To be successful, ditch your goals.
Yes, you heard that right. Ditch your goals.
We’ve been taught to set goals anytime we want to achieve anything. They should be SMART: specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time sensitive. But the motivational gurus who’ve taught us this didn’t necessarily take into account the psychology involved in personal growth and achievement.
The problem with traditional goal-setting is that it can be a stressful and disheartening experience as often as it is a motivating and exciting one. If you can relate, I have a different approach that might be a better way for you to make progress.
The Down Side of Goal Setting
Confession: I’ve failed to achieve most of the goals I’ve ever set. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. Most people miss most of their goals most of the time. This repeated experience of failure can have a negative effect on our self-esteem and confidence. Missing goals often prompts self-critical thoughts. Missing several in a row can begin to create an expectation of failure. Before you know it, you begin to establish a pattern of failure that can quickly spiral.
I think this is why we’ve all met people who seem to have given up and mock ambition as the idealism of youth, dismissing the desire for personal growth as immature and naive. They’re tired of failing, and they don’t see another option. Sad, right?
Counterintuitively, hitting too many goals can also have a negative effect. This is likely happening because you’re only setting goals that you know to be attainable. In doing so, you can develop self-doubt because you know deep down you really aren’t trying hard enough. Not sure if this is you? Think back: have you ever felt a little disenchanted after hitting a goal? It could be your goal was so easily accomplished that there wasn’t a reason to feel a sense of victory.
I’ve also encountered another ugly side effect from goal-setting. Setting a future goal can be a way of delaying happiness. “I’ll be happy when I finally bring in six figures,” or, “I’ll finally feel fit when I lose two inches off my waist.” This habit of putting off happiness is a dangerous dilemma. The anxiousness that we have in living for some future achievement tends to drag us down and these negative attitudes can prevent us from achieving our goals. Much like the pattern of failure described above, we can form the unfortunate habit of always living for the future. If you’re a chronic goal-setter, you may be giving up permission to be happy right now.
So how do we live in the present, enjoy life now, and still make progress for the future? Measure your habits instead.
How to Make Progress Today
By focusing on habits instead of goals, we become more mindful of the present. If we focus on the process instead of the outcome, we find intrinsic reward in the work itself, instead of delaying happiness for the end results. Taking action cures our fears and boosts our self-esteem. And the best part? You can be successful today, instead of some day in the future when you achieve that certain goal.
Let’s put this to practical use. I’m currently working on a handful of different habits. I chose each based on things I’ve wanted to achieve in the past, but for one reason or another never quite attained. A few of my daily practices include meditation, working out, playing guitar, and speed reading. Let’s take the guitar as an example.
The old way of goal-setting might line out a certain benchmark, a song perhaps, and set a date to accomplish mastery of that song. Then, you would break down the steps to learning that particular song and put together a timeline of practice that would take you through achieving each of those steps. This all sounds like a logical plan, but what happens when you get stuck on a challenging section of the song?
Or perhaps you’re bored by practicing a part that is too easy? Or you get sick, or travel, or you know, life happens? Now your timeline is off track and the joy of learning the instrument is replaced by feelings of guilt, pressure, and monotony.
My new way of approaching my guitar practice is a lot more enjoyable:
- First, I visualize the type of guitar player I want to be. I can see how the music will flow from my fingers. I’ll know dozens of songs and I’ll be able to pick up the guitar at any time and make cool stuff happen. I’ll know songs people can sing along with, and I’ll know other songs that are complex and exciting to pull off.
- The second step is to ask myself, “What does someone who plays this well do? How did future-me get so good?” The answer: practice every day and do so with intention. (By the way, this is the same answer for almost anything we want to improve.)
- The third step is to schedule my practice. In a goal-setting scenario, we would be looking at specific details of the practice and then scheduling it, but I know from experience that the time spent practicing is far more important than what I’m practicing. Practicing daily is the most important thing I can do to be the guitar-playing me of the future. I want to make sure I can be successful at developing this new habit, so I set a minimum practice time of only ten minutes per day. If I look back at the last 25 years of sporadic attempts to learn the guitar, then imagine I had instead practiced ten minutes every single day of those 25 years, I know I’d be far better than I am now. (That comes out to over 1,500 hours of practice, by the way.)
- The fourth step is to set a timer, and start practicing. The timer is a critical piece. Knowing that it’s only ten minutes helps me to jump right into practice as soon as I hit the button and remain focused for that short time. If I want to play longer than ten minutes, of course I can. But I know when the timer goes off, I’ve done my part for the day and can feel good about getting it done. Any extra time is just for the enjoyment of it all.
- The fifth step in my habits-approach is to plan the work for each practice session. I know this sounds backward, but remember, the habits are the most important part. Once you set a timer and jump into the work, you’re already making progress. From there, you can adjust and improve the practice. You can’t steer a parked car. You have to get the wheels rolling first.
Seeing the Results
For the first week, I practiced simple scales and chords without a plan. My fingers hurt and I wasn’t having fun. But it’s just ten minutes right?
By week two, I had a few songs picked out and a training app downloaded to make my practice more intentional and focused. The simple act of doing the work created the motivation to improve and focus on the structured practice. Most people get this backward — they think motivation comes first. Take action first and motivation will follow.
By week three, I had calloused fingers and noticeable improvement.
Week five brought several new songs and a comfort level that now allows me to enjoy picking up the instrument on a whim and knocking out a song or two.
Achieving my vision may be years down the road, but by practicing my guitar-playing habit today I made progress. Today I did the work. Today I achieved something. Even if today’s practice sucked, I’m still successful because my only job was to put in the time.
Make It a Game
My last step is to track my habit. Initially, I was just keeping this in journal form, but I’ve since downloaded an app where I can check off each habit for each day. A wall calendar would work well too. It’s like a game I play with myself to see how many days I can accumulate unbroken checkmarks. My best streak of guitar playing so far is 24 days. Far from perfect, but I’m a lot further along than if I hadn’t done those 24 days.
I would love for you to try this out. Pick something you’ve failed at in the past or something you’ve never tried but always wanted to achieve. Instead of setting any goals, visualize where you want to be. See that fitter you doing pull-ups. Imagine the eloquent you giving speeches. Be impressed by your future conversations in a different language.
Ask yourself what habits that future you has, then set a timer and get to work. It will be fun to see how many days you can accumulate that habit, but the most important day is today. (And let me know in the comments what you’ll be working on!)