Most of your life, you’ve probably been told you need to set goals. Whether professionally or personally, the “experts” tell you that you’ll never accomplish anything if you don’t set clear goals for yourself and work toward them. Well, that’s not entirely true. I mean, it can help, and it can be true, but setting goals can actually be detrimental, too.
One of the big problems with goal setting is that human brains are dumb, easily-fooled creatures. When you imagine some dazzling future where all your dreams have come true, and you’re really able to see it, taste it, and feel it, it’s not a good thing. When we visualize something, strongly and in detail, we get a happy rush, and a sense of fulfillment–that’s because our dumb brain thinks it actually happened! This can lead to loss of motivation, rather than pushing us forward. Our brain is all “Why should we keep struggling? That’s no fun–we already got it!” It’s definitely okay to think about the future, but thinking about it too hard leads to just that: a lot of thinking and no doing.
Here are a few other ways goals can actually trip you up:
- Keeping us single-minded. When we create a goal, and focus solely upon it, this doesn’t allow us to notice anything else in our field of vision. If your goal is to one day become a bestselling author, that’s a big goal, but it dismisses all the other possibilities. Even if you never become a bestseller, you could still make a respectable career out of writing, or even pay the bills with it. The best kind of goals are broad, not singular: I want to be a bestseller vs. I want to have a fulfilling writing career and attain a base of readers who enjoy my work. Detailed goals put intense pressure on us to get things exactly right, when there’s plenty of other like-minded things that would make us just as happy.
- Not exploring other paths. This is an important lesson I learned recently. When we set goals, we tend to construct the path that leads to them, as well. “I’ll do this, and then this, and this, and then I’ll get what I want!” Except, if you’ve spent any time on this planet, you know what happens to the best laid plans. It’s important to stay open to possibilities that aren’t on your path. Instead of rigidly sticking to a game plan, you should keep your eyes open for surprises and unusual opportunities. These are the things that open doors for us, doors we weren’t even aware were there for us to walk through. For me, I started writing a book with a clear intention of where I’d send it when it was done–until a different kind of opportunity popped up out of nowhere. Instead of saying “no, that wasn’t the plan,” I’m giving it a shot. I’ll keep myself open to possibilities, instead of refusing to bend. Will it work out? Only time will tell.
- Dismissing reality. When we set goals, we sometimes don’t think about our abilities. We want to achieve things that we don’t actually have all the skills or tools for. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn those skills or gain those tools, but fooling ourselves and being overly optimistic doesn’t do us any favors. Setting a lofty goal you’re not actually equipped to reach, and then refusing to confront that reality and put in the groundwork will make sure you never get anywhere near that goal. Ambition is good, but practicality is better. You have to set up the poles before you erect a tent.
- Crushing us with defeat. When we set a goal, and it’s unmovable, unshakable, and we’re not willing to compromise on it, and then we don’t achieve it, what happens? We think we’re a failure, a loser, that we fooled ourselves and wasted time. Even if we got somewhere and learned a few things, because we didn’t take the whole kit and kaboodle, we consider it a disaster. This leads to depression, frustration, and self-hatred. It makes us not want to try again. Having broader goals and still celebrating the small victories is important–so is constantly changing your plan, when the world alters things for you. And trust me, it will. Single-mindedness leads to nothing but unhappiness when things don’t work out.
None of this means we shouldn’t have goals and strive for things we want. But clinging too hard, making the rules unbreakable, and only staring straight ahead is sure to sink you into a hole in the road you didn’t see coming. The best way to set goals, the way that won’t fool your dumb brain into thinking you already did it, is:
- Keep them broad, instead of specific.
- Be open to alterations in your plan and explore unexpected opportunities when they appear.
- Enjoy and live in the satisfaction of progress instead of only staring at the goal posts.
- Understand your limitations, and decide how much work you want to put in to break them.
- Don’t turn failures into catastrophes.
Everyone has goals. It’s part of human nature, setting something up for ourselves. However, it’s important to remember that goals dwell in the uncertain future. The present is where you have to build the foundation you’ll need to stand on when you have that goal in hand–and we don’t have a blueprint for that foundation, but it’s okay. Just get to work. It will form, against all odds.