Setting goals is largely overrated

Takeaway: Traditional goals are kind of overrated: they don’t have a natural end point, and sometimes not much even changes when we accomplish them. It’s far more productive to focus on projects and habits. 

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes, 18s.

Setting goals is largely overrated
I’ve been thinking a lot about goals lately. This post is the first of three in a short series sharing a few disparate ideas I have about them.

I’ve never set goals for myself. This surprises some people, considering I research and write about productivity for a living. I’ve had insecurity about this strategy (or lack thereof) in the past: would I accomplish more if I actually set goals? Should I be setting targets for my business—revenue metrics to hit, number of books to sell, or something else? No matter how many goals I’ve tried on for size, though, none fit quite right. 

I was recently chatting with a group of friends who have experienced traditional success in their own careers. What they said about this topic surprised me: none of them set goals, either! 

This validated an idea I’ve been thinking about for a while: that traditional, metric-based goals are overrated. Not only that, but these goals are, when you think about it, a somewhat odd concept. 

Traditional goals typically center around a certain metric:  

  • Lose 20 pounds; 
  • Grow podcast listeners by 25% a month; 
  • Earn more than $100,000 a year; 
  • Grow newsletter to 100,000 subscribers; 
  • Save 40% of annual income for retirement. 

We set goals because we want our actions to matter and because we have an innate desire to work towards something. Goals become the magnet we align our actions toward. But the problem with metric-based goals is obvious: metrics aren’t a stopping point, they’re a line in the sand. After we lose 20 pounds, we can lose 10 more. Once we make partner at our company and our salary tops $100,000, we can strive further still. Often, not much changes once we hit the metrics we set for ourselves. 

Goals should be an end-point, a wrap-up. But traditional goals usually are not: we keep going well beyond our original point of achievement. 

This is why I’ve come to believe that it’s instead worth focusing on projects and habits. 

  • Projects allow you to focus on making something great. A completed project is the culmination of many milestones, the final accomplishment at the end of your task list. Wrapping up a project offers a natural end-point: once you’ve shipped it into the world, you can move onto the next one. A project isn’t a metric—it’s something concrete that you deliver. Once it’s done, you can move to the next one. 
  • Habits focus on process. It’s this process that leads you to the metrics you want to attain. Getting into a habit of not ordering takeout will help with weight loss; creating consistently great content will help grow a podcast or a mailing list; and creating focus rituals can help you earn more money and lead a more balanced life. 

Framing what I do as projects and habits instead of goals has helped me immensely. Projects have a natural end-point; habits are something you’ll keep doing. Both cut to the heart of what creates success: creating strong rituals that lead you to do meaningful work. 

I’ve recently found this playing out in my attempt to lose weight. For the longest time, my loose aim had been to get my weight down to 170 pounds. The problem with this, of course, is that it’s a metric, and not a natural end-point—the work doesn’t stop once I hit my target weight. Habits are a far better and more productive focus.  

Specifically, three habits have made a difference: 

  1. To not focus on what I eat—focus on why I eat. To not eat out of boredom, an escape, or for entertainment—eat when I’m hungry and when my body desires food. Food should serve me
  1. To feel hungry once a day, and wait for my body to ask for food. 
  1. Don’t snack past 8 p.m.—except on two nights a week, when I want to indulge. 

I’ve found something remarkable while developing these three habits. The more I focus on them and the less I fixate only on my weight-loss goal, the closer I get to reaching my original target.  

I’ve found that something similar holds true for projects. A key focus of my work has always been having enough projects on my plate at once—work that engages and motivates me to make a concrete deliverable that helps my readers, listeners, and speaking clients. Ensuring a steady flow of engaging projects means I’m always working on something meaningful; something that moves my work forward and ultimately creates more success for me and anyone who consumes my work. 

Goals are often too specific a target to aim for. I’m against five-year plans for a similar reason: if you know exactly where you’ll be in five years, you’re probably either playing things too safe, or not accounting for all of the risk in your career or life. 

Instead of aiming for a metric, focus on what will get you to the metric. Usually this means completing projects and developing habits that serve you. 

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