Today’s Lesson: Goals Are Dumb. [141007]

I was mad, depressed, and frustrated. 3 of my 4 teams missed their goals and I did not know what else I could do to help us all move forward.

One of the best lessons I have learned this year is that goal-setting is a terribly inefficient way to actually reach goals. Most of my life, I have been taught to set a specific goal (I want to make a million dollars, for example) and then work toward it, step by step. Once achieved, set a bigger goal, and repeat.

Today I was reminded that goals rarely breed success. Instead, they are a set-up for disappointment and frustration when you do not reach them (especially if you have set them too high). Goals also impose artificial limits on success. What happens when you reach your goal? You set another, higher one. Then another one, then another one… a start/stop herky-jerky process that does not flow into potential but rather keeps putting up stop signs along the way.

Worse, goals undermine your self-esteem. What happens when you set a diet goal? You probably do not achieve it (or do not maintain it) and then you start a spiral of self-loathing for not reaching it. So you set another goal and try again and beat yourself up again. There is an entire industry built around this depressing cycle and the first couple weeks after New Year’s Eve is a boon for it, because they know we will be back next year…

What should we do instead?

What works better for me is to live by systems. Form habits that forge success and forget about the destination. When I remembered that with my teams, I threw away the goals we were chasing. I concentrated instead on the habits we were trying to build. The teams immediately accelerated and we finished the month at number one! A funny thing happened, though. We were so excited about being the number one team in the company that we started looking at our goals again. We are still at the top but it is a challenge to get back to the “systems” vs “goals” mindset.

I will give you another concrete example of the difference. The first time I decided to live a vegan lifestyle (not eating or wearing any animal products), I set a goal to be completely vegan within 3 months. That’s exactly how far I made it before I gave up, too, and of course, I was not completely vegan when I quit. I was not even a good vegetarian by the time I gave up. I did terrible.

I set a vegan goal to work toward at least 3 more times and failed every time. I eliminated all animal products from my diet, agonized over it, gave up and went back to eating meat and cheese. I felt like a failure and was certain I was never going to make it.

It wasn’t until a friend gave me the advice I needed, that I was able to succeed. He said, “Stop trying to go vegan. When you sit down to dinner tonight, just choose not to eat any meat or cheese for that meal only. That’s it. Just make it through dinner tonight. Then, at breakfast, remember you can make that choice again, but don’t worry about it until then. It’s just a choice, and you make it one meal at a time…”

I did not realize it, but my vegan friend was helping remove the pressure of goal-setting and instead was offering the foundation for a system of habits that would lead me to be vegan and more. When I removed the stop sign of the goal, I was able to speed past it, and by the end of that year (more than 10 years ago!) I was completely vegan and had dropped 50 pounds!

Today’s lesson is: stop the madness of goal chasing and instead build systems and habits that will take you where you want to go, and well beyond.




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