A Different Approach to Goals

What keeps us from achieving our goals? The usual advice seems to fall short on how to make the process truly successful and sustainable. So maybe it is time to approach the whole idea differently.

A Different Approach to Goals

Do you ever feel like you're not making meaningful progress in your life? Maybe you have a bunch of goals and dreams but don't know where to start or quickly lose momentum once other things get in the way. Or you don't know what you would like to do in the future, only that something needs to change.

I've certainly felt one way or the other in my life before. And the more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed. If we have a clear vision of what we want to achieve in our lives, why is it so hard to move forward? Especially if we're fortunate enough to not having to worry about socio-economic constraints holding us back. So why do we procrastinate on working towards our dreams and why is it so difficult to keep going once we do? How can we make it all feel less like a chore and more like a habit we enjoy?

Why frameworks aren't the solution

It's easy to view all of the above mentioned questions as productivity issues and turn towards a variety of goal setting frameworks and workflows to solve the problem. If we only set our goals the right way, became more organized or prioritize correctly using techniques like SMART goals, OKRs, GTD or the Eisenhower matrix, we'd surely achieve our dream lives in no time.

As someone that has tried many of these methods over the years, I can tell you that most of them require a lot of effort to maintain and using them doesn't automatically mean that you will succeed long term. As life and work present us with new challenges, more aspirational goals - like learning new skills, starting a business or doing creative work - tend to quickly fall off the wagon. That doesn't mean that frameworks don't provide any value - quite the opposite. But it became clear to me that they can easily become a distraction, something to keep us busy so that we don't have to concern ourselves with a deeper form of self-examination.

This is why my focus shifted away from frameworks and towards creating an environment in which setting and achieving goals becomes easier and more motivating and sustainable. To do this, we need to look at how we approach the whole idea of life goals and what should happen before and after setting them.

PART I - Identify your obstacles

Let's assume you're both an aspiring writer and a hopeless perfectionist. Which means you'd love to write but just can't bring yourself to publish before you feel a piece is perfect. And because nothing is ever truly perfect, you never do. How do you overcome this seemingly unsolvable problem?

In his book "Already Free" Bruce Tift explains that it is natural for humans to develop certain strategies that protect us from having to feel emotions that seem too intense to us. We subconsciously try to distract ourselves from our true vulnerabilites by putting coping mechanisms in place that keep us busy with something else. In the example above the core of your problem might not be the quality of your work — but the fear of being judged negatively by others! Perfectionism might just be a story you tell yourself to justify delaying the publishing — and subsequent judgement — of your work.

Or as Epictetus put it: "Take a lyre player: he's relaxed when he performs alone, but put him in front of an audience, and it's a different story, no matter how well he plays the instrument. Why? Because he not only wants to perform well, he wants to be well received and the latter lies outside his control."

There are three important lessons here:

  • You need to identify and investigate your obstacles in order to overcome them. Introspection is a great way to do this.
  • Every feeling of resistance ("I'd rather check my phone than start working" or "I can't publish because it's not perfect yet) is an indicator that you're trying to avoid unpleasant feelings and it would be good to investigate the true reasons for this.
  • You need to stop worrying about the parts that are outside of your control (how your work will be received) and focus on what you can control (practicing your craft consistently).

How to facilitate introspection

There are many ways of self-examination, and you should chose the one that suits you best. It could be journaling, conversations with friends, family or a therapist, and/or meditation.

One of my favorite methods of introspection is journaling using the 5 Why's. This is a technique where you make a statement that you would like to explore (e.g. "I am scared of performing in front of people") and ask yourself "Why?". Then you answer the question and again ask yourself "Why" on the answer. You repeat this process until you have completed (at least) 5 Why's. You will probably surprise  yourself while doing the exercise.

If you acknowledge your obstacles, the next time you're confronted with them you can say to yourself "Ok, this is my resistance holding me back again. It's ok to feel this way but my goal is really important to me so I will work through it to keep going." No goal setting framework will save you from investigating what is truly holding you back.

PART II - Clarify Your Values

Oftentimes our goals depend on general society's ideas of what success looks like. You might think that a corporate management career is the ultimate goal, but once you start managing people you realize it's not for you. Maybe you don't enjoy putting in long hours or dread being responsible for other people. Suddenly you feel stuck in the career path you've chosen and can't seem to make progress. What to do? Double-down and push through, hoping it's just a temporary rut?

I don't think so. As Oliver Burkeman points out, the average person has about 4000 weeks to live. Considering how quickly a work week goes by - that doesn't sound like all that much, right? This is not meant to sound morbid or make you despair, but to remind us that our time here on earth is limited and we should focus on what’s really important to us instead of following someone else's idea of what a good life means.

"You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire." - Seneca in "On the shortness of life"

Overcoming shiny new object syndrome

Finding your own path is made even more difficult by the many options we have in todays world. Choosing just one or two of them might feel like giving up on everything else and limiting our opportunities. David Perell describes this phenomenon as commitment phobia: it prohibits us from doing meaningful things - even if they're few! - by not wanting to commit to anything. It means ending a relationship after the first argument or giving up on learning a new skill once it becomes challenging.

And don't get me wrong: I'm not saying you should stick with everything you do, even if it doesn't work for you anymore. But to live a purposeful life there is no way around clarifying what is truly  important to you, being ready to commit and focusing your time and effort on those things, even when they get difficult.

Focus on what matters most to you

Research shows that people are more likely to achieve their goals when they are authentic to their true self instead of society’s expectations. Psychologists call this “goal authenticity” and it is the reason why I like to start my goal setting with looking at my values. What is important to me in life? Who is the person I want to become and what would they value? How do I want to live my life and spend my days?

Here are some suggestions on gaining clarity about your values:

  • Identify your core values by using this list provided by James Clear. Choose 10 values from the list and write them on a piece of paper. Compare the first value to the second. Which one do you value more? Put a mark next to it. Then compare the first to the third entry on your list and repeat the process until you have compared each entry with all of the others. The three values with the most marks next to them are your top values!
  • Do the funeral exercise. In Stephen Covey's book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" he describes the "funeral exercise" as a way for you to clarify what type of person you really want to be. In short, it is about imagining your own funeral and what you would want people to remember and say about you as a guide to what you should focus on today. Note your impressions.

Take your time doing these exercises - they're the basis for everything else. But also don't try to make them "perfect" because you can (and should) revisit them regularly.

Match your goals to your values

Once you have your values set, I'd suggest to:

  • Write down your current goals and see if they align with your values. Be realistic and cut out those that don't fit.
  • Start adding new goals if some of your values are not represented yet or none of the old goals fit anymore.

This is the part where goal setting frameworks can come in handy. But in order not to let them become a disctration from doing the real work, for now I'd recommend to just make sure your goals are achievable (becoming a billionaire within a year doesn't fall into that category), within your circle of influence (controlling the weather or becoming famous are not) and visible (don't hide them in a drawer or a file, print and pin them somewhere so you can see them daily).

PART III - Build systems and habits

When trying to make achieving your goals sustainable it is key to focus on the process instead of the outcomes. If you plan to lose weight or get 10.000 followers on social media you will probably focus too much on the numbers and get easily discouraged if they don't match your expectations.

But if you reframe your goals around what it takes to get to your desired outcomes,  you can focus more on the process and enjoy the little daily tasks that move you closer to your dreams instead of obsessing over numbers and things that you can’t control.

Examples for such a process-oriented reframing:

  • lose 5 pounds ➜ have a healthy lifestyle
  • get 10k followers ➜ build an engaged audience
  • grow a business to 5k MRR ➜ improve product & marketing

A five step approach

Another problem we often face in the goal setting process is that we stop at the point of setting the goals and let them collect dust afterwards. After we've set our goals our work is not done - it begins! The secret is to create systems and habits that make it easier to work towards our goals continuously. Look at your goal and derive habits that you can weave into your daily schedule.

Here is the systematic approach that has worked for me:

  • Break down your goals into smaller, actionable steps. If you're having trouble with this, ask yourself: what is the one little thing I could do next to get one step closer to my goal? Using the previous examples the complete process could look like this:

    Original goal Reframed Goal Actions
    Lose 5 pounds Have a healthy lifestyle Look up healthy recipes
    Create a meal plan (weekly)
    Buy groceries (weekly)
    Cook fresh (daily)

    Remember: one small step in the right direction is always better than zero giant leaps.

  • Block time to work on your tasks. Pick a daily time slot in your calendar to do the work. Be as specific as possible when you plan this, think about when and where you will sit down to do the work and prepare your environment accordingly. Treat it like an important work meeting with a client or your boss. You wouldn't just skip that or be late.
  • Set a timer and start working. What helps you focus? For me it's putting on noise cancelling headphones, listening to calming sounds and setting a timer for 25 minutes. No excuses and no distractions until the timer runs out. This is called the Pomodoro technique. After you've gotten used to this way of working, you can add a 5 minute break and another 25 minute work session. But to overcome initial resistance and procrastination, scheduling only 25 minutes for working towards your goal per day can really help you get going.
  • Be consistent. We're all human and life happens. You might not be able to make it to one of your sessions for one reason or another. That's ok, don't beat yourself up about it. But if you missed one session, just be sure to never make it two in a row. Otherwise the more time you leave between sessions, the harder it will be to get back to it.
  • Forget about what other people might think. The goal here is to reach your goals and work towards something that is meaningful to you. Life satisfaction comes down to feeling that you're doing something meaningful and worthwhile. And this is independent from what other people think about it!

Some closing thoughts

I truly believe that it is important not to be too hard on yourself throughout the whole process. By beating yourself up about a missed target or unfulfilled expectations you're only adding to the pool of negative emotions that are already holding you back. Setting and working towards your life goals should be an enjoyable process that provides purpose and meaning, not a dreadful experience. Treat yourself like you would treat a close friend - with kindness, understanding, patience and encouragement.