The Case Against Goals — and an Alternative

Goal setting is touted in many self-help books as a sure path to success and happiness. Ironically, such widespread agreement makes me want to question the whole strategy even more.

Turns out that there are plenty of people willing to join me.

Goals can fail to satisfy 

Start with Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert and his well-researched, entertaining book Stumbling On Happiness.

We often set goals based on what we think will make us happy in the future. The problem, says Dan, is that we are lousy at predicting how we will feel in a decade, a year, or even a month from today. This means that we can achieve our goals without getting the emotional payoff that we originally wanted.

Several psychologists are researching this phenomenon, which is called affective forecasting. Dan’s site lists some relevant studies.

Goals depend on sustained effort

Jeff Goins argues that “goals are a waste of time” because they seduce us into relying on planning.

How well do you act on your plans to achieve your goals? If you struggle with procrastination and follow-through, then the odds are against you.

Many achievements are unplanned

In addition, many wonderful things happen to us — such as making friends, falling in love, or finding a dream job — without planning. Focusing exclusively on our goals can blind us to surprise opportunities.

Goals highlight the gap between what we have and what we want

Shane Parrish notes that setting our sights on a long-term goal highlights the discrepancy between our current state and our ideal state:

Goal-oriented people mostly fail. If your goal is to lose 20 pounds, you will constantly think that you are not at your goal until you reach it. If you fall short you’re still a failure. The only way to reach your goal is to lose the 20 pounds. It’s a state of near perpetual failure.

Replacing goals with daily practices

Fortunately there is a way to overcome these obstacles: Let go of your goals and focus instead on small, daily behavior changes.

I’m actually skeptical about long-term goals that don’t lead to daily behavior change.

This idea is developed in a quirky and delightful book by cartoonist Scott Adams — How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. According to Scott, “goals are for losers” and “systems are for winners”:

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.

The system-versus-goals model can be applied to most human endeavors. In the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system. In the exercise realm, running a marathon in under four hours is a goal, but exercising daily is a system. In business, making a million dollars is a goal, but being a serial entrepreneur is a system.

The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system.

Why delay gratification? 

That last paragraph is crucial. Every time that you do your small daily behavior, you experience immediate success. And if that behavior is something you enjoy, then you can savor the process of behavior change as much as the results.

My friend Judy put it this way: “Each day is whole and good all by itself. I can still accomplish things and NOT locate myself on an arduous path of incompleteness and frankly, pain.”

Exactly.

Where to learn more

If you want to further explore the pitfalls of goal setting and play with some alternatives, check out the following:

Also listen to this podcast, in which James Altucher urges us to forget about goals and base our daily activities on themes instead.

I wish you daily success and fulfillment.