Ask the Readers: Goal-Setting

Over time, as I’ve delved into the awesome texts of productivity and achievement, I’ve seen conflicting views on goal-setting. The dilemma is: should you even set them? On one hand, setting goals lets you hone in on what you want to get done, and creates a reward mechanism that lets you feel great after you accomplish your goals. It allows you to focus on what truly needs to get done, and provides a structure by which you can make your dreams come true. I’ll call this the Chris Guillebeau school of goal-setting, since he has a fairly structured model for goal-setting via his annual review. On the other hand, setting goals comes with a cost – the damaged feeling of self-esteem whenever you do not complete them. Also, if you become obsessed with goal-setting and achieving your goals, you’ll do nothing except chase your goals. You’ll become one-dimensional and lose that valuable time where you can ‘do nothing’, time that frequently results in us generating our best ideas and basking in our gratitude for life. In this way, our goals end up owning us. This is what I call the Jonathan Mead school of goal-setting, since he is a big proponent of the idea that our goals end up owning us. My question for you, readers, is this – which school of thought do you believe in? I’ll break down the pros and cons of each approach in the rest of the post.

The Chris Guillebeau School

Big idea: big, long-term goals, meticulously tracked, are essential for success. Pros:
  • More direct focus. You have distinct goals that you set, which means that you can pour your focus on your goals because they’re clearly defined. That allows you to focus on your goals completely and block everything out.
  • The awesome feeling when you complete your goals. Everyone knows what this is like. If you write down your goal, and achieve it, you feel freakin’ awesome. It’s a glorious experience to have.
  • Long-term tracking. If you have an awesome, organized system for setting goals and tracking them like Chris does, then you get to observe your progress over time, which can be helpful to motivate you to reach other goals. It keeps you in a growth mindset, in a way – it helps you realize that you’re constantly improving, because you can see it happen on your goal sheet.
  • Better planning. When you know exactly what all your goals are, you can allocate your time and energy in the most effective and efficient way to reach them.
  • If you don’t succeed, you feel bad. For a lot of people, if you fall short, you feel bad. You feel like you failed to achieve something because, well, you did. Feeling bad for some arbitrary reason – like a mere goal that you set – is not good.
  • Only works on measurable things. You can only set real, tangible goals on things that are quantifiable and measurable. Unfortunately, a lot of the best things in life cannot be measured – especially feelings of self-satisfaction and abundance. This also makes you do more of things that may be redundant or necessary. For example, if you’re trying to be more creative, are you really less creative if you read 3 books and write 2 short stories in a month, as opposed to your goal of reading 5 books and writing 4 short stories? Not really. On that same note…
  • Your goals are totally arbitrary. As in, the numbers that you set for them are, more or less, completely random – or are based on averages and projections. For example, in order to make a goal, you have to create a number that you have to reach for that goal. Say I want to set a goal for the number of books I want to read in a year. “Well,” I say to myself, “I can read one book per week so if I average that for an entire year I’ll read 52 books. There’s my goal.”
Unfortunately, that goal is based on an average that may not be doable for the entire year. What if work or family commitments prevent you from reading your book for the week? What if one of the books you choose is a 900 page monster and takes you 3 weeks to finish? The arbitrary number that you set doesn’t care about that.

The Jonathan Mead School

Big idea: Goals end up enslaving us and basing our self-esteem on their accomplishment, not a life well-lived, which is unhealthy. Instead, we should follow what our hearts truly desire and ditch an ego-based goal-striving mindset. Pros:
  • Peace of mind. Unlike when you’re in the Chris Guillebeau school, you won’t base your self-worth on your accomplishments. Instead, your self-esteem will be much more consistent and will not fluctuate depending on how productive you are.
  • Focus on passions. Even if you aren’t formally writing down your goals, you’ll still have them – only, they’ll exist in your mind. These goals will be motivated by your passion, because you actually want to do that thing, instead of wanting to do it because you wrote it down on your big annual review sheet. If you truly care about something, you won’t have to declare it as a goal in order to accomplish it. You’ll remember it on its own.
  • Allows you to have downtime. With the Chris Guillebeau system of writing down my goals, I end up letting my goals consume my entire life. If I wasn’t working on my goals, I felt bad, so I always was “working” on them, even if I set goals to do more of the things I enjoyed! The thing is, as soon as I made them goals, I stopped enjoying them and looked at them as work. Not good. When you don’t have any goals, you prevent that switch from ever occurring.
  • Less focus. You will be much more haphazard in accomplishing your goals. Or, rather, you won’t be completing your “goals” at the same level as you would as if you followed Chris Guillebeau’s school. You can still feel focused within the moment, but you won’t have that laser-level of precision you can get when using a formal goal-setting system.
  • No feeling of greatness when you complete your goals. When you check items off of a long-term goal list, you feel awesome. You kind of lose that here.
  • You can’t see your growth happen over time. You lose the ability to see yourself improve and grow better habits. There’s something to be said about looking at a spreadsheet, detailing every move you made, and saying, “Wow, whatever I was doing in September was awesome because I was really achieving at a high rate back then.” Of course, Jonathan would say that that kind of growth is actually fake growth, not real growth.

Somewhere In-Between

Of course, between the two extremes lies a more moderate approach, which combines elements of both. This is the approach that I take, and I think it works well for me. Here are my tenets:
  • Use to-do lists liberally. I set my MITs (most important things) to do for a day the night before. However, if I do not complete any of those MITs (usually between 4 and 6 of them), I save the to-do list and those things become my first MITs for the next day. That way, the things that I set goals for get done, no matter what, and I don’t feel like a failure if I don’t complete them because there’s always tomorrow. If things start piling up, I just don’t set any goals for a day and just play catch-up.
  • Use the Action Method. I use paper versions of the Action Method to keep track of my projects. The sheer fact that I start a project is a sign that I want to do it, and using the Action Method gives me the steps I need to follow in order to complete it. Using the Action Method eliminates arbitrary goals while keeping my “to-dos” actionable every step of the way. I highly recommend it. For more on the Action Method, and some other great ideas, check out the book Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky or check out some of the articles at The 99%.
  • Set aside some time for fun. Admittedly, I don’t do this that well, but I’m getting much better at it. In theory, you should set aside at least 30% of your day for fun, hobbies, and activities. This way, you separate time spent working on projects and time having fun. If you want to have a truly enjoyable life, you need to have both.

Where Do You Stand?

So, readers, what’s your perspective on setting goals? Do you like the disciplined, rock-solid, planned style of the Chris Guillebau School? Do you like the free-flowing, easy-going, more fun* style of the Jonathan Mead School? Or are you, like me, somewhere in-between, focusing more on projects than arbitrary goals? Let me know in the comments!

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