Workables #11: The Tyranny of Goals

For some, goals work. For others, however, goals become dark clouds.

Workables #11: The Tyranny of Goals
Photo by Jr Korpa / Unsplash

A few weeks ago, I was supposed to walk through a goalsetting exercise with some high school students. I started the exercise as per the instructions, but the students immediately groaned. "We set goals all the time," they said.

It's true. Our culture tells us we should set goals and work to achieve them. It's part of what I sometimes call the Cult of Productivity.

Just This
We live in a productivity culture where we measure our value based on how much we improve and how much we produce. How do we move beyond that?

For some people, goals really work. They know how to use goals. They set them. They create action plans. They make things happen.

For others, however, goals become these dark clouds hovering over our heads, these tyrannical little despots who are constantly telling us what we should be doing rather than encouraging us in our creativity.

Goals, goals, goals.

We set them, but we don't really know how to work with them or how to set them properly, so we end up not achieving the goal. The feedback we receive from this process can be pretty damaging: "I'm a failure. I fail."

The belief that you are a failure is absolutely antithetical to the creative ethic we want to produce in ourselves.

Moreover, goals are typically about outcomes. We produce the goal to have the desired effect in the end. Often, however, the outcome is not in our control. For example, if my goal is to publish a book (with a traditional publisher) by the time I'm 45, cool! Great goal! BUT, I don't actually have much control over that. The publishers are gonna do what the publishers are gonna do.

Instead, I need to think about what is going to set me up to write the book. In this case, make my writing practice a habit.

Rather than thinking about goals, I want you to think about habits. Specifically, very small habits that can be formed very easily. The key is to choose something utterly achievable. For me, it's about time. Can I schedule 15 minutes — 15 minutes — to work on my writing? Yes. Put it in the calendar. (I live and die by my Google Calendar, so that's what makes sense for me.)

Got it done? Great! Now, look at the next day, find those 15 minutes and schedule them. Do this for 21 straight days and then think about going from 15 minutes to 20 minutes.

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