The key to setting better goals is to make them about action, not outcome.
About two years ago, I decided I wanted to write a book.
I knew what the title was going to be, what it was going to be about, most of the chapters/subtopics—I even knew what I wanted the cover to look like.
And so I figured that since I knew what I wanted to write about and was committed, then it would happen.
But it didn’t…
I spent three months floundering around at my keyboard not making much progress at all.
I’d wake up one day and write a bit about X. Then I’d get distracted or frustrated or stuck, and work on something else.
A couple days later I’d write a bit about Y. Then I’d get distracted or frustrated or stuck and I’d work on something else.
After 3+ months of this, I’d written a mere handful of pages.
Not a promising start.
Eventually, I did write the book. And pretty quickly too. But not before figuring out something really important about the nature of goals and how we define them.
The two big mistakes I made with my goal of writing a book
When I first started, my goal was to write a book.
More specifically, my goal was this big idea of writing a whole book. And while it seemed clear enough at first blush, it was really a pretty ambiguous and vague goal.
Every time I sat down to write my book, I’d start off feeling nervous and hesitant because I didn’t know where to start.
Even though I knew the general topics of each chapter, I had no idea which chapters ought to come first or how to begin writing a chapter.
So I’d sit there at my computer, bang out a few sentences, then get stuck because I didn’t really know what I was supposed to be working on.
The vagueness of the goal lead to confusion, and the confusion lead to frustration and disappointment.
As a result of all this negative emotion building up, I’d retreat into distraction and procrastination.
This story continued for months until I stumbled on an old idea from graduate school and helped me re-think my goals…
Learning to be SMART with my goals
At some point in my second year of grad school, everybody starts talking about the horrors of writing a dissertation.
They explained to us that it’s not like other papers and projects you can just crank out last minute and still expect to get a decent grade on.
Dissertations, they warned ominously, take years to write.
As a result, my classmates and I got inundated with a barrage of meetings and workshops and other resources for “getting on top of your dissertation early” and doing it “the right way.”
Some were helpful and some a waste of time.
At one of these dissertation meetings, they apparently handed out a worksheet entitled “SMART Goals.”
I say apparently because I don’t remember getting this worksheet and I certainly do not remember putting the advice into action.
But one day, as I was in the middle of procrastinating from working on my book, I was clearing out an old folder from grad school and found it.
It still looked painfully hokey and boring. But then again, it was better than struggling with my writing so I gave it a glance over.
You can see it and download it yourself here if you’re interested (I found the original source online):
The gist of SMART Goals is that effective goals adhere to 5 key criteria, which are encoded in the SMART mnemonic: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-focused, and Time-bound.
While they all made sense to me abstractly, the Specific and Achievable parts hit me over the head like a ton of bricks.
My goal of writing a book was the exact opposite of these: it was incredibly vague and hugely unachievable.
When I sat down to write, I had no idea of what I was supposed to be writing about specifically. Even worse, I had no idea what success or achievement looked like for my writing that day.
My vague goal was a set-up for frustration and disappointment, which ultimately lead to procrastination and lack of progress.
Of course, the solution was to be more specific with my goals. But this wasn’t the key insight.
Most of us intuitively understand that a specific goal is easier to work on and achieve than a vague one. The question that fascinated me was:
Why didn’t I remember that as I set out to write a book? How did I get hoodwinked into setting such a bad goal for myself?
Why the language we use for our goals matters
The SMART worksheet was helpful because it got me thinking about goals more generally and how we think about them.
For me, when I think about the idea of goals, there are actually two different meanings embedded within that term:
- A goal is something I aspire to, ideally, something meaningful and important to me.
- A goal is something I want to do or accomplish.
The term goal is confusing because it doesn’t distinguish between the end product and the steps necessary to get there.
Sometimes we use it to signify the result: My goal is to lose 20 pounds.
But sometimes we use it to signify the steps required to achieve that result: My goal is to work out 5 days a week.
Making this distinction clear for ourselves is essential to effective goal-setting and, eventually, achieving the things we care about.
My confusion about what to work on with my writing was a result of my confusion about what the term goal really meant.
How I finally made progress on my book by changing my definition of goals
Instead of trying to use the term goal to refer to both the end product and my daily to-dos, I split those two apart:
- My aspiration was to write a book. This is the end product and final vision.
- My goals became what I wanted to accomplish in each writing session. For example, a typical revised goal for my book project would be something like, write intro section to chapter 6. Or. Proofread chapter 2.
By using this new term aspiration to signify the end product, I was freed up to use goals to signify the much more specific and achievable actions that I needed to accomplish on a regular basis.
This lead to more specificity and clarity with what I needed to do each day. As a result, I felt less stuck and frustrated, and therefore less likely to procrastinate and make more progress.
What it all means
We often have a hard time making progress toward our goals because our definition of goals is unclear. We use it to mean both an outcome as well as an action that will lead to a desired outcome.
This confusion leads to habitually vague, non-specific goals which in turn leads to frustration and procrastination.
One solution I’ve found is to use the term aspiration to refer to the final result and reserve the term goal for the steps needed to get there.
This re-definition of goals tends to make them far more specific and achievable. And as a result, we procrastinate less and get more done.