Just Say No To Goals

People are obsessed with goals. You could fill a large library with books describing how to create and accomplish goals. But they don’t seem to be effective:

Even the highly-touted SMART goals can be stupid.

So, what’s the problem with goals?

Goals have a specific ending time. Once you accomplish a goal, it’s no longer there to motivate you and you might fall back to your previous behavior. If you set a goal to run a marathon, you likely will train hard until the day of the race. If you finish the marathon, you may not keep training afterwards. After accomplishing one goal, you’re forced to create another.

Goals rely on uncontrollable factors. While goals may seem achievable when they are set, circumstances change over time and Murphy’s Law strikes without warning. An injury might interrupt your marathon training, or an unexpected expense might keep you from reaching a financial goal.

Goals focus on the future instead of the current. A goal can seem unattainable, especially when it is in the distant future. When you compare where you are against where you want to be, you might get demotivated. If you want to save $5000 in a year, you probably will be discouraged if you’ve only saved $500 after 3 months. One recommendation is to set multiple targets along the way.

In The Power of Habit, New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg argues that habits are more powerful and more reliable than goals. Habits make difficult tasks easier to accomplish by converting them from conscious decisions to background, almost automatic, processes. Here are two examples:

  • The challenge of saving $5000 forces you to exert self-discipline every time you want to purchase something. These daily challenges add up and can wear down your resolve over time. An alternative approach would be automatically deposit $200 into a savings account every pay period. Once set up, there is no effort and it becomes a habit – one that extends beyond the initial $5000.
  • Many years ago, I decided to read more books. One benefit would be more ideas for this blog. Rather than setting a goal of reading 25 books per year or even two books per month, I decided to make sure I always have books around me. I kept a pile on both my home and work desks, and always brought one with me on trips. Pretty soon it became a habit to read on planes.

Duhigg generalizes the benefits as follows:

  • Habits are easier to complete than goals since they are smaller and repetitive.
  • Habits allow us to overshoot our goals rather than focusing on a fixed objective.
  • Habits, once established, are perpetual and can last our whole lives.

According to Duhigg, we are truly creatures of habit; habits make up more than 40% of our lives. Some of these – those Duhigg calls keystone habits – have compounding effects on our lives. When people start exercising, they often end up eating better or drinking less alcohol. One good habit creates others. In a similar vein, breaking a bad habit often leads to a good one as a replacement.

So, the next time you want to accomplish something, don’t set yourself a goal. Instead, create a habit.

Even Dilbert agrees.

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2 Responses to Just Say No To Goals

  1. Gaurav Jaiswal April 8, 2018 at 3:18 pm #

    Couldn’t agree more. Creating a virtuous habit is much more difficult than achieving a short-term goal, but once created, it has a much longer lasting impact.

    Always a delight to read your blogs Jonathan 🙂

  2. m1bass August 22, 2018 at 8:48 am #

    Shortly after joining Sun in the 80’s Scott McNealy was addressing the salespeople and someone asked him the standard, obligatory CEO question, “what are your goals for the next 5 years?” Scott just answered “I don’t have any goals. They’re too self-limiting. All I can say is we’re going to be the best damn computer company out there.” I thought to myself “did he just say that?” because I had always thought that, but was afraid to say it thinking it would be career or interview suicide.

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