Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

The Trouble With Goals

I have something of a like/dislike relationship with goals. I see them as inherently useful as a route to learning or achieving something. But goals can easily, and quickly, become troublesome.

It’s not that goals in and of themselves are bad. It’s more of a problem of how many people approach their goals. How they perceive and execute them.

When setting goals, we all have good intentions. Our ambitions start off by giving us the drive to reach those goals, and by guiding us on the path towards those goals. Far too often, though, those ambitions and a skewed idea of what goals are knock us off track.

The problem is not in our goals, it’s in ourselves. More specifically, with the way we perceive and execute goals.

It’s easy to focus on just your goals, and to lose sight of the reason why you undertook those goals in the first place. You can quickly slide into the trap of your goals becoming just a series of tasks that you need to complete. Not want to complete (as it should be), but need to complete. Or, at least, feel that you need to complete. You move from task to task, because those tasks are there. Completing those tasks isn’t fulfilling.

It just becomes what I call assembly line productivity —performing task after task, or reaching for goal after goal, because they exist.

That deviates from your original impetus for setting a goal. By taking the assembly line route, working towards your goals quickly becomes a chore. Striving for those goals stops being fun, it stops being fulfilling. You lose interest. Sooner or later, because of that you let your goals fall by the wayside. All that energy and effort that you expended amounts for very little.

As well, goals are often too long term a prospect. Think of all the goals that you haven’t yet tried reach. We tend put off tackling our goals, usually because there are more pressing things to do at any given time. Those goals quickly become like items on a Someday Maybe List in GTD. And, like items on that list, you never get around to them.

It’s also far too easy to have more goals than you can handle. I know this first hand. Over the course of three years, I set myself what I called 30 goals in (about) 300 days. That says it all. I had 30 goals spread across various aspects of my personal and professional lives —like breaking into three new writing markets, gain a level of proficiency with a new tool or technology, give presentations on a couple of topics, and reach a savings goal.

I achieved maybe half of those goals. Even then, I was only satisfied with the results of perhaps eight or nine of them. With the rest felt, I felt like I was working towards them for sake of working towards them. I should have focused on only those eight or nine, and let the rest die on the vine.

People talk about SMART goal setting. That’s one way to go about achieving your goals. But even taking the SMART approach, you can run into trouble. Instead, if you decide to set and try to tackle goals make sure that you really want to achieve them. Make sure they’re your goals and not goals someone else has set for you or thinks will be good for you to achieve. You should never cede control of your energy like that.

Focus on one goal. Put all that you can into it. When you’re done, move on to another. You might not do as much as you want, or think you want, to do but you’ll be trading quantity for quality. And it’s quality that matters. Nothing else.

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