10 min read

Goals are for Losers

CC Paula Naugle

Now that’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?

However, it’s a really great quote from Dilbert Creator, Scott Adams.

More and more though I’ve been thinking it’s true; See I’ve had a remarkable fascination with goal setting ever since a fairly poor experience with them and a former employer way back when.

To give you the quick story, we printed out thousands of tags with ‘Hello My Goal Is’ instead of ‘Hello My Name Is’ — get it? — and both the staff and all the clients, wrote something down and slapped it on a giant wall.

If we completed it, we found it — which was a chore in-and-of-itself — and got the satisfaction of slapping a giant ‘COMPLETED’ stamp overtop of it.

Seemed like a cool idea at the time to most folks, though I’ll be honest, I was skeptical (and remain skeptical of this approach).

Call it a gut instinct, or maybe I just hated the notion of fully participating in this narcissistic ignorance of how goals should work.

Hint: stating goals publically actually makes us feel as if we’ve already achieved a goal and as a result makes us less likely to complete it.

What really happened? Did our clients achieve a ton of cool stuff? Some did, can’t argue that, I don’t have any raw data on the matter but I’d venture to guess that a mere 10-20% did.

Say what?

There were an awful lot of stickers on that wall that were either quite modified — so that they met completion status and could be stamped — or left untouched since being slapped up there.

Yep, about 80% of the goals on that wall were never completed (at least true to their initial writing).

Most of the ones that were completed seemed to be really big ones that were already set in stone*; Hike Machu Picchu and other big climbs/hikes, or other events already booked as trips, seemed to have the highest success rate.

*Arguably because they had established commitment (purchased flights, planned trips, booked sherpas, etc…) and not because they slapped a sticker on a wall…

Followed by small easily doable goals that could be completed/attempted in a training session, done in a day, or completed by week’s end.

Everything else in between seemed to fall by the wayside.

By the time the novelty of goal setting wore off for everyone a couple of months later, some were marked completed even though they really weren’t and more commonly, most were completely forgotten about.

What about me? Did I achieve any or all of my goals?

I did!

Well I’d like to say I was smart enough to only choose one goal, and created a really good plan to help me achieve it — for the record, it was ten x 1-Armed Push-Ups from the floor; Being capable of maybe doing one or two at the time of setting the goal  –– but I’m sure the reality was that my reluctance in fully participating in this activity.

I knew with a smart training program I could achieve this objective in 4-12 weeks (it took 5) training 3x a week.

It wasn’t a stretch goal by any means, but then you’re more likely to achieve a goal if you strongly believe in the first place, that it’s achievable.

This prevented me from biting off more than I could chew — as many people did, enamoured and inspired by the goal setting process.

Goals can lead to negative outcomes too…

See Goal Dilution Theory – For reasons you shouldn’t set so many goals at once…

This is often how people goal set, they just think of something huge, cool and interesting to do and just state, I’m going to do that.

Often not because there is a ton of real value to them on a personal level for completion, but because of how they believe people will perceive their goals.

With Awe.

We all like to hear other people tell us how awesome we are, so publically stating our big ambitions are a quick burst of serotonin, a hormone that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

It’s also the herd mentality.

Fun for the first 4 weeks we did it, but then a scathing reminder of just how ineffective in the long-term this approach really was/is.

The reality is that although it made us feel good for a short-period of time, the exercise was largely also a huge waste of our time.

Now I know what many people may be thinking, “Darren, don’t be such a pessimist,” but in reality anyone who knows me knows that I am quite optimistic about a great many things.

I just also happen to contrast that thinking with reality.

The reality to me is, that traditional goal setting leaves most people in a constant state of flux; between feeling like they haven’t accomplished anything and when they do, looking for their self-worth in the next goal in line for completion.

What was next for me after one-handed pushups? I don’t even recall…

Anything less than 100% achievement is also generally considered to be a failure.

I don’t know about you, but had I hit 9 pushups, I probably would have been pretty happy with myself too.

I want to be very clear, it’s good to want to do and complete stuff.

I encourage everyone I know to have big ambitions in life.

It’s just stressful to have to live into being perfect for the majority.

It’s not that I don’t have things I want to accomplish, or things that I work towards on a regular basis, I still have objectives that I’m constantly working towards. 

See: I’m Training For Old Age

I just don’t place a really high value on the outcomes of my hard work (like traditional goal-setting would), nor do I tie my self-worth to the results, so much as I place a great deal of value on making my process more effective at leading to my desired outcomes.

My desire to achieve those outcomes are still there, I just put them aside, make them more vague than most and focus on what I think matters more in achieving them.

It’s where our focus lies that is the real defining factor in the process of completing things, so I’m insistent that people I work with focus on the things they can actually control.

Goals are really just results, so why focus on the results (that are often beyond our control) more than on the execution of all the little things that add up to the result?

It just doesn’t make any sense, take a moment to really put your thinking cap on:

If you set a goal to do twelve million in sales this year, and your average sale is ten thousand, then you need to make twelve hundred sales a year to hit this goal.

Shouldn’t your focus really lie on making those individual sales?

Wouldn’t a better ‘goal’ actually be to make one hundred sales a month? 23.1 sales per week? Or even better 3.3 sales per day?

Doesn’t that A) seem more manageable and B) break down where you should be better?

I’d even take a few steps further and identify the even smaller things you do that tend to results in sales (like networking/relationships, phone calls, meetings, marketing, etc…), and focus on doing those things consistently instead, with the realization that sales (like weight loss) is never a linear process either.

They are also typically the result of other work entirely.

Weight loss (or gain, or sport performance or improving your health profile) is not even a direct controllable factor, like sales, so why do we set goals like ‘lose 10 lbs in 2 months?’

Maybe we should be focusing on things that we have direct control over, like what goes in our mouths every single day and exercising with some kind of consistent frequency?

Why not make a goal like, “I’m going to eat vegetables with every meal today?”

In doing so, you would most likely:

  • Lower your caloric intake naturally (vegetables are low in calories) to support your objectives.
  • Set yourself up for a small win for today, the next day, and next week…snowball!!!
  • Actually do this activity (losing weight is not something you actually do, you have do things like this in order to lose weight) regularly
  • Hit your weight loss objectives over time with greater ease.
  • Experience a lot less psychological stress and emotional burden along the way…

It has become painfully obvious to me over the last four or five years that I’ve accomplished far more since I abandoned using a former goal setting system — a cornerstone of my education in fitness and health promotion — for my updated system.

Living Without Goals

I’ve had many arguments about goals and goal setting over the last few years; a lot of very successful people (at least from my point of view) seem to use them in some way shape or form, which may be the largest reason people are reluctant to give them up.

Our logic?

If it worked for billionaire so and so, they can work for me. OR, they’ve worked for me in the past so I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.

I’d say, you’re not billionaire so and so and just because they’ve worked for you in the past doesn’t mean they are the most effective strategy for success in the future.

Be a skeptic. Question the norm.

Maybe goals just provide a purpose, so maybe you need to work on identifying the purpose of your objectives instead?

A common argument I get is, “Well what do you work towards if you don’t set goals?”

Its true, in reality the idea of working towards anything is quite literally, ‘a goal.’

Even trying to live without goals, could be considered actually a goal.

It’s not really about living without goals, it’s impossible to live without them.

Getting out bed in the morning is a goal.

Going to work in the morning is a goal.

Sending out an email after receiving one is a goal.

Returned a phone call is a goal.

Writing a blog post is a goal.

And well you get the idea. It is quite literally impossible to ‘live without goals’ in this respect.

What I’d ask you to really consider losing is the traditional method.

Instead, allow your intent and focus in life to align with a process or system, that will get you the results or outcomes you seek, and are generally themselves beyond your direct and immediate control.

Focus on what you can do today, to change your odds. Then revisit, daily and/or weekly things that will compound over-time and amount to your desired result.

A Clean Look

Anytime I get some new insight or new verbiage that might contribute to you the reader finding more success in fitness, I really want to post about it.

In the past I’ve used the term, set process oriented goals, but I’m starting to believe that building a system is a more accurate term for what I propose.

The title of this post is actually a quote from a really outstanding article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) by Dilbert creator Scott Adams, and his outlook on success.

He also has a pretty new book, maybe one of the best I’ve read on the concepts of ‘success,‘ called, “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.”

Some remarkable insights from this article (and book):

  • Goals are for Losers. Winners create their own SYSTEMS (or as I have previously called them Processes).
  • Everybody’s system by design should be somewhat different and uniquely their own – you can’t just copy successful people and expect to find the same success.
  • Knowing what other successful people do or have done, might not really have as much relevance to you and your situation as many of us would like to believe, while in other situations, there could be a lot of relevance.
  • Don’t follow your passion. Passion follows ability (hence why this blog is called Skill Based Fitness – emphasis is placed on building fitness skills), a sentiment that is more than compellingly argued in Cal Newport’s Book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.”
  • Passion is not a constant. You will have down times, and failures will make you rethink and revisit ‘passion.’ (This may explain why people who fail with huge fitness objectives often feel like they suck at fitness – hey, I’ve worked in the industry for almost a decade and even I sometimes don’t want to go to the gym or cook a healthy meal at home).
  • Banks don’t lend money to people with passion, they lend to people with a desire to work hard on good plans — for good reason, people with ‘passion’ are often beyond ‘reality.’
  • A big reason to favour systems over goals, is because systems continually look for better options by nature (rather than an end-point, another synonym for ‘goal;’ see my article on Kaizen).
  • ‘Luck’ may have something to do with it, but successful people are often crafting the best system for dramatically increasing their odds of luck.
  • Failure is actually a great opportunity for making you stronger, smarter, more talented, better networked, healthier, energized and ultimately more effective. It’s a resource (like energy, or skillset) that you can actually manage.

Scott is actually a lot more blunt than I tend to be (and I’m pretty blunt) but this is a highly recommended read.

It’s important to challenge your own thinking process on a semi-regular basis, even if you don’t agree with him or me on this.

My favourite quote from the article:

“If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent pre-success failure.”

Here’s some additional reading on the pitfalls of goal-setting as well…

What are your thoughts on fitness success? Goals: Yay or Nay?