Goals Don't Work (Alone)
Focus on the process, not the outcomes
Last week, I spent a lot of time writing about the power of goal-setting when aligned with an aspirational vision. If you haven’t checked out the Monday Masterclass, the Wednesday Workbench, and Episode 9 of the Relaxed Leader Podcast, I encourage you to set aside an hour and dive deep into them.
However, once you’ve finished with them, pause for a moment and reflect on this thought: Traditional goal-setting rarely works.
I know, I know – getting you all fired up about creating a powerful vision and setting appropriate goals to get you there, then telling you it won’t work seems like a shitty thing to do. And it is, I suppose. But sometimes even a Relaxed Leader needs to dole out a little tough love!
If goal-setting doesn't work, then what do we do?
Fear not, faithful reader – I won’t just leave you in the lurch like that. However, I did need to get your attention because traditional goal-setting and, in particular, the traditional approach to goal attainment, just doesn’t work. What will work was actually described in my prior articles but I didn’t call it out specifically because I want to take one topic at a time. Becoming a truly effective Relaxed Leader can’t be done in a week, so stick with me while we work through the process.
I mentioned several times that goal-setting is most effective when the goals align to a larger vision, and that’s absolutely true. Picking random goals out of a hat that will hopefully make you a better person can be fine but I’m not ready to trust my personal development to dumb luck, are you?
When we create a crystal clear vision of where we want to be – or WHO we want to be – it gives us a “north star” to follow. By setting goals aligned to that north star, we move consistently closer and closer to our vision as we achieve each goal along the way. So far, so good.
But here’s the problem: Every schmuck who has a similar vision will have similar goals. In fact, if your vision is based on someone you admire, then there are probably a thousand other souls with the exact same vision... all with the same (or similar) goals. Will you ALL achieve those goals? Of course not – and that’s the point. Having goals isn’t enough, which is why the examples I used in the prior articles hinted at the key.
Are you going to explain the key to achieving goals or not?
Actually, I’m not going to explain the key to achieving goals because achieving goals isn’t enough. I’m going to explain the key to making the attainment of your goals nothing more than a byproduct of how you live your life. In other words, the “goals” aren’t really what you’re shooting for – they’re merely milestones along the path of your life!
When discussing goals, I talked about the need to identify excellent strategies and tactics to achieve those goals. In my weight loss example, I explained my strategy as the MAD-F eating pattern (Modified Alternate Day Fasting) and the tactics as those things I would do to ensure I can maintain it week after week.
Having strategies and tactics is the key because those aren’t really about achieving the goal – they’re about developing habits, routines, and rituals that will create and reinforce the behaviors necessary to achieve the goal. In other words, the focus is on developing a system that moves you inexorably towards your goals and your vision.
Most people who set a goal to lose weight decide to “go on a diet.” Right from the beginning, they’re playing a finite game where they will either win or lose. Going on a diet means they will make a bunch of temporary changes to their calorie consumption in order to reach the weight they’ve targeted. Their “goal” is reaching a specific weight and it doesn’t matter how they do it as long as they do it.
Of course, they tell themselves, “The sacrifice and struggle will be worth it because once I reach my goal weight, it will be much easier to maintain that weight!” For lots of reasons we don’t have time to discuss, that rarely works. Why? Because they were playing a finite game. They reached their goal and said, “Whew! Glad that’s over!” and went back to their prior lifestyle – the one that made them fat in the first place.
Is working hard and sacrificing to achieve goals worth it?
Hard work and sacrifice will not be worth it if you don’t have systems in place to reinforce and maintain what you’ve achieved. Sure, you may have won the award, completed the marathon, or hit your goal weight; but if you haven’t fundamentally changed, improved, or grown in a way that is permanent, then what’s the point?
I know several people who are runners. Some are focused on races or competitions. Once they register for a particular event, they get to work. They have a rigorous training plan, dramatically improve what they’re eating and drinking, and even work with a coach to get ready for the big day. They’ll be diligent for months, all with an eye on that race or event – that big goal they’ve set for themselves – and they’re definitely ready when the day arrives! They complete the race, give high fives all around, grab a beer, eat that big juicy hamburger and basket of fries they’ve been craving for months, and relax in the knowledge that they did it.
A couple months later, they’ve stopped training altogether; and six months after the race, they’ve gained back all the weight they lost and more! Why? Because it doesn’t matter. They achieved their goal of doing well in the big race. Once they set their sights on another race, they’ll try to do it all over again.
On the other hand, some of the runners I know simply run. Occasionally they’ll have a short-term goal of competing in a specific race – or sometimes several races – but that’s not what they focus on. Instead, they focus on developing habits, routines, and rituals around living the runner’s life. They don’t go on dramatic “diets.” Instead, they eat the right amounts of healthy foods to fuel their bodies well. They don’t focus on crazy, rigorous training routines. They establish a running and training regimen that challenges them but that they enjoy and can continue whether they have an upcoming race or not. Sure, they put in some extra effort when they’re training for a competition but they have an established baseline that will ultimately keep them happy and healthy.
In other words, they’re not playing a finite game – not playing to complete one particular event – they’re playing an infinite game. They’re not running to complete a race. They’re running just to keep on running. Being able to compete in races ends up being a byproduct of the systems they create for themselves.
The bottom line...
Goals have their place in any Relaxed Leader’s improvement plan but they are merely the means and not actually the end. As author James Clear says, “Goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress.”
Goals that are aligned to a clear vision can certainly help you drive forward in the short-term, but goals are temporary. Once you’ve achieved them, you need to know what’s next. On the other hand, thoughtful habits, routines, and rituals – well-designed systems for living – allow you to simply keep going and keep making progress. These systems will always win out over goals. Having healthy, ongoing systems is what matters the most.
If you focus on improving the process, then the outcomes will take care of themselves!