Why NOT Having Goals is a Bad Idea

Recently, Leo Babuata (whom I normally greatly admire) had a guest post on why goals are a bad idea. This is an idea that seems to be growing; Leo wrote about achieving without goals in November in 2010 and another guest poster wrote about it in December of 2011. Leo’s first post about it may be the one from July of 2010. These posts on rejecting goals get me angry, honestly: they are a prescription for aimlessness and drifting.

The problems they list with goals are:

  • Goals are fixed and inflexible.
  • Goals require you to give up what you want now.
  • Goals require pain.
  • Goals are limiting.
  • Goals missed are the system’s fault.

Goals are objectives, targets, endings, and aims: without these, we do not know where we are going. When our directions and passions change, so does our goals. Changing our goals should not be seen as weakness, but strength: goals should be continually revised for our current desires.

Sometimes a goal is to give something up that we are doing now, to make a change. Giving up smoking or a constant soda pop habit is hard – and will cause pain. Yet, the giving up of the pleasure of a smoke now will add years to your life down the road and give your children more time with their parents.

However, this is not because of the goal: a goal can be positive as well: exercising daily, reading more, learning to fly, learning a new language. Goals give you direction and provide you with a marker to strive towards.

When we miss the target, we should look inside ourselves as to why and without feeling guilt. Was the goal a badly specified goal? (Probably.) Does it match our desires and passions? Most people have vague goals that are designed to be broken, and that will lead to failure sooner or later. Confucius said this:

In archery we have something like the way of the superior man. When the archer misses the center of the target, he turns round and seeks for the cause of his failure in himself.

Just don’t feel guilt about a missed goal: throw the goal out and make a new, more realistic one – one that is specific, measurable, attainable, and focused more on changing your daily habits. Switch from a goal of “Lose weight” (vague and impossible!) to “Lift weights daily.” Don’t measure output, don’t measure weight, just “don’t break the chain” – keep it up one day after another. If you get a daily habit like that, the weight will come off.

If you don’t have goals you can’t plan. Living with out a plan leads to lack of ambition and lack of direction. What do you want to achieve? Then figure your action steps – or better yet, daily habits – that will get you there. Accomplishing your goals – your end results – can only be done by first defining the objective, then using habits and actions to get there. If you’ve no goals, then you have nothing to accomplish – and that results in no accompilishments.

Leo presents this quote at the end of his July 2010 article:

A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving. — Lao Tzu

I would counter this with some other quotes. Consider this one (emphasis added):

In all things success depends on previous preparation, and without such previous preparation there is sure to be failure. If what is to be spoken be previously determined, there will be no stumbling. If affairs be previously determined, there will be no difficulty with them. If one’s actions have been previously determined, there will be no sorrow in connection with them. If principles of conduct have been previously determined, the practice of them will be inexhaustible. — Confucius

Also, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (one of my favorite books!), comes this delightful snippet:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 6)

To accomplish our goals, I recommend defining the goal using what David Allen calls “envisioning wild success” and “outcome visioning”. Then figure what daily habits and other actions will lead you to the end result.

There are programs to help with daily habits and I highly recommend using one of them. My favorites are Sciral Consistency for Macintosh and Habit Streak for Android.

New Years Resolutions: Are They Bad?

Recently, I came across some articles about New Years Resolutions and why they are bad. In particular, the most recent (and second!) issue of Productivity Magazine has these articles.

However, I think the articles miss the point. Most of the complaints have to do with the fact that a) New Year’s Resolutions occur once a year; b) New Year’s Resolutions are usually year-long goals; c) New Year’s Resolutions are often unrealistic or “designed to fail”.

These complaints are not valid for the process itself, but how it is carried out. The resolutions – the idea that we should re-evaluate at least yearly – is a valid one.

Better yet is to evaluate our goals once a month perhaps. What do I want to change this month? What will I focus on?

Also make these goals SMART goals. If your goals do not follow these guidelines – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound – then you are destined to fail. Perhaps the first three are the most critical (SAM?) as they define the failings of most New Year’s Resolutions.

Another thing: as a proponent of GTD principles, these goals would then translate into Next Actions – or generally, things to do. Without action, the goal remains static and nothing happens. You must make a change in order to make the goal succeed.

So go make some new goals for the next thirty days and make it happen!

Setting Goals

If you’ve not any goals, then what are you striving for? How will you know when you get there? What will you have accomplished?

With goals, we can focus on getting the results we want. A goal must be several things:

  • Specific – is your goal specific and clear enough?
  • Measurable – can you measure concretely when the goal is achieved?
  • Achievable – is the goal achievable? (or is it just a dream?)
  • Realistic – is the goal a realistic goal?
  • Timely – is there a time limit on the goal?

The SMART acronym helps you to remember this. The acronym itself is not important; the important thing is the goals you set.

I urge you to sit down and write out some goals and then the specific next actions (using GTD of course!) that you will do to achieve those goals. What steps will you take to accomplish these goals?