Are Goals Worth the Trouble?

"I guess I thought the view would be more spectacular..."

"I guess I thought the view would be more spectacular..."

I have failed at SO many goals.

It’s not that I haven’t approached goal setting with enthusiasm or a good plan. Every New Year’s Day for the last 10 years I could be found mapping out educational, physical, professional, and social goals for my own betterment, but the results have been lackluster at best:

  • Do ten consecutive pull-ups by July (Pffft! Not even, I’m still a weakling)
  • Read one book every month (close?)
  • Find a wife! (eventually got there...5 years later)

These are only the ones in recent memory. These and countless others went unaccomplished. In fact, most of them were completely forgotten about after a few months.

Why Set Goals When We Constantly Fail?

Despite our failings, goal setting is still a frequent, meaningful exercise for many people. Aside from New Years’ resolutions, we have goals in the workplace, for our families, and even financial goals.

So why do we fail to achieve them? I read through a bunch of articles on the topic which revealed literally hundreds of points to tell us why we are failing:

  • Our goals are too vague
  • We procrastinate
  • We listen to people who discourage us
  • We make excuses
  • We lack priorities
  • We lack a deadline
  • We lack a plan
  • We lack a magical discipline unicorn (made that one up, but it might help)

I don’t put a lot of weight in “listicles” like these, and I hope you don’t either. As if any collection of cleverly-titled musings are capable of explaining our deeply-rooted, human frailties.  The fact remains, however, that we stink at this stuff.

Changing the Conversation

Here’s the thing, though. As much as this topic has been beat to death, I still think the idea of goal setting is worth it. We just need to change the conversation a bit.

Because isn’t it worth picturing a better you at some point in the future? It’s important to see what your retired self looks like in 30 years. It’s worth seeing yourself improve and develop, reaching beyond your typical capabilities.

I believe most articles and other goal-focused resources lack two elements that are important to achieving meaningful things.

First, Create a Vision

Brett and Kate McKay, authors of the fantastic blog The Art of Manliness, make the argument that vision is superior to goals. Goals have their place, but goals focus on an inferior WHAT, rather than a superior WHY.

Goals, they note, are things we do in order to get a desired outcome. By definition though, they are finite. Once they’re achieved, they’re done.

I know someone, for instance, who felt confident he could lose weight in order to improve his health. With rigorous exercise and lower calorie intake, he reached his goal, and he looked incredible! But it was just a goal; something to achieve. To be able to say, “I told you I can do it.” A short while later, the weight came back on.

Brett and Kate go on,

“A vision, on the other hand, is a broad, all-encompassing idea of HOW you want your life to look, feel, and be in the future. When you close your eyes and imagine your ideal life, that’s a vision. Unlike goals, it’s open-ended. There’s never a specific moment when you can say, “I achieved my vision.” It’s an ideal that you strive for and may get close to achieving, but because it’s an ideal, you’ll never entirely arrive at it.”

Goals Versus Vision in Financial Life

Let’s illustrate how this would work for someone working towards saving for retirement.

Goal: Retire at age 65 with 80% of my current pre-tax income and leave at least $200,000 to my favorite charitable organization.

Vision: I want to be a person who continually gives throughout my retirement. To live comfortably and have my needs met is important, but I always want to be able to contribute in meaningful, material ways. When I’m about to die, I want to be able to look back on my 25 years of retirement and say, “Wow, I lived an entirely other life, and it was awesome.”

See the difference?

Goals are still important elements to working towards a vision.  But remember that goals are about doing (the “WHAT”) while vision is about becoming (the “WHY”). Vision is extremely powerful and provides a foundation on which to build subsequent goals.

Once You Have Vision, Seek Accountability

Accountability is crucial.  For many of us, this is what gets us into the gym, working at a more fulfilling job, or in better financial shape. That’s because we aren’t left to our own devices. With accountability we have someone who says, “Hey, you told me you were gonna do this!” Or even better, “Hey, we committed to doing this thing together and you didn’t come through. What’s the deal?

With accountability, it’s no longer you relying on yourself for motivation. You’ve involved a confidante who can help you fulfill your vision.  A spouse who helps you stay focused on growing your business, or a friend who shows up at the gym at 6am, fully expecting you to be there as well.

I’m not going to call these two points a sure-fire way to achieve what you want out of life. This blog post could be added to the list of yet another article prescribing a fix for our goal failings.

I simply to invite you to consider vision and accountability when making plans for your life, instead of goals only. You may find them to be essential pieces to a more driven, purposeful life.