Stop Setting Goals

Treat Thompson



This is a republishing of The Steady Fella Newsletter. Twice a month readers use the timeless insights on passion, productivity, philosophy, and happiness from this newsletter to build towards the life they want.

What we’ll learn (in 3 minutes):

👨‍🏫 Topic: Setting goals isn’t good for getting what you want

🔍 Quote: An unknown author on why now is the time

📜 Passage: Amishi P. Jha on how focus doesn’t fade away.

Stop Setting Goals

Setting goals isn’t good for getting what you want.

Common knowledge tells us that the best way to achieve what we want in life is to set specific, actionable goals. If we want to do good in school, we set goals to earn a particular grade. If we want to slim down, we set goals to achieve a specific weight. If we want more money, we set goals to reach a specific salary.

However, our results have very little to do with the goal and everything to do with the systems we follow.

James Clear thinks we’re better off completely ignoring our goals and focusing purely on our systems. He explains these four problems with having a goal-oriented mindset:

Winners and Losers Have the Same Goals

If successful and unsuccessful people share the same goals, the goal cannot be what differentiates the winners from the losers.

Goal setting suffers from survivorship bias. We focus on the winners and mistakenly assume that their ambitious goal-setting led to their success while overlooking all the people with the same goals who failed. Setting ambitious goals isn’t enough.

Every Olympian wants to win a gold medal, and every candidate wants to get the job. However, it’s those that have a system of continuous improvement that achieve a unique outcome.

Achieving a Goal is Only a Momentary Change

Let’s say your goal is to lose 10 pounds. So you summon enough willpower to restrict your calories and exercise consistently for the next three months. You achieve your goal and are now 10 pounds lighter. But soon you stop restricting your calories, and you stop your exercise routine. Eventually, you’re 10 pounds heavier and back trying to chase the same outcome.

This is because you treated a symptom without addressing the cause. You never changed your habits, so the goal you achieved is a temporary state. Achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment.

That’s what’s tricky about self-improvement. We think we need to change our results, but what we really need to change are the systems that cause those results.

Goals Restrict Your Happiness

Whether we want to admit it or not, most of us have the assumption that “once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy.” This is a problem when you have a goal-first mentality because you continually push happiness off until the next milestone.

We trap ourselves by making happiness only something our future selves can enjoy.

On top of this trap, goals create an “either-or” conflict: either you achieve your goal and are successful, or you fail, and you are a disappointment.

Goals are at Odds With Long-term Progress

Goal-oriented mindsets create a “yo-yo” effect.

For example, many runners will work hard for months, but they stop training as soon as they cross the finish line. When all your effort is focused on a specific goal, what is left to push you after achieving it? This is why so many people revert to their old habits after accomplishing a goal.

True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It’s your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.

This isn’t to say that setting goals is useless; they have a purpose. They’re suitable for planning your progress and providing direction. However, committing to a system is what matters and makes the difference.

This previous newsletter is a quick read on setting up a system to get what you want in life.

Featured Quote

Do not wait for the perfect time and place to enter, for you are already onstage. - Unknown

Your life has already started. Your timer is already ticking. Whatever it is, now is the time to do it.

Featured Passage

Attention never vanishes, even though it might feel as if it does when you’re struggling to focus and simply can’t. When attention begins to get fatigued or degraded, it makes it harder to place your attention where you want it. But it doesn’t just fade away. In cognitive neuroscience, this is explained through load theory. What load theory boils down to is this: the amount of attention you have remains constant. It just gets used differently, and maybe not how you want it to be used. You always use 100 percent of your attention. Attention always goes somewhere. So the question becomes: Where?