Musings on Strategic Investigation, Performance Improvement, and Rhetoric

Goals Ain't Strivin'


New militia recruit (suffering from overexertion): “Sir, I will not relent.  When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
Spenser: “You’re going to have a very hard life my friend.”

Mis-use of goals has given them a type A image, which misses the biggest benefits of using them.  As a reformed striver, I can say from experience that goals help us relax, get more with less wasted effort, and increase our control over our destinies from “none” to “some.”  Unfortunately, most goal setters I see are experiencing the opposite.
Picture a goal setter, and we see someone entirely and selfishly focused on achieving some outcome, but at the same time somehow never fully present.  He straps himself onto the metaphysical treadmill and becomes a relentless focused machine, devoid of humanity, and not very cool.  With dedication to a goal, he may win a trophy or make that big deal, but he’s also inadvertently heading for divorce, regret, burn out or some other form of life crisis.  Undaunted, he keeps on striving.
This archetypal person has missed the point of goals entirely.  Goal-setting is a tool to help us focus our attention.  That’s all.  We can use this tool skilfully, or we can use it to create a proper mess.
Just like with a hammer in the hands of a four year old, using the tool clumsily has damaging consequences.  People make countless stress-inducing, performance-impairing mistakes by mis-using goals.  I'm going to talk about three of them: thinking only about outcomes, letting everything else go to the dogs, and driving ourselves into the ground in our dedication to hitting the goal.
Thinking about an attractive desired outcome, like “I want to be able to run a five minute mile,” can be useful.  The goal stimulates my mind to come up with strategies to get there from where I am now.  But if I just obsess about the outcome, eventually I’ll just be using it for two things: minimising distractions and increasing my capacity to work ever harder.  These are genuine advantages of goals, and they may be all we want in some circumstances; but by themselves they aren’t sustainable or that appealing.  If I don’t have my attention on other important things that goals can give me, like learning or skills practice or experiencing something intensely, I’m depriving myself of growth and I'm not putting my attention on the present, where it counts.
The second stress inducer - letting everything else go to the dogs - is also driven by poor wielding of the goal-setting tool.  The corollary of using a goal to focus my attention on something is that I’m not focused on everything else.  So if I obsess constantly about one or two goals, with no time to review and no time off, everything else will likely go to the dogs, and I may not even notice this downward spiral elsewhere until it’s far too late.
The third stress inducer - driving myself into the ground to hit the goal - is, again, just bad practice.  I may be smart enough to want to set short term goals that are only a small stretch above my current capability.  I may even make a plan to ensure I have time to achieve them.  But I’m rarely prescient or lucky enough to predict how hard the goal should be, accounting for all the random things that happen in the world in the meantime.  Most people are optimistic here and set goals that are only achievable in ideal circumstances, then they don’t review them after their plans have been hit by an unpredictable sidewinder.  Because they’re concentrating on the outcome, they don’t realise how they’re suffering, and one of two things results: they utterly exhaust themselves in order to hit their randomly assigned initial goal; or they utterly exhaust themselves and miss the same random goal.  The exhaustion might be worth it if the goal is meaningful enough, but most short term goals are just a good guess at steps towards the long term goal, so we're exhausting ourselves for something to which we've given a random, temporary importance.
We could look at all these problems and say, “What’s the point?”, get all Bohemian, and abandon goals altogether.  If we do that we’ll not only miss out on all the benefits and pleasure of choosing where we put our attention, but two other things will happen.  First, we’ll drift aimlessly.  This sounds relaxing, and it has its place.  But if we drift all the time, like those people we all know who’ve made weed a way of life, we’ll end up with a watered down, unfulfilled version of the reality we sought to experience.  We might settle for being an also-ran with our business, we might lose a little weight, we might learn a few chords on the guitar, but we’ll never get close to what we’ve dreamt about.  And we won’t just drift.  We’ll be buffeted around by other influences, being a responder to other people’s prompts and requests.  If we don’t set our own sales target or decide which new product we’re going to back, then our bank or our clients will do it for us.
The solution to all this is to use goals well.  First, we make long term goals only for very few things, which we really care about and which are different from today.  Second, we make sure that we've got some prompts to make sure everything else important is covered, especially the things we take for granted, even though it seems absurd to attach prompts to remind us about them.  If my focus of attention is on my business’s sales and I don’t have anything to force me to notice my health or my family, then guess what’s going to suffer.  Third, we plan properly, so we're realistic about what it’s going to take to hit the goal, even in less than ideal circumstances.  Fourth, we create our shorter term goals.  With these, we make sure we're focusing on what’s important in the moment and not only on outcomes: learning goals where we need them; experience goals where we're gathering information; quality goals where time is less important; process goals where we've got a process to test or follow.  These are all things that bring our attention onto what's important right in the moment.  Finally, we pull our heads up regularly, sit in our zen garden, pour ourselves a cup of green tea, and see how things are going.  We're in review mode here, not do mode; so we check whether the goals are still relevant, and either adjust the goal so that it’s just challenging enough to be energising, or change it for something more helpful.
The experience will be far from perfect.  We will likely not achieve as much as quickly as we’d planned, some things will be much less achievable or less rewarding than we first thought, and lots of things will come at us that we didn’t expect.  But we will be the ones with our hands on the tiller of our sailboat in the stormy sea, and we will travel a lot further towards our paradise island than drifting in the wind or paddling to go fast.
But goal-setting by itself is not a guaranteed route to success or satisfaction.  Even if we use it skilfully, it is still just a tool to focus our attention.  You can choose if you wish to use goals to drive yourself harder and feel heroic.  Many do.  I’d rather use them to focus my attention to do a good job of what I care about.  To me this means focusing on fewer things, giving those proper time and attention, enjoying using the goals, and being energised rather than daunted by the challenge they provide.  It rarely means striving.

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