The Problem with Goals - The Indigo Project

The Problem with Goals

Everyone raves about goal-setting. I mean, it makes sense. Setting goals is how you move forward and achieve stuff in life, right? 

Well, sometimes. Goals can offer us direction and something to work towards. But what is sometimes not spoken about is how goals can actually be not-so-helpful in a few different circumstances, in fact, they can actually hinder our progress. 

Here’s a few problems with goals, and why they can actually hold us back more than move us forward. 

Problem #1: Winners and losers have the same damn goals.

We always hear lots about winners – people who have heaps of success and are killing it in life. We assume that it was their goals that got them there, e.g. they knew what they wanted and they went and got it. But have you ever stopped to think about the hundreds of thousands of other people who had/have the same goals but are no where near achieving them? What’s up with that?

Problem #2: Achieving a goal only changes things for a moment in time.

Once you achieve a goal, or reach an outcome – it’s done, and it might affect your life momentarily. But soon enough, things will likely return to how they were before. For example, say you have a goal to clean your room. You clean it – tick, goal accomplished. It feels great – lovely clean room, how nice – but in a week’s time, your room is messy again. Nothing has really been changed on an ongoing basis. 

Problem #3: Goals can restrict your happiness.

Have you ever achieved a goal, and it feels great for a hot minute, and then your brain rushes headlong into the next thing you need to accomplish? When we pin our happiness on achieving external goals, our happiness is always somewhere in the future, just out of reach. We never let ourselves be happy when we’re hung up on setting goals, because there are always bigger and better goals that we could be chasing. It never ends. 

Problem #4: Goals are at odds with long-term progress.

Say you’re feeling pretty unfit so you set a goal of running a marathon. You start training and eating right and boom, you do it, you run that marathon. *cue applause* But once you’ve accomplished that goal, why bother training anymore, right? Why bother eating healthy? This often happens, when people smash a goal, they actually go backwards afterwards, because all of the effective habits they put in place they swiftly give up on, once the outcome has been achieved. Achieving goals can actually create roadblocks for long-term progress.

So what can we do instead?

Sometimes it can be more useful to think of systems or processes, rather than goals. Systems are activities/behaviours/habits that you engage in regularly, that allow you to move forward towards the person you most want to be, or the life you most want for yourself. When it comes to systems, there is no end-point, these are ongoing behaviours that work to support you moving towards your best self and best life.

Some examples,

You want to be a fit person, so you have a system of working out for 45min, 3 days a week. 

You want to be a financially secure person, so you have a system where 25% of your weekly pay is automatically transferred into a savings account.

You want to be a better musician, so you have a system where you practice your instrument for 1hr, 3 times a week.

You want to maintain a strong, connected relationship with your partner, so you have a system where you have a date-night on the first Friday night of every month.

You want to nurture your mental health, so you have a system of checking in with your emotional and mental wellbeing every morning and journalling about it. 

Have a think about what type of person you’d like to be, or what you want more of in your life, and instead of setting hard and fast goals, think about what systems you can put in place to move you closer towards that. 

This post was inspired by the writings of James Clear. If you’re looking for cool stuff to read about goal-setting and systems-setting – we recommend his book Atomic Habits!

EMILY SINGLETON
Psychologist

SHAUNTELLE BENJAMIN
Psychologist

LIZ KIRBY
Counsellor & Coach

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