Is the Way You Set Your Goals Stopping You from Achieving Them?

Setting goals is easy. Achieving them is the hard part. What if the best way to get there is to let go of the goal altogether?

We recently came across an interesting take on the topic of goal setting, from an entrepreneur and keen student of human behaviour and motivations named James Clear. This wasn’t the typical list of 10 ways to achieve every goal you set, or 6 ways, or 5, 4 or even 2. Rather, it was one solitary tip, a simple if counter-intuitive shift in mindset that can be adopted by just about anyone to reach almost any goal.

The basic idea is that once you’ve come up with your goal, you should more or less put it from your mind and pour all of your energies into the system or process that will get you there.

In other words: Set goal. Jettison goal. Achieve goal.

That might sound <insert your own dismissive adjective here> but the closer you look, the more sense this makes.

Motivationally, goals are tricky things. They can overwhelm as much as they inspire; their massive presence on the horizon casting a long shadow over the path to achieving them.

Very often, fixating on the goal itself makes it seem even further away, even more unattainable. Likewise, it’s all too easy to get stuck in a confidence-sapping loop of comparing our current situation to the dazzling dream on top of our far-off golden pedestal.

As James puts it:

“When you’re working toward a goal, you’re essentially saying, ‘I’m not good enough yet… but I will be when I reach my goal.’ ”

So, James’s argument goes, what if you completely ignored your goals and the creeping doubts and insecurities surrounding their attainment?

What if you instead focused only on your systems – the processes, practices and routines that actually get you to where you want to be?

What if you stopped worrying about being on the Board in five years and put all your energies into achieving more this month, learning new skills this quarter, managing more effectively this year?

What if you stopped focusing on the marathon you’re running in six months’ time and concentrated purely on this week’s training schedule, then next week’s and so on?

Would you still get the results you desire? For James, you get them and plenty more besides e.g.:

  • The pleasure of enjoying the present moment of your process as well as improving towards your end goal.
  • Freedom from being enslaved by a distant and unknowable future.
  • Absence of guilt at ‘failing’ to reach arbitrary milestone steps along the way.

Here’s the full story in James’s original article. In the well-ploughed furrow of motivational thinking, we see his ideas as fertile ground for inspiration. (It certainly beats reading the latest thought piece on the enduring merits of SMART goals.)

Undoubtedly, this isn’t the approach for everyone or every goal. But we’re very much taken by the idea that goals are about the journey as much as the destination. With so much uncertainty and turmoil in modern lives, trusting your process seems a good place to start.

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