I like setting goals each New Year. I’m a Type A person and setting goals is what Type A people do.
Anybody who has even skimmed through a self-help book will tell you that if you want achieve success, setting specific goals is the best way to get there.
But James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, has me rethinking all of that. In his book, James points out that there are two big problems with setting goals:
1) GOALS ROB US OF HAPPINESS
When we set a goal, the unspoken truth we’re telling ourselves is “I’ll reach my goal and then I can be happy.”
The problem with this is that it postpones happiness. If my goal is to lose 10kg, I can’t be satisfied until that 10kg has been lost. In the intervening weeks and months, I can’t feel good about myself or my body.
There are only two options: either you succeed at your goal and are happy, or you fail and are disappointed. But I don’t think it makes sense to view success so narrowly.
Maybe you don’t lose 10kg on your workout plan, but it’s only because in addition to burning fat, you’re gaining muscle mass. Maybe you don’t write a novel this year, but several of your short stories get published.
Life often doesn’t play out exactly how we envision it, but that doesn’t mean that these alternative successes aren’t worth celebrating.
2) GOALS DON’T ACHIEVE LASTING CHANGE
How many times have you made a New Years’ Resolution, only to have it fall by the wayside a couple of weeks later? Goals, in-and-of themselves, don’t achieve lasting change.
Take, for example, the goal of keeping your room neat and tidy. January 2 rolls around and in a burst of motivation, you spend 4 hours cleaning. Now your space looks pristine. But if you don’t change sloppy habits that led to the mess in the first place, you’re going to be back to square one in no time.
Even if you do fix your habits in the short term, James points out that goals can set us up for a “yo-yo” effect. It’s not uncommon for people to make the New Year’s Resolution to run a marathon. They train for months, gradually increasing their distance and sticking to a diet that sets them up for success.
The day finally arrives and our runner is grinning from ear to ear as he/she crosses the finish line. But then what? More often than not, without the race there to motivate them, these runners stop training and gradually revert to their unfit state.
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FORGET ABOUT GOALS, FOCUS ON THE PROCESS
To create lasting changes in my life, I’m forgetting about setting goals this year. Instead, I want to create processes that are going to set me up for long-term progress. James recommends doing this at a couple of different levels.
1) CHANGE YOUR IDENTITY
When we’re setting a New Years’ Resolution, the first place our mind usually goes is to the outcome – whether it’s losing that 10kg or saving enough money to buy a car. But instead of looking to the outcome, James recommends starting with our identity. As he points out, “improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are.”
If I’m going to write a book this year (which I hope to do!), it’s not going to be enough for me to just write a page or two whenever I’m feeling motivated. As I mentioned in a previous post, the net result of this goal would be about 10 pages over the course of the year.
Instead, I need to answer the question “Who is the type of person who could write a book?” It’s someone who writes every day. So my resolution should be less about writing a book (outcome) and more about becoming a writer (identity).
If I’m focused on becoming the type of person who writes consistently, then I’m going to sit down and write every day, for a minimum of 20–30 minutes. If I maintain that over the course of a year, those daily chunks of 300 words here, 500 words there are going to add up to a pretty decent first draft.
2) FOCUS ON THE PROCESS
A New Year’s Resolution to bench press 100kg by the end of the year isn’t worth much. It’s pointing me in the right direction, but it’s not creating any kind of process to help me achieve that outcome.
But what if, instead, my New Year’s Resolution is to do weight training every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday? Now my resolution is the process. And if I adhere to that process, results will follow. Outcomes like bench-pressing 100kg become inevitable.
By focusing on process, not only does success become an inevitable side-effect, but you also won’t rob yourself of happiness. If your focus is on never missing a workout, rather than losing 10 kg, then every morning you show up in the gym is a small win. You can be happy every day, knowing that you’re adhering to your process.
A BETTER KIND OF RESOLUTION
Goals can point us in the right direction, but they won’t carry us to our destination. So this New Year, forget about goals. Instead, do two things: (1) resolve to become the type of person who would achieve the outcome you’re after, and (2) build a process that’s will allow you to make incremental progress each day.