The problem with being goal-oriented

couple standing on mountain

A few months before I decided to quit my job and move, I’d made a whole timeline of accomplishments I hoped to reach within the next three to five years. It included a series of backup plans, too, should Plan A not work out (Plan A: become a hugely successful writer, make lots of money, buy a home in Malibu, take many naps). This timeline included mini-goals of what I hoped to accomplish within a month, year, three years, etc. It included a breakdown of expenses. It also included different scenarios. I asked myself: What would it take for me to give up and move back? In short, it was goal oriented and painstakingly meticulous.

Which was fine, but you could read my stress and neurosis all over it. I showed the timeline to a friend of mine, proudly.

“This is depressing,” she said.

“What are you talking about?” I asked, grabbing it from her. “These are my goals!”

“I know,” she said. “But this takes all the fun out of it.”

“What am I supposed to do, just leave my job and move without having any sort of plan?”

“Well, no,” she said, still glaring at my blueprint. “But, wow. You’re taking something fun and turning it into a huge chore.”

After a while, I realized she had a point. I do have a habit of sucking the fun right out of things. A couple of times in the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to work on projects of which I’m quite proud. But, more importantly, they’re projects that should have been enjoyable.

But I buzzkilled them. I focused less on what I was doing and more on what I hoped to do after the project was over. I made goals — lofty ones — and I stressed myself out when I didn’t reach them or when I changed my mind about them altogether.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about the idea that goals are bunk. Most of what I read seems to originate from Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert and author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. He writes:

“Goals are for losers. For example, if your goal is to lose ten 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. That feeling wears on you. In time, it becomes heavy and uncomfortable. It might even drive you out of the game.”

I’ve been a “goal-oriented” person my entire life. That career blueprint? It wasn’t a first. At 10, I made similar plans for how I expected to spend all of my years on this planet. It included career milestones, romantic milestones — even the age at which I planned to have children.

Who knew an entire life could so neatly fit on three sheets of 8×10 scrap paper, taped together?

In my own experience, I’ve come to realize Adams is right. I’ve shifted my focus from goals to my day-to-day satisfaction and productivity. And I do feel less worn down. I feel happier.

The Problem With Focusing on Goals

If you’re a goal-oriented person, it can be hard to buy this idea. I get it. When my friend told me I was sucking the joy out of my life by creating goals, I thought she was crazy. I needed to plan this move responsibly, and that included being realistic about the crazy idea of moving halfway across the country to write for a living.

But whether it’s switching careers or paying off debt, here’s the problem with taking goals too far.

Goals Separate the Present From the Future

For me, the biggest issue with focusing on goals is that it creates a future self that is so very different from my present self. We’ve discussed the importance of linking your present self with your future self — focusing on the present actually helps you reach a goal faster. It’s easy to put off a goal that seemingly has little to do with you. That’s why people often don’t save for retirement until their later years. In our 20s, we’re so far away from retirement, our retired self is basically a stranger.

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But here’s a personal example of how focusing on goals divides the present and future self.

When I was paying off debt, I became obsessed with my goal. And that sounds great, except that I didn’t connect my debt-free future self to my present savings habits. Like a lot of people, I overshot my debt payoff and made things worse by over-drafting on my accounts and busting my budget.

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It would have been better to focus on what my actual spending habits were and then create a budget based on reality, not what I hope reality will be. In that case, being overly focused on my financial goal backfired.

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Goals Focus on What You Don’t Have

It’s wonderful to strive for more, but I’ve found that focusing on goals usually leads me to focus on what I don’t have. And that’s problematic for a couple of reasons:

  • It makes me a little depressed that I haven’t already reached that goal.
  • If I never reach that goal, I’m even more depressed.
  • It makes me a little dissatisfied and ungrateful for what I do have.

When you focus on goals, you’re either focused on reaching them or making them. There’s never a time when you’re just enjoying the journey. Adams writes:

“If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize 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 set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent pre-success failure.”

I can totally relate. A few years ago, when I nabbed an awesome gig that I spent months hoping I’d get, I celebrated for like five minutes and then moved on to the next goal.

But Goals Still Serve a Purpose

I originally titled this post, “Why I’m giving up on goals.” But I realized that wasn’t entirely accurate because I still have goals in my life and they still serve a purpose.

After all, there are certain accomplishments, financial and otherwise, that I’d still like to achieve in life; and if I don’t decide on making them, how will I know what to work toward?

I suppose it’s more that I’m done with focusing on goals. Instead, I prefer to focus on the process — or, as Adams puts it, a system:

“For our purposes, let’s say a goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.”

Building a Process for Your Goals

Goals are something you hope to make happen; the process is the work it actually takes to get there. To me, it makes more sense to put your time, effort and focus on the latter. Adams uses dieting as an example. Rather than focusing on losing 20 pounds, focus on incorporating better food options into your day-to-day diet. It’s practical, tangible, and it makes your goal more of a reality.

Work backward

To create a process for my goals, I work backward. Here’s how:

  • State the goal: I make a declaration of what I want to do.
  • Create smaller milestones: I won’t throw goals out the window, and I won’t throw mini-goals out the window either. I ask myself what smaller goals it will take to reach the larger one.
  • Create actionable steps: Based on those smaller milestones, I focus on what I need to do, regularly, to make something happen. What actionable steps do I need to take on a regular basis?
  • Incorporate: I find a way to weave those steps into my daily or weekly routine.

Without realizing it, I created a process, or system, for a goal I actually reached this year: Maxing out my IRA. There’s a pretty firm number on what it takes to reach that goal: $5,500.

I created a smaller milestone. It would take me about $458 a month to reach that goal. What actionable steps did I need to take on a regular basis? Well, that was easy. I needed to pay myself first each month, in the amount of $458.

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And how could I incorporate that step into my everyday life? I had one client that paid about that same amount each month, give or take $50. I decided each check from that client would automatically be deposited into my savings, not my checking.

Later on in the year, I decided to boost my savings. I didn’t focus on the goal — the $5,500 — I focused on my present pay, and the actionable steps I needed to take. Before I even realized it, my goal was reached.

I’ve found that it also helps to add triggers to my environment — mechanisms that force me (or at least coerce me) to focus on the process. Going back to the diet example, this would mean keeping your fridge stocked with healthy foods. This forces you to incorporate a better diet into your daily routine. Autopay is another example of this. Triggers help create a process. And a process transforms your goal from an abstract hope to a plan of action.

What do you guys think: Can it backfire to obsess over goals? Was I silly for trying to plot out my career in that way, and does it make more sense to focus more on the process? I’d like to know what you’ve found to be true in your own experience.

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