What’s Wrong With Goals

You’ve heard of S.M.A.R.T. goals, right? Specific, Measurable, Accurate, and I forget what-all. With a smart goal, you always know whether you achieved it or not.

You know the interesting thing about motivations and rewards? They’re tricky to manage. You’ve probably heard that rewarding people monetarily for creative tasks will backfire. Why? Because they were working creatively for the sheer joy of it. You tie money into that equation, and you’ve sucked passion out of it and replaced it with self-interest. Self-interest does not motivate in the same way that passion does.

Goals can be a lot like that. It feels horrible to fall short on a goal. You feel like a failure. You can tell yourself all you want to that “you tried your hardest,” but you’re still going to want to avoid that pain in the future. So in the future, what do you do? You make your goals a little smaller, a little more managable.

We tend to live up to our own expectations of ourselves. That can work for you, or against you.

Motivating the Right Aspect

Typically, if you want to motivate yourself to do something, you construct either a reward or a consequence attached to completing or not completing the task or goal.

Since rewarding good behaviour is way more effective than punishing bad behavior (don’t give me any anecdotes about how good spankings were for you. It’s a lot easier analyze what you did right and more of it that to figure out how you screwed up and what course of action will prevent punishment in the future.) let’s just all pretend like we’re looking for effective ways to reward ourselves for the actions or results we want to perpetuate.

If you’re a checklist user, you know what I’m talking about. You are much more likely to do the smaller tasks on your list so that you can check them of. Here, completion is what triggers a reward– — — any kind of completion, which means that larger, presumable more important tasks have a competitive disadvantage.

At that pointing, people usually turn to ‘chunking,” that is, breaking large tasks into smaller ones. However, I find that this tends to merely balloon a to-do list. You’re still perpetuating the same problem rewarding completion.

Why Rewarding Completion is Ineffective

Completion does not imply quality. Often, it implies a quick and dirty fix, unless your personal work ethic contravenes it. Completion doesn’t imply anything more than that the task is off your list. This tends to breed busywork.

This is actually the main reason I gave up GTD  in favor of Johnny B Truant’s Tao of Awesome (aff), which sets up a system that rewards working toward a particular purpose.

A traditional to-do list is actually completely disassociated with a larger vision. This happens to all kinds of visions, but I see it most with goals that would seem to be unobjectionable. Things like “I want to eat better” become, “No wheat or dairy.” “Drink 2 gallons of water a day.” In simplifying the overall vision down to a dry imperative, you’ve completely undermined its purpose and set yourself up for failure.

Reframing Traditional Goal-Setting

Think about why you do things. It’s cuz you get something out of it, right? To-do lists and the myriad of task-management devices out there didn’t start off as Skinner-box pellet levers — — They started as a way to remind you to do your shit.

But think about this now. You’ve got two types of tasks on your to-do list, right? Habitual tasks, for which your todo list serves as a reminder, and project-related tasks.

Do you see the problem here? Habitual tasks can easily be relegated to a checkbox. Why? They’re brainless. Not the doing of them, but the optimizing of them. My Remember The Milk lists are set up solely with habitual tasks, like writing posts, doing bookkeeping, and doing my weekly review. There’s no experimentation required here.

These tasks should never be mixed up with your projects.

Why? Because your projects should not be reduced to mere check-boxes. It’s a process, not a regimen.

Besides. It’s highly inefficient. But I’ll get back to that later.


In GTD terms a project is anything that requires more than one step. But I prefer to think of it as a mindset. When you create a goal, it’s a vision. You have the end in sight, but not the means. A project is what creates the end.

Projects are flexible. Their specs can change. They can be aborted without it necessarily connoting failure.

A vision is not typically well-defined in a methodical, concrete manner. But we’re all taught to have S.M.A.R.T. goals, so we grab the first symbol that comes to mind and make it our target.

An example: Joe Schmoe is tired of feeling old. He envisions being youthful, energetic, and athletic. He sees himself crossing a finish line, smiling, to the cheers of the crowd. That’s a great vision. He wants to be that guy. So, he sets a goal: He’s going to run a marathon.

He puts on his to-do list: jog 1 mile  and does all the research about how to do it right. Maybe he even signs up for the Couch to 5K program.

But what if Joe doesn’t like running?

He’s got two choices: He can stick it out (winners never quit), or he can drop it. And you don’t need me to tell you, it’s pretty hard not to slip back into your old, couch potato ways after you fail at becoming the athlete in your dreams.

The goal wasn’t flexible enough to support the vision.

But what if Joe had tackled running as a project, one of probably several projects designed to get him to that athletic vision of himself?

You tackle a project, and it’s not a big deal if you hate running. You know it’s only one way you can get to athletic…so you try kick-boxing instead. And then something else, and then something else, all adjusting your aim toward making the qualities of the vision a concrete reality in your life.

But they don’t go on a to-do list. Because that rewards completion, not whether that activity felt right, or served the large vision in the best possible way. It wasn’t optimized.

A project (or, if you still insist, a goal) requires much more attention that the rest of the items on your to-do list, but if you put it on there, its importance is averaged down, I don’t care how you prioritize it.

Projects have to be managed differently.

I’ll tell you how on Friday.

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7 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Goals”

  1. I like this. In the past, I tended to fixate on the thing I was doing, instead of why I was doing it. Keeping the “why” up front helps me reevaluate my goals on a regular basis, so I’m always adjusting course instead of sailing with my head down.

  2. Thanks for the post. This really helped me to rethink how I want (the keyword here) to tackle goals. I’m going to give this a shot tonight. I look forward to your future posts. 

  3. Thanks for this: “Visions” and “Tasks” are very different animals, and MUST be handled differently. I see forgetting that leading me toward overwhelm, every day – though not as *often* every day as in the past. (Persistent bugger to change, that ‘mushing them all together on one list’ habit!)

    1. I know! As crazy-making as it is to have two lists, it’s even MORE crazy making to have all the little stuff on the same list as the important stuff because then you want to get all the little stuff off your plate before you tackle the big stuff. 

      1. or, conversely – pondering all the giganto-huge-big-stuff leads to not *even* getting any of the little stuff done, either! Either way, it’s crazy-making, and doesn’t “get stuff done”! ~ Have a great weekend! 

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