Goals Alone Are Useless

The Case Against Goals

So, what do you want? A 3-minute Fran? 10% body fat? An extra $5,000 in your savings? 

Go ahead, have a think. Write down a goal. And if you want to be super sure that it's a great goal, do what all the business gurus suggest and make it SMART:

  • Specific 
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-Constrained

Okay, now consider how you feel. More confident? Better about yourself? Clearer in mind?

This is why goals are useless. You get a reward for having done nothing. 

The problem with goals is not the goal itself. Ask anybody who's won Olympic gold or completed a medical degree whether or not goals are important, and you're bound to hear all about the value of setting goals. 

But bear in mind that there may be some survivor bias at play. Consider all those who have set the same goals, but haven't achieved them. 

If all you need is a clear vision of the future in order to achieve it, why are so many people obese? These are people who know exactly what they could look like - images of beautiful people are beamed into our brains every day - so why is over half our population overweight or obese?

The problem arises when setting a goal is mistaken for taking meaningful action; when we focus on the destination instead of the journey.

Want the Goal? Focus on the Habit.

To be clear, goals can be a useful part of the system we call living. But on their own, they're just wishes. Here's how they stack up against habits:

Goals have a fixed endpoint. We must keep in mind that achieving our goals does not bring us lasting happiness. Rather, we achieve the goal, feel happy for a while, then we get used to that happiness, and then we need to set another goal to keep the cycle going.

Habits can last your entire life. Solid habits pay dividends for ages. Looking after our teeth lets us keep and enjoy them for a really long time. Good sleep habits help us enjoy more of every day. Teaching our children healthy habits helps them lead satisfying lives and brings happiness to their parents and teachers.

Goals focus on a single outcome. Indoor rowing is an unforgiving sport. I spent six months in 2014 focused on a 2,000m time below 6 minutes and 30 seconds: a 25 second improvement. On the day of the race where I was to achieve my big goal, I couldn't hold the pace and the Concept 2 rower was not merciful. I finished in 6:34.1.

Despite an improvement of over 20 seconds in six months, I wasn't happy with becoming so much fitter and faster. In fact, I was so disappointed that I threw out all the medals I won during the meet except for that 2,000m medal, which I kept for two years until I finally broke that 6:30 threshold. Once I achieved my goal, I gave up the sport.

Habits create a range of possibilities. What would have happened if, instead of focusing on the goal, I focused on the other great things that were happening because of my training habits? During that time, I got healthier, made great friends in the indoor rowing community, got others involved in the sport, and built a reputation within my gym for being "the rowing guy". 

What if I'd just shown up, worked hard, and enjoyed all the neat side effects of putting in quality time and effort? Chances are that I would still be competing, and enjoying every personal best, no matter how slim the margin.

Goals rely on external factors. Luck makes a difference. If you're trying to save money and your car breaks down, that's going to set you back a month. If you're trying to improve your one-mile running time and you sprain your ankle on a hiking weekend, you're going to have to switch up your plans.

A lot has to go your way if you want to achieve a goal.

Habits are completely within your control. Car breaks down? Tap into the savings, use the money, keep putting the same amount aside each pay cycle. The habit hasn't changed.

Sprain your ankle hiking? Looks like you have to switch up your workout, work on your core strength and get in some pull-ups and push-ups. Lucky you've built a habit of working out three times a week. 

Once you've set a habit, you can keep following it. The goal may need to shift a bit, but the habit stays the same, and the results keep on coming.

Goals rely on willpower and discipline. Want to lose 10kg? You'd better have the willpower to resist that extra slice of cake. Want to quit smoking? Enjoy suffering through those withdrawals and still having the discipline to do your job well.

Habits create willpower and discipline. Once you automate behaviour, two things happen that helps you improve your life. Firstly, you prove to yourself that you can do it, which positively reinforces future attempts at improvement. Secondly, it's easier to repeat a habit than to take up a new course of action, so setting virtuous habits frees up willpower for other tasks!

Goals are what you want and why you want it. Goals are important in that they give direction and purpose to your life. 

Habits are how you get what you want. Direction and purpose are not the same as achievement. Achievement comes from consistent action over time, and that's what habits are all about.


Next Steps

Take 10 minutes to look at the goal you set at the beginning of this article, and ask yourself:

  • What actions can I take to make this happen?
    • Come up with a list of at least six things.
    • They don't all have to be mind-blowing ideas; anything is better than nothing.
  • Which of those actions do I need to repeat every week or day to be effective?
    • Of the repeatable actions, which one action will have the most positive side effects?

If you can answer these questions, you will have a habit you can set which will help you achieve your future goals while giving you present rewards. Now go and practise it!

Finally, I have good news: September is Habit Month at The 11th Skill! This month, you will learn:

  • Root habits: healthy habits that sprout other healthy habits
  • If/Then habits: healthy habits with built-in contingency plans
  • Mindful habits: how to break unhealthy habits with mindfulness

Habits are also shaped by the company you keep, so share this article with your friends and spread that positive change through your community.