“It’s never enough!” It happened to me repeatedly: I set a goal, achieve it, and reach the outcome, but have no satisfaction or meaning. That’s what I realized once I achieved the desired goal.
So the next step every time was to start and search for the next big goal. It happened to me several times, particularly after finishing my residency program in medicine. If hitting the goal and achieving it was something I desired so much, why did nothing change? Why didn’t I feel better?
With frustration in the air every time, I started to realize that goals are not what you should search for and that:
Achieving your goals doesn’t bring much satisfaction or happiness.
Now let’s understand why.
Setting goals and hitting them is a trap. You set the goal and spend your time pursuing it, being stressed about achieving it as soon as possible. That’s a good strategy in competitions, maybe in sports. And it’s a good strategy if you see everything as a competition, are locked on your goal, and are not interested in looking around. That mindset serves as a survival mood for high achievers, but it ignores the complex picture beyond goals.
Is it a good strategy in real life? In the life of ordinary people like you and me?
Traditional goal setting is focused on choosing a SMART goal. (SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound). Set goals for your grades at medical school, your monthly income, the weight you want to achieve, and the distance you will run. Then go and pursue these goals.
Many of us set goals, but I think it’s better to ask yourself two questions:
The first and most critical one is, do you hit your goals all the time? Are the results of your doing had anything with the goals you set? If you answer sincerely, then probably your answer was NO. Instead, what defines your results are your daily habits, consistency at work, and the systems you use.
The second one: What happens if you don’t hit your goals? And what happens if you do?
Problems With Goals
In Atomic Habits, James Clear explains the problems with setting goals. Briefly, here are four issues you might encounter:
Winners and losers have the same goals. Both teams in a basketball game are there to win. Every boxer in a rumble shows up to knock out the opponent. But only one side wins and becomes a winner. So the difference is not about setting ambitious goals.
Achieving a goal is a momentary change. Reaching a goal changes your life only for a moment; it’s not a significant long last change. What makes a big change in your life is a change in your identity, habits, and behaviors.
Goals can restrict your happiness. If you assume that you will be happy once you achieve a specific goal, that’s a decision to stay unhappy until you reach it. Happiness is a state of mind that you decide to be in, and mostly happiness doesn’t rely on external things. Once you tie happiness to goal achievement, you create a place for unhappiness.
Goals create an “either-or” conflict. Another problem with goals that might make you unhappy is this conflict: either you achieve the goal and be happy, successful, and loved, or you don’t and become unhappy, failure, and disappointed.
Furthermore, here are some other problems I learned in my life:
Goals don’t take into account unexpected events. You can be perfect with goals set, but humans are not robots. If you select a goal, and even with the ideal, most accurate, and time-bound criteria, you are on your side; sometimes, surprises can come up during life. Being fully locked on achieving your goals will create anxiety when something unexpected happens. Then you call it a black swan, which is genuinely not.
We tend to underestimate the time frame. Just ask yourself how many times you expected a task would take you half an hour, and it took more than 2 hours. We tend to underestimate the time we need to achieve a specific goal, so we continue working on it more time, and it seems far. Some people can give up in the middle or get frustrated.
Clear and others suggest focusing on building systems and following them over time. So if your goal is to lose 4 Kg, your system is how to eat healthy, which food to buy, and exercise.
Why Set Goals?
If all of these are problems with our goals, why bother doing so? And even more than that: If you don’t set your goals, what exactly should you pursue?
Back to my story above, I had all the problems with a specific goal: completing a medical residency and becoming a senior physician was a momentary change; it restricted my happiness level. Once nothing changed, I was disappointed.
Setting goals are not a complete waste of time. And I can’t entirely agree with the systems thinking mantra. Excellent people, successful ones, and those who change the world have big dreams and big goals to achieve, and they can spend their lives pursuing one goal.
But you don’t need to create a dichotomy between goals and systems. Goals are unlikely to be reached without an excellent system to help you. On the other hand, there is no sense in creating a system without a good goal.
Therefore, goals are great for setting direction, defining the results you want to achieve, and aiming to the next level. But to achieve the goal without becoming frustrated while enjoying and avoiding sadness and resentment, you better-set systems to enjoy the journey.
Additionally, small and short-term goals are relatively easy to achieve, so you can set them every time and hit them. But big goals, those that require hard work, consistency, and patience, you should choose them carefully while being aware of all the opposing sides and focusing on the systems that will help you achieve them.
How to Set Better Goals
To avoid the downsides and frustration, I suggest you consider the following when you set goals.
Choose Goals Carefully
The first step is to choose the goals carefully. Remember that you want to lower frustration by increasing the chances of achieving your goals. Too many goals equal low achievement rates. Therefore, focus on a low number of goals for every period.
Big Goals For Direction, Systems for Execution
Set big goals to direct yourself: What do you want to achieve? Goals are there to help you understand in which direction you should move.
- If your goal is to lose 5 Kg, you should focus on becoming a healthy person, build good eating habits over time, exercise multiple days a week, and avoid buying junk food frequently. Then you better use systems to do so. For example:
- If the goal is to build wealth, focus on learning to invest, saving money each month, and avoiding losing money.
- If the goal is to publish 100 articles in one year, focus on building a writing habit, editing, and avoiding redundancy.
Always Add Extra Time
As you don’t know how much time it will take you to achieve your goals, you should take extra time while planning. You can be energetic and enthusiastic while setting your goals but lose energy during the performance and get stuck with a specific task or other obligations.
Of course, unexpected events should always be part of your time calculation. These include obstacles outside of your sight, events related to other people, and things out of your control.
Add extra time to your goals; not every plan works in the end.
Aiming Higher is Human Nature, Focus on the Journey
It probably happened to everyone. Once you achieve a specific goal, you forget it and start looking for the next one. That’s human nature. So you shouldn’t get frustrated that you don’t feel much better or you lack the feeling of conquering the world.
Instead, try to focus on the journey and observe what you did over the last months or years so you got to this point.
Achieving Your Goals is Not Equal to Satisfaction or Happiness
Happiness and satisfaction are internal rather than external. Don’t rely on your goals to reach satisfaction or happiness, but rather focus on building stable good inner self and great relationships.
“If you are happy with your share, have no desires, present in every moment, then you are happy.” – Naval Ravikant.
Focus on What You Become, Not What You Achieve
While trying to achieve your goals, you develop skills, change your behaviors, and connect with others. Every interaction changes you a little bit, and finally, when you hit the goal, there is a new person.
To set goals right, you need to understand that it’s about what you become, not what you accomplish.
There is no sense in setting a goal of losing 4Kg instead of becoming a healthy person. Then, your route to re-gain these kilograms is short enough. Alternatively, select the goal of becoming a healthy person.
Back to my story, I realized later that finishing a medical residency is about becoming a skilled physician, gaining dependence on work, having good judgment, and learning to take care of patients. It wasn’t about the title of a specialist in internal medicine but rather about who I became.
Goals can be a trap of frustration and resentment when you don’t do them well. As you notice, I didn’t focus on any technical side or how to set goals technically. You can learn elsewhere with other people who dedicate their work to this site. Alternatively, I focus on the lessons learned from my experience to help you facilitate your goal setting.