Goal Setting is for Suckers!

How to Achieve the RIGHT way!



You’ve been doing it the wrong way!

I hope you’ve been enjoying the last couple episodes from Lead the Field by Earl Nightingale. We’ve been getting lots of nice comments and feedback from listeners who had never heard of Earl Nightingale so, mission accomplished!

Moving on to a topic that I teach and coach on, more or less, on a daily basis: goal setting. You can go back through the podcast catalog and find a bunch of prior episodes of me talking about and teaching how to do what I consider to be ‘proper’ goal setting. Whenever a new coaching student joins the coaching academy, I have them go through our goal setting workshop exercise to get an idea of how they think, what drives them, what they have that they don’t want, what they don’t have that they do want, and how specific and clear they can be around the process. 

Once somebody finishes the goal setting exercise, we then take the first couple sessions to go over their ideas around goals to ‘test’ them a bit. I poke, prod, I challenge a bit, and I push them to give and get more clarity around why certain things are important to them or not. The process is extremely valuable for both of us because it sets the tone of the coaching relationship, and I can really start coaching them from day one. What I can also tell you about putting people through that process is how enlightening it is every single time. 

First point of note, almost nobody knows how to properly develop and utilize the goal setting process. I don’t blame anyone for that, nor do I hold it against them. It’s rarely taught to us growing up. If you were lucky enough to have a parent who sat you down and showed you how to first ask questions about what you want out of life, and then show you how to break those things down into systems, processes, and activities that might just lead you there, congratulations! You’re 1 in a million. Why don’t more parents teach their kids how to set real clear goals in life? They weren’t taught how to do that themselves. So, part of the process we put students through in coaching is testing their ability to understand what goals are, how they work, and what to use them for. 

Second point of note about the goals people set, they almost always change over time and before they arrive at what they said was one of their goals. Almost with 100% accuracy, everyone’s goals change over time as they are challenged and tested. When we first start pushing back on the student about why they want certain things, often times they have no answer. They don’t really know why they want to increase business 25%, other than it sounds good. After all, who wants to set a goal to stay the same. But when pressed with questions like, ‘why do you want that? What will that do for you? What will that do for the company? What are the steps to getting there? What do you need to be doing every day or week to arrive there in 60, 90, or 365 days?’, rarely are there any answers. Again, not a bad thing and not shaming anybody for their lack of clarity around what they say are their goals, it’s all part of a bigger process of growth. 

So, the point of saying all that is to lay the foundation for why I believe traditional goal setting is complete bullshit, and how most are getting it wrong. 

If you have never read or listened to the book, Atomic Habits, by James Clear, I’m going to strongly suggest you set aside time right after this podcast to get the book or Audible and get ready to take notes. Although this book is the most recent one to espouse a ‘goal setting is BS’ type of tone, this idea has been around for a long time. James Clear has a really clear way of explaining what really comes down to one powerful summary line: it’s about the process, not the goal. So it is with this episode that I will go over the 4 reasons the author of Atomic Habits gives for how goal setting is actually not the great thing it’s often made out to be, and how almost everyone gets it wrong.

Let me say before we go into these 4 bad things about goal setting, I am not telling you not to have aspirations or ever set goals. Almost all of us have learned the SMART method for goal setting where the letters of the word SMART stand for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time bound. And yes, if you’re going to set some basic goals, by all means use some kind of framework for doing so. 

However, even more important than the SMART framework, is the notion that it’s not the goal that matters, but instead the system and processes necessary to change the underlying behavior that has 1. kept us from achieving that goal in the past, and 2. Create new behaviors that might allow us to reach some kind of goal, or at least allow us to become the kind of person who could reach a goal like that, whatever that might be. And with that, 4 reasons goal setting is BS:

The first reason noted by James Clear in Atomic Habits is the very poignant fact that winners and losers have the same goals. We tend to think that by setting a goal we’ll automatically be successful, but tend to also forget, or maybe not even think about the fact that the losers (small ‘l’) often have the same goals. People all around the world set goals every day. Some people reach those goals, many more don’t. That can happen for a variety of reasons we won’t go into on this episode, but it’s important to highlight that goal setting suffers from a bias often referred to as the survivor bias, or a survivorship bias. Essentially, in almost everything, we tend to count the winners and discount or completely dismiss the losers. It’s called counting the hits and ignoring the misses. When we focus on the winners, we tend to ascribe their wins to the fact that they set goals when, in fact, many of those who set the exact same goal completely failed to hit it. In essence, we completely overlook all the people who had the exact same goals but failed to reach them. 

To be clear, goal setting is not completely worthless, but it needs to be understood where it fits in and what it’s good for. It’s good to help choosing and setting direction. That’s it! I’m not going to tell you to no longer set any goals. Goal setting is a vital practice even if only to help us conjure up some emotion around the direction we’d like to head in. We choose a direction, set some milestones out in the distance that we feel are important, create some lead measures to identify future lag results, and then constantly get updates and feedback as to whether we’re heading in the right direction, still excited and inspired about the goal, and whether or not we are either creating, or changing what is required at the behavioral or systems and processes level to make change worthwhile and lasting. 

Which leads us to the second reason goal setting is BS: reaching or achieving a goal is a momentary thing. Achieving something can only change your life for a brief moment. It’s the path one takes toward achieving the goal that has the potential to create lasting change or not. Take, for example, losing 10lbs. You set a goal to lose 10lbs in the next 30 days. You decide on your why, you decide on your how, and you create some check ins to see if you’re on track. Maybe the ‘why’ is to look better at the beach, the how is to restrict calories and also burn a few extra. The check-ins are basically looks in the mirror and weighing yourself daily. You get to the end of the 30 days and step on the scale and, voila! You’re 10lbs lighter! Congrats! You’ve achieved the goal and now it’s time to celebrate with a night out at your favorite pizza joint. 

You see, the goal isn’t what created the weight loss, it was the change in behavior and the systems you had to set up around the goal that allowed you to manage your environment in such as way to lose 10lbs. The achievement was one brief moment in time. Now what? If the motivation to continue with your weight loss journey wains and you go back to all your old behaviors, not only does the weight come back, you likely add an additional 5lbs for good measure. Why? Because it’s more about who one has to become to be somebody who can lose weight and keep it off than it is about setting a temporary goal to lose weight. 

James Clear uses the example of setting a goal to clean your room. You reach your goal in a couple hours, but it’s momentary because you haven’t changed any of your messy room habits. Goal setting is BS, unless you begin to understand the importance of figuring out what behaviors need to be changed or developed, and then what systems need to be put in place to help maintain that path. The achievement of any goal will always be momentary. The development of habits, systems, and processes can change things forever. With both the weight loss and room cleaning examples, we believed that we needed to change our results, but it’s really our habits, systems, and processes that need to change. As Clear says often, when we solve issues at the results level, we solve them only temporarily. When we solve problems at the systems level, the habits level, the processes that lead to our results level, we solve them forever, or at least until we abandon the system or new habit. 

Reason three goal setting is BS: Goal setting is a happiness killer! Well, what the author says is that traditional goal setting restricts one’s happiness, and here’s why. When we set goals, we tend to then think, even if only subconsciously, that once we reach that goal, we’ll be happy. In essence, we tend to continuously push happiness and pleasure out into the future in pursuit of the goal or next milestone. Happiness then becomes something for your future self to enjoy, but only after achieving the goal. There’s another subconscious belief that once we reach the goal we can finally relax. We knock those 10lbs off and then we can coast a bit and take it easy. This future happiness dilemma creates an either-or situation where either we reach the goal and experience momentary happiness, or we fail to reach the goal and push happiness further out into the future. 

Something you’ll hear over and over from me, from James Clear, and from anybody familiar with the continuous improvement mindset: 1. You’ve got to fall in love with the process, not the goal, and 2. It never ends. Continuous improvement, by definition of the word ‘continuous’, never ends. If you fall in love with the process of changing habits, changing things at the systems level, and creating systems and processes that support new behaviors, the improvement never ends. You use goals to set direction, but then you have to fall in love with the process of adaptation and change. 

The fourth reason goal setting is BS is that, quite often, goals are at odds with long term progress. We talked in the second reason goal setting is BS about it being momentary and goal setting sets us up to achieve something, experience momentary pleasure and happiness, and then lose motivation to continue on that path. The way James Clear tends to explain this point, which I love, is that we set goals to win the game, but the purpose of systems is to continue playing the game. The game can refer to anything. Goals are good for setting direction, systems are what allow us to continuously play the game, whatever that might be, long into the future. 

The reference to a game is important because everybody has played a game at some point in their life. Doesn’t matter if it was Candyland or Monopoly, or some kind of sport, the game has rules, and every game ends at some point. There are winners and losers, there are emotions for both sides, and in the end it’s all over. We set goals to win the game, but we create systems so that we can continue playing the game forever. When you get to keep playing the game, you get to take in all the information that’s being fed to you. You take that information and apply small changes where needed to continuously improve the system. 

With traditional goal setting, once we reach a particular goal, the game is over. You’ve done it! You reached your goal, you delayed gratification and pleasure, you celebrate for a minute and then it’s back to the drawing board. I know, I know, some of you are really solid goal setters and you just move on to the next goal and keep going. However, most people aren’t built that way. They set a goal, maybe they reach it and maybe they don’t. But then they amble on for some period of time goalless because the goal didn’t lead to any kind of long-term progress. The only thing that can lead to long term progress is the system you build, the person you become, and the underlying issues you have to address on your way to a goal. 

The goal is good for setting direction, the systems needed to get you there are what is more important. If you don’t fall in love with the process instead of the goal, the goal may actually have detrimental side effects. Side effects like a lack of motivation, a loss of inspiration, the shame and guilt sometimes associated with not reaching your goals, and the false belief that you’re just not cut out for this, whatever this is. Wrong! You are cut out for this; you’ve just been told lies about goal setting and its real purpose. Its real purpose is to help you set the direction you’d like to head in. Goal setting is just the first step, friends! You’ve been thinking all this time that the goal was the thing, it’s not! The goal is your finger pointing off in some direction, that’s it! The real work begins on steps two and three, where step two is asking the question: who do I need to become to reach that goal, and step three is asking what do I need to do daily, weekly, monthly to head in the direction the goal is taking me? 

Goal setting is direction setting. Systems creation is the real work and the work most people are missing. They wake up one day and say, “I want to run the Boston Marathon!” They set that as the goal. They used to run back in high school, they used to be in better shape, they’re feeling a little lost, so they think setting a big, hairy, audacious goal is the thing to get them out of their funk. You can guess what happens. They never get past the first few runs around the block. They abandon their goal and say, ‘well, maybe that was a bit much, how about I take up mountain biking’. They buy a mountain bike, go three times and now it sits in the garage gathering dust. What people typically fail to do after thinking up a goal is ask, ‘who would I have to become to run the Boston Marathon?’ ‘What does somebody who runs marathons think about daily? What is their routine? What is their motivation? What do they eat? And what it would it do to my life if I just started adopting some of those thoughts and habits regardless of whether or not I ever run a marathon?’

When you go to step two of the process, the real work begins, but so does the real transformation! You have to become something before you can experience something. You have to become a runner before you can think of running the Boston Marathon. You have to become somebody who shares similar habits of other people who run the Boston marathon. You have to develop similar thoughts of those kinds of people. And so what if you never actually run the Boston marathon? If you became somebody who did the same things as those people, would you not also have reached one of your unspoken goals to get in better shape, get some of that inspiration back, get back to your high school weight or physical fitness? 

The goal is the direction we want to head off in, but it’s the systems we MUST develop around any particular goal that really matters the most. Goal setting is complete BS when the most important parts are not addressed. The most important parts are the systems, the processes, and the habits required to address the underlying issue that lead to choosing a goal in the first place. Is a clean room something that will bring you happiness? Maybe it is, but if the underlying habits that lead to a messy room every week are not addressed, the goal of a clean room is temporary, it restricts happiness, it delays real progress, and it allows for only momentary happiness. Create a system that allows the room to remain clean at all times and now you have real progress. 

Until next week, my friends, I’m out…

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