Setting and Achieving Goals: A Cheat Sheet

Goals. Without them, we would probably be wondering aimlessly on the Earth. Ambling about without a purpose. 

Goals guide us on our paths to wherever we see ourselves in the future. 

We have been taught to set goals…to have a plan for our lives. We have been setting goals for as long as we can remember. However, we have  also probably experienced setting goals …and not achieving them. 

In high school, and even in university I always started the semester on the right foot: with solid plans of how I was going to stay on top of my studies - so I wouldn’t have to cram for exams. For the first few weeks I was always committed. Made a study calendar and everything. Then after the first month, I realized I missed a few days…this cycle continued until I pretty much forgot about the study schedule. 

This is a pretty simple example, but there have been many, many more unaccomplished goals (which were undoubtedly more critical or important than these study schedules). 

What’s the secret behind setting goals and accomplishing them? Lean in. 

Goals are our blueprint for our lives. We have already established this. But the difference with some of our goals and an actual blueprint (like, for construction) is that the contractor knows that this is just a guide and depending on whatever they find, then changes have to be made. 

We don’t treat our goals like this. Instead of fluid and dynamic; they are static and stationary. They become iron statues in our lives that eventually represent insurmountable obstacles; sometimes even hindrances; and when they are not accomplished - reminders of our failure. 

The goals we set for our lives usually have an age limit for marriage; for achieving success (however we measure it); for having children; and for retirement. 

Zat Rana, Medium contributor (and one of my favourite writers) noted in this article that the problem with these “concrete” goals or these goals set in stone, is that they seek to “predict an unpredictable future”. He went on to say that we can never know whether we are going in the right direction without hindsight - something that will not be an option if we hang on to those concrete goals.

A second problem with concrete goals, is that they become an anchor. "You bind your expectations of happiness and contentment onto something so singular that you often forget that other things in your life are capable of adding just as much joy to your experience than the thing you’re so fixated on”.

Another Medium contributor, Mike Fishbein, said something similar about means and ends goals. “Means goals are the tangible outcomes we want to achieve…like get 6-pack abs” (source). Mike writes that the problem with means goals is that you are in a constant state of underachievement until you get to the goal; and it is also binary - you either achieve it or you don’t - no grey areas. 

Now, “ends goals are ultimate destinations. Ends goals reflect one’s personal values.

To get to the ends goal behind a means goal, ask why you want your means goals”.Why do you want that six pack? Maybe because you want to focus on your health and fitness.

Mike shared his own experience with ends goals: “My ends goals are achieved constantly. But at the same time, they’re never really completed. They’re something to perpetually improve upon. By not setting expectations, I’m constantly satisfied. I gain confidence and build from that”.

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This article by James Clear (which is really an excerpt from his book) really sums up the points Zat and Mike were driving home. It’s more than the goal, it’s really about the process. He asks: “if you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still succeed? For example, if you were a basketball coach and you ignored your goal to win a championship and focused only on what your team does at practice each day, would you still get results?” 

His response is yes, because “goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress”. This is important for us to remember, because if we could find success in just setting goals, then why hasn’t everyone else (including me) achieved their goals. James notes that the winners and losers have the same goals, but points out that “[while] the goal had always been there. It was only when they implemented a system of continuous small improvements that they achieved a different outcome”. Focusing on systems…not goals is what leads to our success in achieving goals. Being intentional about the process to our vision, but also being able to modify our path when roads are under construction. 

James highlights the point that goals only present a momentary change. 

“Imagine you have a messy room and you set a goal to clean it. If you summon the energy to tidy up, then you will have a clean room—for now. But if you maintain the same sloppy, pack-rat habits that led to a messy room in the first place, soon you’ll be looking at a new pile of clutter and hoping for another burst of motivation. You’re left chasing the same outcome because you never changed the system behind it. You treated a symptom without addressing the cause”.

Our lives are always changing, so our goals must reflect and adapt to the ever-changing world around us. These goals are really about personal development; how can you be the best version of you. This is the ultimate goal. If you focus on being the best version of you everyday then the system you create around your goals can only propel you to excellence. 

This is not the time for mediocrity, It is the time for excellence. Let us embrace the process, and not just the vision.