Our culture rewards those who set and achieve goals. While knowing your end point can inspire, motivation can wane during the press of day-to-day concerns. To help prevent regrets, instead of hyper-focusing on your goals, set up systems to help you create productive habits. This will ensure that you actually get things done and make progress in areas that are important to you.
For instance, instead of saying, “I want to write a book,” say, “I want to write for 30 minutes every day.” The second statement doesn’t have the pressure of expectations; it relies on keeping to a schedule. Before you know it, you will have written a book. The most prolific writers aren’t the most goal oriented. They’re the ones who show up every day and do the work.
Author and weightlifter(!) James Clear (jamesclear.com) has strong feelings about goals. He believes that: 1. Goals reduce your current happiness; 2. Goals are actually at odds with long-term progress; and 3. Goals suggest that you can control things that you have no control over. While we can probably all agree with his third point, his other two need explanation.
“When you’re working toward a goal, you are essentially saying, ‘I’m not good enough yet, but I will be when I reach my goal.’ The problem with this mindset is that you’re teaching yourself to always put happiness and success off until the next milestone is achieved….We place unnecessary stress on ourselves to lose weight or to succeed in business or to write a best-selling novel,” said Clear. “Instead, you can keep things simple and reduce stress by focusing on the daily process and sticking to your schedule, rather than worrying about the big, life-changing goals….When you focus on the practice instead of the performance, you can enjoy the present moment and improve at the same time.”
He also challenges the idea that goals keep you motivated over the long term. “Consider someone training for a half-marathon,” he says. “Many people will work hard for months, but as soon as they finish the race, they stop training. Their goal was to finish the half-marathon and now that they have completed it, that goal is no longer there to motivate them. When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it?”
“I was training at the gym last week and I was doing my second-to-last set of clean and jerks. When I hit that rep, I felt a small twinge in my leg. It wasn’t painful or an injury, just a sign of fatigue near the end of my workout. For a minute or two, I thought about doing my final set. Then, I reminded myself that I plan to do this for the rest of my life and decided to call it a day.”
“In a situation like the one above,” he continues, “a goal-based mentality will tell you to finish the workout and reach your goal…[so] you don’t feel like a failure. But with a systems-based mentality, I had no trouble moving on. Systems-based thinking is never about hitting a particular number, it’s about sticking to the process and not missing workouts….that’s why systems are more valuable than goals. Goals are about the short-term result. Systems are about the long-term process. In the end, process [aka habits] always wins.”
Essentially, goals are good for planning your progress. Habits are good for actually making progress. Habits weave inspiration into the core of your being and make it automatic. Committing to the habits that take you toward your goal(s) are what makes the difference and can help you avoid regrets.