People are apparently sick of goal setting—“goals suck” has 13 million hits on Google.
Advisers love to talk about the value of goals and how they make you more productive. But if you’re one of those people who’s already freaking out because you’re not achieving the goals you set for New Year’s, you’ll be happy to learn some experts now say that goals are overstated.
Goals have three inherent problems.
- By setting a goal, you imply that you are inadequate. “When you’re working toward a goal, you are essentially saying, ‘I’m not good enough yet, but I will be when I reach my goal,’” writes author James Clear. “The problem with this mindset is that you’re teaching yourself to always put happiness and success off until the next milestone is achieved. ‘Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy. Once I achieve my goal, then I’ll be successful.’”
- Goals are perpetual. “Consider what happens as soon as you reach the ‘end,’” writes Belle Beth Cooper, co-founder of Hello Code. “You immediately lose the motivation and direction that goal gave you and so to fill that gap you start a new goal and the cycle starts all over.”
- Setting a goal can limit you. “Setting static, formal goals can inhibit creativity and stunt innovation,” writes Flubit co-founder Bertie Stephens. “As your company grows, your skills, experience and access to technology all change. There are so many unknowns in business—particularly for start-ups.” Goals tempt you to ignore these unknowns and continue onward with what you know, but by exploring these unknowns instead you may uncover new solutions and directions for your business that just don’t compute with your goals, he continues.
“I’ve looked back a few times on my goal-setting days and wondered how many opportunities I missed during a goal-setting process and/or how many times I was unable to realize setbacks and adjust accordingly,” agrees coach and writer Darren Beattie. “Setbacks actually that probably would have provided the best learning opportunities too! By nature, goals narrow your focus and take you away from big picture thinking.”
Instead of goal setting, experts advise, work on developing systems, processes, and habits. The difference between systems and goals is that with a goal, you’re focusing on the outcome, while with a system, you’re focusing on the actions you can perform to achieve the outcome, writes entrepreneur Kosio Angelov.
The advantage of systems, process, and habits is that they’re reproducible, and, ideally, automatic, Cooper writes. So there’s less stress, because you’re focusing on what you’re doing each day rather than on whether you’re achieving your goal.
In other words, instead of having the goal of all company documents being electronic, you could set up processes that result in all new documents being electronic, and then spending a few minutes a day scanning and shredding the backlog.
When people set up goals, they usually establish systems to go with them, writes Clear. What he and other experts are suggesting is to skip straight to setting up the system and eliminate the goal part.
“If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still get results?” Clear asks. “If you were a basketball coach and you ignored your goal to win a championship and focused only on what your team does at practice each day, would you still get results? I think you would.”
A system-and-process approach also helps solve the now-what-do-I-do problem when you’ve achieved your goal. “Too many people end up living goal to goal, without a system in place to orient themselves and tie objectives together,” writes Beattie.
An advantage of the system method over the goal method is that every day is successful if you perform your system. “Had I been goal-oriented instead of system-oriented, I imagine I would have given up after the first several failures,” writes Scott Adams, who in addition to writing the comic strip Dilbert also has some interesting things to say about success and failure.
“It would have felt like banging my head against a brick wall. But being systems-oriented, I felt myself growing more capable every day, no matter the fate of the project that I happened to be working on.”
And if you are really one of those goal-oriented people, then your goal could always be to develop new systems, processes, and habits and stick to them.
So for your next goal: Eliminate goals. Or, at least, set up a system to eliminate them.
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