Ways that goal setting might be helpful 1
- Clarify direction
- Focus the mind on things one wants
- Fill oneself with inspiration
- Visualization can open doors (even somewhat mysteriously, if you ask me)
- What gets focused on tends to happen more
- Create some sense of inner pressure to push against resistances (laziness, distraction, etc.)
Ways it might be unhelpful:
- Could limit your progress (e.g., I aim to make $100,000, does that limit me from keeping going, and earning $150k?)
- Can put you into a future-thinking hamster wheel, where you’re not content in the present (and come to think of it—being happy wherever I am, and putting happiness in the future, do not seem very copacetic) 2
“I won’t be happy until I have achieved this goal” is clearly not a helpful way of seeing the world.
It is possible that focusing on a goal can make you less likely to achieve it, for example focusing on happiness is probably not as helpful as focusing on service, quality, and helping other people.
So I can see how shiny object syndrome could fill your goal-setting mind intensely. A story from the book Small Giants how one of the business owners (in a previous one) wanted to build it up to $100M, and when he finally did, it was kind of a disaster. And he wasn’t even sure why he wanted it. So, watch out.
And watch out for losing the present moment. How and when are visions and future-thinking helpful, and when are they not? (Corollary, there are lots of ways that people ignore future thinking that cost them, and are not sexy at all—such as trying to tell a 30-something to save $1,000 a month because their retirement 30 years later will be so much better, and so on.)
One study contrasted just fantasizing about a desired outcome without thinking about the obstacle, with just focusing on the obstacle, and then, doing them both together—first the vision, and then identifying the obstacle. And in some part of this, they combined this with an implementation intention. Not exactly like James Clear’s, which are of the form “when I sit down at the table, I will meditate for five minutes.” These ones were if-then ones, predicting obstacle behaviors. They were to pick three. An example was feeling too tired to ride their bicycle. And the intention might be, “when I feel too tired to ride my bicycle, I will grab my bike keys instead of my car keys”. This has a lot of the qualities of James Clear’s II’s, but it’s a strategy for predicting obstacles. This is super interesting, and I have not heard of this outside of the academic literature.
Goal commitment must be followed by effective goal striving in order for goals to be realised. 3
A lot of this literature, (James Clear, for example4) focus on creating systems, and not goals. It keepMs you in flow. This is why Weight Watchers works for me. Because I do not think very much at all about the outcome; I just do the habit, over and over, without even really thinking about it. The odd thing about this is: the things I want and do this way are less dramatic, less “herculean”. I believe this is one of the main points of The Compound Effect, as well.5
This relates to Japanese idea of kaizen, or continuous improvement.6
Nevertheless there are several components to planning that tend to be wrapped up in what we think of as goal setting, although they can be extracted out. David Allen’s idea of the five horizons seems kinda like goal setting, but even at the highest level, it’s about asking who you want to be, at the highest level:
Horizon 5: Purpose and principles What is the work you are here to do on the planet, with your life? This is the ultimate bigger picture discussion. Is this the job you want? Is this the lifestyle you want? Are you operating within the context of your real values, etc.? 7
So this does not have to be about setting goals in the normal sense. It could also be about setting a direction. Perhaps sometimes goals, or milestones are helpful, and sometimes they are not. Let’s break apart the components!