Forget Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead.

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We live in a very goal-driven society. Almost everything anyone accomplishes is the result of a goal that could have been days, weeks, months, or years in the making.

Everyone has a goal. High School students have the goal of getting into their dream college. College students have the goal of getting a good internship and then getting a good job. 

Everyone has a pretty universal goal of making enough money for them and their families to live comfortably.

Teachers have the goal of imparting knowledge unto their students. Film makers have the goal of making the very best movie. Artists have the goal of selling their art. Chefs have the goal of producing the finest food. You get the idea. Everything comes from a goal. 

Now I am definitely not saying that goal-setting is bad. Everything I have accomplished in my life has been the result of carefully established and pruned goals. Goals are good.

What I am suggesting is a different mentality. The issue with a goal is that it is, by nature, hyper-focused on the end result. This does have a place at times, but can prove to be largely unhelpful.

If you looked into setting systems for yourself, instead of goals, you might see better success. 

What the Heck am I Talking About?

a man looking on a wall full of different papers

It’s okay if you’re a little confused. This whole concept becomes much clearer with examples. If you are a writer and you have the goal of writing a book, you’re goal is the finished product – that #1 New York Times best-selling novel in your hands.

But the system could be a weekly schedule that involves writing four hours a day, three days a week, to complete this goal. Starting to make sense? Here’s another one.

If you decide you want to complete a triathlon, your goal is to cross that finish line. Your system would be establishing a weekly training routine, say 3 hours of cardio a day, 6 days a week for 2 months.

Essentially, the system is your process – the system tells how you will accomplish your goal. Now the system cannot exist without the goal, but, once established, the system is easily the most important part of achieving your goal.

Just to add a real life example here, a few summers ago, I decided I wanted to compete in a triathlon. I had been obsessed with the idea of the triathlon for a while at that point, and decided that this summer, I would do it.

That was the goal. The triathlon. And I achieved it, but I achieved it through the system I implemented. This system involved 3 hours of cross-training cardio every single day for six weeks.

I would swim for an hour, and pull myself from the pool, lace up my Crossfit shoes, and go for an 8 mile run. (I have never eaten more or been in better shape than while I was training for this race).

And I did this all at 5 a.m., because I had work at 8 a.m. Before I started the training, I printed out a schedule which I strictly adhered to. The system accomplishes the goal. 

Goals are not usually a negative thing to be driven by, but they can have their negative aspects. 

Goals are Happiness-Drainers

a man sitting on a rocky coast

One of the greatest psychological issues surrounding goal-setting, is that happiness is perennially put off for a later date when your goals are achieved.

But the problem is that happiness will never be achieved, because with each goal you accomplish, another takes its place.

Now, a part of this is mentality – if you can allow yourself to be happy while working towards your goal, instead of staking your happiness on the outcome of your goal, you’ll be fine.

But if you can’t separate happiness from success, it might be time to look away from the goal for a while. If you ditch the goal, and I mean ditch it – remove it from your head, and instead focus on the day-to-day process, you might see a huge increase in your happiness.

If you make it your goal to accomplish your daily process means you’re accomplishing a goal every day – hello happiness. 

Goals Aren’t Helpful Post-Achievement

runners competing on a running track

It sounds weird to say that goals aren’t very useful in the long term, because they are, by nature.

Let me explain. If you set a goal to run a triathlon, for example, and accomplish it, once your goal is complete, your motivation is exhausted.

I know this plight from experience. I completed that triathlon I mentioned. I had trained the entire summer. The day after the race, I let myself take a day off. That day turned into a week, which doubled, until the summer was over.

If you focus your entire being on accomplishing one thing, you set yourself up for failure way down the line. If you focused instead on the process, the motivation would never run out.

If my goal was a systemic one to do at least 90 minutes of high intensity cardio a day, then by now, perhaps I would’ve run an Iron Man. 

Goals Set Unrealistic Expectations for the Future

a glass ball in a hand

Brace yourself for what I am about to say. We cannot predict the future.

The problem with goals is that they imply that we can. And, if you don’t have your goal accomplished when you said it should be, then the gravity of your own failure weighs down on you.

You don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Or the day after. Or next year. You don’t know what situations will occur that are wholly out of your hands.

But if you stuck to a system instead, you wouldn’t have to worry. Because systems are not time-focused, they’re process-focused. They allow you to accomplish your goals when you are ready to accomplish them.

And not as a big theatrical event, but as an addition to a process that just works really well. 

This doesn’t mean you should ditch goals. Instead, create processes that will allow you to accomplish your goals, and then set goals to carry out this process (or system).

The results of this new approach to goal-setting are great – you’ll be happier, more motivated, and ultimately, more successful. 


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Article by:

Daniel DeMoss

I’m a personal trainer based in Denver (Matrix Gym) and a true fitness nerd. If I’m not training clients or working out at my home gym, I’m probably skiing, cycling or hiking with my dog Rufus.