems. Goals are good for planning your progress, but systems are even better for creating this progress. Your goal is your desired outcome, while your system is the collection of tiny daily habits that will get you there.
Systems are important because they introduce structure. They eliminate the guesswork about what you must do to achieve what you want or what happens after you have achieved it. Goals without systems are not sustainable and, as we have seen above, may do more harm than good.
I think nothing has taught me this better than working in marketing. Whenever we have a campaign, we set goals for what we want to achieve in terms of brand awareness or user acquisition. This could look like 2000+ signups or a set number of followers. However, if we don’t have any systems in place for meeting these goals, the campaign falls flat. Systems have to be small, specific and sustainable over a long period of time. For example: posting every week at specific times is a system for getting people to know about our product. Sure, it’s a long way from what our goals may be, but it is a set, specific, repeated action that causes us to achieve them in the long run.
Systems tend to look like this:
Goal: Write a book.
System: Write two terrible pages everyday.
Goal: Develop a more positive outlook towards life.
System: Write down three things I’m grateful for daily.
Systems are really important because:
They break things down and make them easier. While writing down your goals, you might be really excited, but the sheer weight of them might haunt you after. Creating daily systems that focus on simple actions can make your goals easier to visualise and achieve. So let’s say you want to get As in all your electives; a system might look like opening your book and reading for five minutes every day. It sounds really small and perhaps even laughable, but the journey is never about how fast but how far you go. Remember the tale of the tortoise and the rabbit? Consistent progress has a compounding effect.
They focus on the skill: Systems are built on developing a skill, and they prioritise the process over the outcome. Systems are lovely because they help you develop a gain-gain mindset. So even if you do not achieve your goal at the end of the day, you have developed a skill or habit that will stay with you forever. All of your efforts will not be in vain.
Systems are Identity-based. Unlike goals which focus on outcomes, systems treat the cause of a problem, which usually resides within the self. Back to the example of the untidy room. A helpful system could be: putting things back in their place as soon as you open or disorganize them; or arranging your room every night before you sleep. This system is daily and filled with small actions, but with time, the room owner becomes a more tidy person generally, which becomes a part of their identity.
Systems embrace happiness in the present: Systems acknowledge the grey zone between where you are and where you want to be, but they let you know that you don’t have to wait until you achieve what you want before you can be happy. You can be happy now by falling in love with the journey while moving towards where you want to be.
The secret to building an effective system is incorporating consistency and celebrating the little wins. Not only will this affect your confidence positively, but it will give you the energy to meet your goals.
So how do we build healthy, identity-based systems? Honestly, this topic is really broad, and I will encourage everyone to grab a copy of Atomic Habits by James Clear because it expounds on the issue really well. However, these few steps below can help:
Identify why. While thinking about a goal to achieve may be easy, identifying the core problem you’re trying to solve may take more work. You might think you want to save more to have money for Detty December, but deep introspection might reveal that you’re afraid of missing out, or being ignored by your friends. Our goals always have roots, and we need to find them so we can deal with them better. There’s a popular technique called the Five Whys, in which you ask yourself why you want to achieve your goal five times until you reach a root cause.
It looks like this:
Goal: To Post Consistently on Instagram.
Why 1: Why do you want to post consistently on Instagram?
Response 1: I want to become an Influencer.
Why 2: Why do you want to become an Influencer?
Response 2: So, I can make more money and be popular.
Why 3: Why do you want to make more money and be popular?
Response 3: So I can be a cool kid, and get invited to events, and become friends with other influencers.
Why 4: Why do you want to be a cool kid?
Response 4: Because I care a lot about what others think of me, and if I achieve this, people will think I am cool.
Why 5: Why do you care a lot about what others think of you?
Response 5: Because I crave love and acceptance.
The root cause in this scenario is love and acceptance, which resides deep within the self. If the person above treats their goal at a surface level alone, ie. posting consistently and becoming an influencer, the deep-seated issues may still remain a problem, and they might still remain unsatisfied with themselves. But knowing the whys to the deepest level will help them work towards their goal while also exploring other means of working on their identity-based issues, like journalling, building healthier relationships with others, talking to God, etc.
Learn What You Need.
To create the right systems, you need to take stock of what you will need. Is it a new skill? A new habit? An accountability partner? Don’t just focus on the surface. Think deeply about your needs. If you want to become a UI/UX designer, then you might want to follow product designers on youtube that have successful tips, practice using Figma, build a case study and more. You might also need an accountability partner to remind you every week about how far you have gone with your goal. Having a goal is one thing; charting the path to all the things it requires of you is another. You have to be as intentional as you possibly can.
Develop Implementation Intention.
Once you identify the actions that you need to take, then you have to set intentions to implement them. This is known as an implementation intention. It’s a commitment to performing an action at a specific time and location.
“I will [ACTION] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].”
Let’s see some examples:
→ I will write 500 words every day after reading my Bible in the morning in my room.
→ I will open the Figma website and design something every day for ten minutes by 6:00pm.
Implementation intentions are really helpful for the days when you don’t feel like doing anything. Because you have made a commitment to do something at a particular time and place, you just have to show up. There is no confusion about it. It takes away the “what should I be doing now” stress from you. Just show up.
Remember, Goal setting is not enough. Build systems instead. Make them small, and be consistent. Think deeply about what you want and why you want it. Figure out the steps/actions it would require, set implementation intentions and be open to reflecting and restrategizing when it looks like you are beginning to lose the plot. You got this!
Phew! This was a long one, but I hope you learned a thing or two.
I’m always rooting for you! xoxoxo.
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Happy New Year!
Welcome to 2023. I have made it a point to move like I’m delusional this year, as the tiktok girlies have preached, so welcome to the Best Year of My Life. Let’s goooo!
Media I consumed this Week:
Reading: I just finished reading Atomic Habits by James Clear, the book that inspired this letter. It’s a book about habits, creating the right ones (or breaking the bad ones). I used to think habits were difficult and boring, but this book gave me a much-needed paradigm shift. I think it’s a book everyone should read, especially at this time of the year, and in their twenties.
Watching: I started watching Twenty-Five Twenty-One, a Korean drama about following your dreams when young, and friendship, and the challenges peculiar to youth. I love it so much, and I find myself crying at random points because it’s just really beautiful how goal-driven the main character is.
I am also watching The White Lotus because I am fond of zeitgeist-y, quirky shows that feel like social experiments. I think it’s a great mirror of what the ultramodern society feels like, and it reminds me of the types of books I enjoy reading: colourful, a little weird, and full of obnoxious (and hot) characters.
Listening: I am listening to this podcast. I like hearing Tiwa’s thoughts, I think they’re funny and I really just enjoy hearing someone else’s voice when I go about my day. I have also been listening to Florence and the Machine, because there’s something cathartic and vocational about how she explores emotions (anger, rage, despondency, joy, guilt, grief, pain) in her songs, and also for clear skin. I found this playlist I thought was very cool.
Are you guys into playlists? Should I create a playlist for us?