The Tragic Flaw that Makes Most Goals Meaningless

They’re a means, not usually the end.

by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)
by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)

If you want to change your life, professionally and personally, there’s no better tool to set yourself up for success, right?

Except when they don’t work. Consider the thousands of people who pay off their credit cards every year, only to go right back into debt. (Even lottery winners are more likely to declare bankruptcy in the next 3–5 years than the average American.)

Or if you’ve ever tried losing weight, you know losing it is the counterintuitively easy part. Somewhere between 80% and 95% of people who reach their weight loss goal put the weight right back on again.

In each case, an individual’s circumstances changed, but they didn’t. It’s a common problem. We achieve the results we want, but our habits haven’t changed, so we quickly revert to the same results we’ve always gotten.

According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, there are four reasons why we should focus on our habits and processes—which he refers to as our systems—instead of goals:

  1. Everybody sets the same goals. Every NFL team starts the season with their eye on the Super Bowl. The best team in the league doesn’t take home the trophy because they set the right goal and the other 31 got it wrong. They had the talent, the preparation, the processes, and, honestly, a little bit of luck. The winning teams have better systems in place.
  2. Achieving a goal is a momentary result. That corner of your desk that accumulates everything that doesn’t have a place (and a number of things that do)? You clean it off, putting everything where it goes. A week later, it’s collecting life’s flotsam again. Instead of Herculean cleaning days, straighten a little each day. Develop a habit of putting things away when you’re finished with them. It’s our systems that are going to maintain the results.
  3. Goals restrict your happiness. We have an all-or-nothing view of reaching our goals. If we set a goal to lose 30 pounds, we either make it or we don’t. We should be just as happy for losing 29 pounds—why is that thirtieth pound any more significant? Achieving 97% of your goal probably indicates that you’ve adjusted your systems correctly, you just underestimated how long it would take. We can be happy as long as we’re executing our designed system correctly.
  4. Goals are at odds with long-term processes. Reaching a goal is a great motivation, but once you achieve it, what happens to that motivation? You change gears and ease up. But the goal was just a tool to help you change your habits and the long-term direction of your life. Instead of short spurts of improvement (with potentially long periods of backsliding in between), the system you design will help you experience sustained, continuous improvement (which has more ups than downs).

At this point, you might be thinking, “That might be a problem with achievement goals, but what about habit goals? Does this mean that I should think of habit goals as the more powerful type of goal and stop setting achievement goals?” Well, no.

First of all, I had the same thought as I was reading Atomic Habits. “All this talk of systems is just habit goals; he’s just conflating the two or focusing on achievement goals.” I don’t think that’s true, though.

Habit goals and achievement goals are two tools in our productivity toolbox. They serve different purposes. They build each other. You can use a habit goal to reach an achievement goal or string a series of achievement goals together to reach a habit goal.

Both types of goals can help you refine your habits and become the person you’re trying to be. Both types of goals suffer from the same four flaws limitations that James talks about.

Are goals worthless? Not at all! You should still set good goals. Goals give us a specific area of improvement or achievement we can focus on in the short-term.

Long-term, goals should help us refine our habits and processes—the systems that we follow to live our life. This kind of continuous refinement and renewal is how we radically change ourselves for the better.

Question: What habit could you refine to change the direction of your life? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.