Goal setting is so ingrained in our society that it would be heresy to suggest there is any other way to get ahead. Like anything else, goals can be positive if used correctly, or they can be debilitating if used incorrectly. Most of us use goals incorrectly. We set unrealistic goals or we set them too low, focus on too few or too many at once, and underestimate or overestimate the time and effort needed.
As opposed to goals, we should instead focus on the process used to accomplish those goals. The concept of system versus goal thinking was made popular by Scott Adams, creator of the “Dilbert” comic strip. Setting up a system positions you for success regardless of whether you have a specific goal in mind or not. However, system thinking is only one part of the process. Process involves figuring out what you want (as opposed to living someone else’s life or setting someone else’s goals), determining what your ideal outcomes look like, figuring out the systems and habits needed to achieve those outcomes, and ensuring accountability along the way. The process, not the goal, is what leads to above average outcomes. Learning and building those processes leads to greater accomplishment.
What Goals Provide
Goals do provide a fair amount of good. For those that lack both good processes and specific goals, creating some achievable goals is a good start. Goals provide a target to aim for which, assuming the target is worth aiming for, is a step in the right direction. The act of setting goals forces us to think about and define what we want out of life. Most people just float through life, not disappointed enough with what they have to make any substantial changes but never really happy with how things are going, either. Setting goals may provide enough of a nudge for us to improve. Thinking through what we want may be just enough to bring focus and clarity to our lives.
Goals also provide us with a measurable benchmark to compare our progress. If you’re looking to pay off a $20,000 student loan bill, then you can design a month by month schedule and measure your progress against that. Without specific benchmarks, comments like “I want to lose weight” or “I want to save more money” are worthless. Accountability in all aspects of life is crucial, and the ability to measure our progress against a pre-defined goal is the ultimate accountability partner. That schedule or path to accomplishing your goal is a neutral third party. It doesn’t care what excuses you come up with.
The Problem with Goals
On the flip side, goals by themselves can create problems. Continual goal setting can become both obsessive and depressing all at once. The purpose of setting a goal is to improve some area of our life. Negative thinking results, because we’re never fully satisfied. We’ll never be fully satisfied, and that’s okay. We should welcome this fact instead of becoming depressed by it. Also, once a goal is achieved, then what? You have to set another and another, otherwise your motivation decreases and you may revert to your pre-goal habits. This is common in the dieting and fitness world. You set a goal, work really hard to achieve it, then slip back into your previous habits and return to the same weight or the same fitness level you had before. There’s a back and forth between action and no action. This back and forth does not result in long-term sustainable progress, but instead results in peaks and valleys that lead to elation and depression instead of contentment.
The constant resetting of goals is a form of hedonic treadmill; better than the version of hedonic treadmill where you buy stuff to keep up with the Joneses, but a form nonetheless. I’m in favor of continual improvement, but at some point you have to slow down and enjoy life. Hedonic treadmills can be de-motivating. You may find yourself overwhelmed and discouraged. Discouragement leads to inactivity, and inactivity leads to decay.
Beyond that, goals can be intimidating. Do you want to save $1 million by the time you are forty? Sounds like a tough hill to climb. Seeing a big mountain in the distance can lead to a defeatist attitude, and you end up never even getting started. On the other hand, a million dollars may turn out to be too low. A 25 year old who is currently earning $75,000 per year, with steady pay increases and promotions that gets them up to $300,000 by the time they’re forty, would hit $1 million by saving 20% of their gross income and earning a 10% return. Highly doable, and highly exceed-able. Most of us set our goals way too low, whereas focusing on the processes, systems and habits that allow someone to save 20% of their income would also allow them to blow past any initial goal.
Finally, reaching goals are often at the whim of external factors. Are you familiar with the Serenity Prayer? “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” We can only control ourselves and our own actions, not those around us. In the previous example, what happens if Congress and the President raise taxes by 10%, healthcare goes up by 12% per year, and the dollar crashes causing large inflation? The goal of reaching $1 million by the time you are forty may be out of reach as a result of events outside of your control. With a goal-focused mindset, you would be bound to get frustrated and perhaps even give up. External events always lead to inconsistent outcomes, something bound to upset the best of us. Focusing on the process instead would allow you to continue to plug along and achieve better outcomes regardless of external factors.
Focus on the Process
Instead of focusing on specific goals, focus on specific processes and habits that will get you towards those goals. I prefer to use the term process versus habit or systems because it feels more all-encompassing. Process implies making the decision that you want to change, figuring out what systems and habits you need to do so, and building markers along the way so that you maintain accountability. It’s about learning how to do something and putting it into practice. It’s about doing the work and staying focused on what needs to get done, regardless of the end result. As mentioned above, sometimes the right activities don’t and can’t deliver the desired results because of external factors. Regardless of these external factors, building the process and sticking to it will still prove beneficial.
Let’s use a common example; losing weight post-holiday season. As opposed to “I want to lose 25 pounds”, build the process to get there. Instead of a specific weight loss goal, focus on building a more active lifestyle (which could include jogging, walking, or playing basketball with your friends three times a week) and improving your diet (eating oatmeal for breakfast, a piece of fruit before anything else at lunch and a couple servings of vegetables at dinner, for example). Then, figure out what would be needed to build those systems and those habits. Set out your work-out clothes and shoes the night before. Make a menu and shopping list each week. Get your family on board to build in third-party accountability. Regardless of whether you lose 25 pounds or not, your health will improve dramatically. You’ll probably lose more than 25 pounds and feel better doing it than with some crash diet.
Setting up the process is more forgiving than a specific goal and easier to remain accountable. For example, it’s much easier to determine if I’ve walked or jogged four times this week than determine if I’m on track to lose 25 pounds. Do you assume straight-line weight loss? What happens if you had a client dinner the night before and ate more than you wanted? What if you happen to be retaining water that morning?
Also, missing part of the process easily allows you to get back on board. Have you only been active three times this week instead of four? Have you not been eating your fruits and vegetables before your meals? Get your accountability partner to kick you into gear next week.
It’s also much easier to adjust your goals and move on to the next as you meet them. A goal allows you to zigzag back and forth between activity and no activity, while a process focuses you and helps you stay on track day in and day out. If you meet your 25 pound goal by September, just keep up the process and lose 35 pounds instead. You won’t feel the same urge to treat yourself and slack off. No feeling of “I’ve made it, so now I can stop”.
To some extent, that is one of the negatives to process thinking versus using goals. There’s no endpoint at which time you can give yourself a gold star. External validation is important to all of us. It’s important to build small rewards along the way. Hit two months in a row of jogging four times a week? Go out and see that concert you’ve been angling to see. Heck, feel free to treat yourself to an ice cream or some other food desire. After all, you’re sticking to the process and so long as you keep it up, one ice cream once in a while probably won’t make a difference.
Use the Process to Get Ahead
Process should be incorporated into as many parts of your life as possible. Part of a disciplined and intentional life is determining what you want out of life and what you want your ideal life to look like. Without this first step, goals are meaningless and the process is even more so. Do you want to lose 25 pounds and get fit because TV and glossy magazines told you so, or because you want to ensure top-notch health as you age to make a fulfilling life easier? If your ideal life includes good health, ample finances from a great career, rock solid family and friendships, and a strong personal character, you must figure out the best way to get there.
Processes should be used in all of these areas. It is the intentional systemization of your life, and each addition adds to the others. Step one is to gather the necessary information. Little of what you want to accomplish has not already been accomplished by others. Learn from their systems, habits and processes. Step two is far more challenging: putting it into deliberate practice. If you don’t start, I guarantee you won’t accomplish what you’re trying. After starting, ensuring accountability and regularly updating, improving, and changing the process as needed will be your focus.
Start with one part of your life at a time, but remember that these processes build off of each other. Beginning a work-out regime will help improve your diet. Improving your diet will help build up self-control, which will help with your finances. Learning about better ways to manage your finances will lead to a greater desire to learn and improve in your career. But above all else, make sure you focus on the relationships you care about most. The process you use to improve your family and friendships will be the most important of all.
Keep building my friends.