The Un-Importance of Goals: Why Goals Are Overrated

How many times have you tried New Year’s Resolutions, only to revert back to your old habits after a week? Three? Four? Five or more?

Have you experienced setting big goals for yourself, giving it your all for the first 3 days, and then suddenly, as if by magic, losing the drive as if you didn’t even want it in the first place?

You’re not alone.

Certainly, it’s good advice to stop settling for less and set the bar higher for yourself, and I congratulate you for having that mindset.

The conventional method of setting a huge goal bigger than yourself, however, is NOT actually that helpful for people with chronic procrastination.

And it’s not that you LACK dedication, no.

Your goals might be the problem. Let’s talk about why that’s the case.

The Problem With Goals

Setting goals can motivate you to start doing something, but starting a goal does NOT matter if you can’t do what it takes to finish it. Shit will happen. There will be days when you’re feeling low because your results don’t match your expectations. And of course, there will be days where you’ll lose hope because you’re not being rewarded for your actions.

All of these events trigger the urge to procrastinate. Procrastination is also a motivation problem, after all.

In this section, you’ll learn why goals alone don’t really do you any good.

Problem #1. Goals are often ambiguous

Clarity is the enemy of procrastination. Procrastination is the enemy of success.

The enemy of your enemy is your best friend. Therefore, clarity is your BEST friend.

No, seriously. Abstract goals KILL motivation.

In the book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, authors Chip and Dan Heath gave an interesting example of this: If you tell people to “eat healthier”, how many ways could they interpret it? Where do they start? Should they eat veggies and avoid meat? How many servings?

This ambiguity leads to only two things. Either decision paralysis, or procrastination.

Usually, it’s a mix of both. Either way, overwhelm still leads to more procrastination and you can’t actually choose one over the other.

Not knowing what to do next leaves you with great uncertainty and it produces the procrastination-causing fear of failure.

Having plenty of options makes you more likely to second-guess the option you take, and having ambiguity does that really well. 1

When the fear of failure kicks in, it’s more likely to dread a task because we simply don’t have confidence if it will work in the first place. 2

Problem #2. Goals are based on emotion, not action

Whenever we set goals, the mindset is usually to “get a certain result at X deadline.”

And that’s exactly the problem: Result-oriented goals aren’t in your control.

Because shit WILL happen.

  • If you’re trying to lose 20lbs, sometimes, the scale will go up even though you stuck with your diet.
  • If you’re trying to make an extra $1000 a month, there will be low months regardless of your effort.
  • If you’re trying to get better grades in College, there WILL be impractically difficult questions from time to time.

Undoubtedly, all of these scenarios make you feel like you’re losing control over your results.

You’re spending a lot of time and energy, and your results are…going down? I know you’ll feel demotivated as hell, too.

According to self-determination theory 3, the three prime self-motivators are:

  1. Competence. How good you think you are at what you’re doing.
  2. Autonomy. How “in control” you feel with your actions and results.
  3. Relatedness. The sense of belonging.

And, as we’ve just discussed, relying on your results as a source for motivation is sabotaging your autonomy.

There’s a reason why elite athletes “Practice even when they don’t feel like it.”

They’re not focused on the results, but rather on their actions that bring the results.

Problem #3. Rewards are too far

Do you remember that time when you told yourself you’re not going to overeat again but find yourself eating more junk food than ever before?

You know that overeating is making you unhealthy, yet you do overeat.

What’s going on?

It’s well-known in behavioral psychology that we, in fact, have TWO minds inside our brains. 4

The best analogy I’ve found is the “Rider” and the “Elephant” from the book, Switch.

The “Rider” is your logical brain that likes to think rationally and prefers delayed but bigger rewards. When you consciously turn down an invitation to a party (even if you want to) and continue working on your project, that’s the Rider in charge.

The “Elephant”, on the other hand, is the emotional brain who prefers quick rewards and relies on feelings in order to act; simply because it’s lazy. But it’s big and strong compared to the rider.

Related Post: Why We Procrastinate

As you may have realized, the “Elephant” is what dominates when you put off things you should do now rather than later. Even though your Rider wants to pull the Elephant back on track, sometimes, he can’t handle it; the Elephant wins.

Here’s the problem, especially with big goals: The longer your Rider-Elephant journey, the higher the chance your Elephant will get bored and start to look for quick rewards; even at the Rider’s expense.

What we want them to do is go together in one direction.

Goals often don’t make this happen. 

It’s a Rider’s dream to travel far, but it’s not exactly the Elephant’s type of thing.

Problem #4. Goals lead to black-and-white thinking

This, perhaps, is the biggest trap in here.

If you’re trying to reach a certain goal, it’s either “you reach it or you don’t.”

If you fall short, then you fail. But wait…

What happens to the effort you put in when you tried to achieve the goal? 

Surely, they count. But you didn’t count them because of a fixed measure of what’s “successful”.

I find that this black-and-white mentality also makes someone lose his drive over what he’s doing, and leads to the “what-the-hell effect.” 5

The what-the-hell effect happens when you set something for yourself, feel some guilt for not being able to achieve that goal, and then doing something worse, because, “Why not? I failed anyway.”

Set a goal of “Get 90 average in Mathematics” and get a score below 80 as your first exam grade, and then playing video games because “I’m not going to achieve it anyway.” 6

Next thing you know, you procrastinate more than ever before.

But here’s the good news. There is a way out.

And it’s not something you expect.

What You Can Learn From Arnold Swarchzenegger About Goals

In 1966, the 19-year old Arnold Swarchzenegger competed in his first Mr. Olympia, an international bodybuilding competition glorified by all bodybuilders around the world.

Back there, he competed with Chet Yorton from America. Yorton had amazing development that Arnold somehow lacked — he had amazing, diamond-shaped, aesthetic calves.

Arnold was pretty big and aesthetic on the upper body department (especially when you take into consideration he had 19-inch arms as a 19-year old), but he had underwhelming calves compared to the rest of his body. 

For this reason, it was believed that the lack of development in Arnold’s calves was what made him lose to Chet Yorton.7

Of course, Arnold put more attention to developing his calves.

He did not just set a goal of “I want to make my calves bigger,” but rather, he adjusted his training to include hitting calves 6 days a week. 

Reg Park, his idol, instructed him to make his calves strong enough to lift 1,000 lbs. “No way!” Arnold said. It was unbelievable at first, but Arnold took it seriously. 8

He then set out to train his calves SIX days per week—always with full range of motion. He also picked exercises that made sure he could lift heavy, often.

In just one year, he took his measly calves to 21 INCHES. That’s almost as big as an adult’s head! 9

Arnold achieved this goal not by always aiming for “21-inch calves”, but by rather modifying his program that will help him get there in the first place.

Goals can set the direction. The path, however, is made by action.

In other words, your systems (actions and processes you do consistently) are MORE important than your goals.

Systems solve the motivation problem

Toyota doesn’t make flawless Camry’s by “setting a Camry as a goal” and then doing a Corolla-making system.

This should be your approach to reach whatever goal you have.

If your goal is to “get better at Calculus”, then your system should be to “solve and learn 15 different Calculus problems every day.”

If your goal is to “get better at blogging”, then your system should be to “Read for 30 minutes every day” and “Write 500 words” each day.

Set minimum limits to your actions so you become more CONSISTENT with your goals—even when you don’t feel like it.

It’s called minimum viable effort—a concept I use to effortlessly build habits and systems alike.

Once you start using systems, you will:

  • Stop relying on validation through results/opinions to get motivated
  • Avoid being lazy because of what the minimum viable effort does to your decision-making system
  • Love the process and what you’re doing
  • Ensure progress despite fluctuations in motivation

In other words, your Rider can now instantly guide your Elephant because systems are low-effort tasks and don’t rely on a huge motivation bank to get finished. (as compared to goals)

I was first introduced to this idea by best-selling author James Clear, which he got from the book, How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big so the credit goes to them.

As James Clear says,

“You don’t rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” 

You are where you are today because of what you do consistently.

If you’re in great shape, it’s because you eat healthy food every day, or workout regularly. You’re NOT in great shape because you did a 30-day challenge once, and never again.

If you’re knowledgeable, it’s because you’re learning something new every day, or reflecting on things you’ve learned before. You’re NOT knowledgeable because you finished your goal of finishing 5 books once, and never again.

Closing Thoughts

Your goals are like one-time transactions. Systems are like subscriptions.

The problem with goals is the fact that they undermine your self-motivation and cause stronger urges to procrastinate.

Systems bypass these problems by focusing on steps we can realistically do, as well as the actions we can control.

As we’ve learned from Arnold Swarchzenegger, it’s what you DO that should change, not just what you hope for.

Footnotes

  1. The Paradox of Choice
  2. Procrastinus Blog. See “Expectancy”
  3. Self-determination Theory [PDF]
  4. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  5. Wikipedia: Counterregulatory Eating
  6. This is actually my own experience back in College.
  7. Oak Roots: How Arnold Turned His Weakness His Calves Into A Showcase Muscle
  8. The Complete Arnold: Calves from Muscle and Fitness
  9. Refinery29: Average Head Size

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