Here’s What You Should Be Doing Instead Of Setting Goals

Goals spread in a journal

Photo: Alexa Williams

We’re halfway through the year already. How are your New Year’s goals doing?

It seems about the right time to check in now, isn’t it? You get to take stock of how you’ve done, and you still have time to re-steer the ship if things haven’t gone according to plan.

If you find that you haven’t even started on goals however, just know that you’re not alone. According to a random study I pulled up (and we know the internet never lies), less than eight percent of people actually meet their New Year’s goals.

I don’t know what the reason could be, but perhaps it has to do with this quote: “You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall the level of your habits.” I forgot who it was that said that, but there’s no denying the logic behind the quote.

Habit is the ‘in’ thing right now (well, it’s always been the ‘in’ thing, but we’re seeing a revival), and people like Scott Adams and James Clear have been known to champion the power of habit.

But what does this mean to normal people like me and you? Good question. And that’s exactly what we’re going to be exploring today.

The power of concrete goals

If you had a bunch of self-help books from the seventies in your house growing up (Zig Ziglar, anyone?), then you’re probably used to the art of goal setting and how to make them more tangible.

So ‘losing weight’ can be revised into ‘lose ten pounds’, and ‘earn more money’ translates to ‘study for that certification that’ll net you the promotion’.

But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re just goals, and simply laying them out won’t bring you closer to making them happen.

This is where habit comes in. And a collection of said habits turn into a system. One that you could use to automate your path to realising your plans.

What’s the big deal?

Here’s where I throw you another amazing quote I’ve come across, and that’s: “Winners and losers have the same goals.”

Think about that for a second. You don’t get a priority lane to reaching your goals just because you wrote them in a notebook somewhere. In the end, everything depends on the actions you take, and the more worthwhile your goals, the longer it’s going to take you to get there.

So what do you fill your days with? More wishful thinking? Or little steps that could actually multiply over the course of years?

Let me give you a personal example. I’d always wanted to write a novel. In fact, I’d harboured the idea for eight full years before I actually started on it.

Did I suddenly revamp my writing goals? Not really. In fact, they remained on the exact same piece of paper the entire time. The only thing that changed were my habits. I had finally started committing to writing at least 250 words a day, and that habit would see me through my fourth novel today.

And that’s just one example. Now imagine how much different your life could be if you’d just get off your ass and start a system of your own.

Stop looking at results

This is another problem with goals. When you’re too focused on results, you tend to only do things just for the sake of metrics. In essence, you try to acquire, not become.

This can be a huge problem when you don’t care how you arrive at your destination. Goals such as losing ten pounds or getting a thousand more views on your blog can take a sinister turn when the methods stop mattering.

Because losing ten pounds is pretty damn easy if you do it by shedding water weight, but how sustainable is that to your actual long-term visions?

And getting an additional thousand views each month could be done through spamming all the Facebook groups you’re currently in, but how many months could you keep that up without being banned and despised?

This is why it’s important to know the difference between acquiring and becoming. This is also why it’s important to fall back to systems (after you’ve built a reliable one, of course).

Three teams standing on an Olympics podium

Keep your eyes on the prize, but not until you lose your way. Photo: Simon Connellan

Enter the system

As intimidating as it sounds, creating a system doesn’t have to be painful. You don’t need to pick up the keto diet or run five kilometres a day if all you want to do is lose weight.

You just need to make sure that there’s a way you could spend your time and end up in a better place than you were before.

In my case, I had based my system on a couple long-term goals and a few ‘for fun’ ones. My daily plan ended up looking something like this:

  • Learn two new Chinese characters
  • Write at least 250 words
  • Meditate at least 12 minutes
  • Do any exercise as long as I sweat
  • Eat five servings of fruits and vegetables
  • Practise my penmanship
  • Sketch something, even one line

With that, I achieved some pretty amazing results. Here’s an Instagram link to one of my sketches, and this is how my penmanship looked like after a year. Note that these were my fun goals. I didn’t even know I’d come this far.

Oh, and besides completing the aforementioned fourth manuscript, I can also now hold basic written Chinese communications on WhatsApp and Facebook after a year. Not bad, eh?

What about you? What systems can you put in place so that the older you will look back in gratitude?

It’s all about the process

If there’s anything setting lofty goals has taught me, it’s that even the ‘funnest’ things have their sucky bits.

This is coming from someone who once dreamed of becoming a top Starcraft 2 player in Malaysia. You’d think that my interest in video games would’ve at least carried me through the endless hours of playing ladder. Nope.

There were so many other things involved in being a good player. You had to train your APM (actions per minute), and that’s done by drilling movements over and over. You had to dedicate an entire day’s worth of gaming to getting better, and you had to do that over the course of years. You had to study replays, learn the metas, and know the matchups for race.

That’s when I learned that just because I liked something didn’t mean I’d enjoy the process.

The trick to creating a strong system is being okay with the processes you’ll repeat day after day, year after year. If you think the drive is going to suck, then perhaps it’s the wrong journey for you.

This certainly puts goals into perspective doesn’t it? What’s the phrase again? That everybody wants change but nobody wants to change?

When you think about it, this is definitely a better way to look at your goals.

But life is about balance

Now, having said all that, I’d just like to remind you that neither goals nor systems are better than the other. They’re just different, and you’ll be doing yourself a disservice by only sticking to one of them.

After all, you can’t hit a goal you can’t see, but you also can’t make things happen if you don’t constantly work your butt off.

So take those steps to a better life, but don’t forget which way you’re headed. And at the end of the day, no matter how you go about it, just remember that taking one single step each day is better than waiting for the perfect moment to make a hundred.

65 thoughts on “Here’s What You Should Be Doing Instead Of Setting Goals

  1. So true, Stuart! I’ve recently tried this strategy after reading the likes of this post, and it does work!
    So about a month ago, I started writing a novel, but I didn’t really feel special; I started many novels, and from the inside I hoped to finish it but knew I wouldn’t. And then here comes the magic: I committed to writing a thousand words every day during the last hour before I sleep. The result? MAGIC.
    Not only did I finish 30% of my goal, I also learned to write and focus quicker. At first, it took me an hour to write these one thousand words, but by now — fifteen days into this new activity — I can finish them in no more than 30 minutes if I’m focused.
    Which is why, if I may add another tip to your post, it’s that an easy way to finish these mini daily goals is to do them at the same times every day. If you’re committed to learning one new thing, I think it’s good to do it either at the beginning or the end of the day, where you often will not have emergencies and other stuff getting in the way.
    I apologize for the long comment, but I just want to tell you, the tips here are awesome!
    Great blogging :)

    • Whoa, I have to say that completing 1,000 words in less than 30 minutes is a great feat. That’s some amazing work there, and I hope you get to increase your output even more. Pretty soon you’ll be blazing through your novels!

      That’s a great tip too, and I’m truly grateful you decided to share it. No apologies needed. Your comment was super valuable. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I’ve looked over a lot of my goals for this year and I’m on track because I’ve implemented a system where I set production targets or tasks. It was a matter of applying discipline, control, and never commit self-abasement if something didn’t happen. Staying on top of myself and keeping in mind what I want to accomplish motivates my drive. Thanks for sharing.

    • Not freaking out on yourself whenever you miss a task is one of the hardest things to do, yet it’s so important. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, as it’ll definitely be helpful to anyone reading it. Love your comment!

    • Thanks so much for the support, Jim! There have been times when I wondered if there was a point to all this, and if I can ever create something out of my non-existent skills, but your kind words really add that little bit of encouragement to it all.

      • well it really seems like your approach to setting goals and achieving them works for you, so you should feel confident sharing such an approach with others…

  3. I can’t remember if I set any goals, and if I did, I doubt I achieved them anyway, so it’s a wash. My level of procrastination lately is off the charts and the more behind I get, the worse it becomes. I need to think more about the development of a system, especially taking into account personal limitations. I think I bite off more than I can chew and then I give up on everything. We need to know ourselves first, I guess. BTW jealous as hell of your handwriting and sketch.

    • Oh yeah, I can totally relate to procrastination and how it feels worse the longer you put things off. As much of a big game I like to spout, I have super troubles with keeping up with my systems sometimes, and at days it just feels like brute force more than anything else.

      Also, glad you liked the sketch and penmanship, because it’s not something I’m naturally gifted at, so your words are pretty encouraging to me :)

  4. I quite agree about ‘not looking at results’.
    In one situation, people at a workplace would get pressured so much because of wanting to achieve the daily revenue that they have to make…even though it is not possible due to the current situation.
    One person said…they lack gratitude due to constantly complaining because of not reaching that ‘result’.

    From my own experience lately, like yesterday…I started to play scrabble a bit, and in that ‘world’, the points would be ‘the money’…and of course winning means having more than the opponent.
    When I started to think of the points…like wanting more and more points, I would get stressed out because I put pressure on myself, and probably even worst if I didn’t get the target/result…which was to win (higher points than the opponent).
    Then, it came to me…to just go along with whatever that comes to my mind. What happened next, I ended up winning…but I didn’t think of winning nor the points.

    It’s like the world of scrabble is this world, the points equals money, winning equals having more money or better result than another person…then, it is pressuring for me to live by focusing on money or being better than another person.
    What is not pressuring…is myself just going with life and whatever ideas and inspiration that come to me. For me to go with that, life is…worthy.

    The system that I can put in place so that the older me will look back in gratitude?
    Nothing comes to my mind about it…perhaps, I’m just not ready to know that yet.

    The daily plan so far (without realizing it) are:
    – Two Meditations
    – WordPress, Instagram, and My Poetic Side
    – Praying for a specific few people (out of True Gratitude)
    – Blessing Everyone
    – Self-Affirmations

    I don’t know, like what would that above…tell you about me?
    Those are the things that I would have the urge to do daily, and overall…from my perspective, I sound like a spiritually inclined person, but I don’t like to be labeled like that due to past experiences.

    In short, those are the things that to me…if I don’t do them, the future me…would probably regret it.

    • Your comments are always very substantial and explores lots of great points, and I’m always grateful to read the things you have to share.

      I think making your decisions based on what you might regret NOT doing is also a great way to go about it, because sometimes, discovering what we want by learning what we DON’T want is the only way to go. Thanks again for your support on the blog as well as for the book!

  5. Yes, often times I just tell myself to do something instead of sitting there planning an the ins and outs (which, I think, is probably a distraction from actually doing)!

  6. Couldn’t agree more. One step after another, even if it’s baby steps. No lofty goals needed, yet satisfaction is guaranteed. Press on Stu!! Or in Chinese characters that would be 加 油!

    • Oh yeah. To be fair, I’ve also felt so much more contentment from tackling my daily tasks instead of reaching my goals. So maybe I’m more predisposed to using systems vs. goals. Anyway, thanks for stopping by, Kelvin!

  7. This is very helpful I liked the quote about winners and losers having the same goals… That’s deep, I guess the difference is in how we actually execute the plan to get goals.
    I stopped making New year’s resolutions since I felt it made me focus more on results and you just shared a thought I had never quite put into words about how an obsession with results can have you creating a system which might get the goals done but isn’t sustainable

    I sometimes mentor newbie bloggers and one of the first questions they ask me is how to get more traffic and I tell them that they shouldn’t then even look at analytics until they have managed to stick to a posting schedule instead of just link dropping.

    Great Post
    ~B

    • Oh yeah, that’s analytics one is a great one, and it’s a common question too, I believe. It’s how we should approach everything else in life, isn’t it? Don’t look at the scales when you haven’t nailed down your diet and exercise being another good example.

      Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful and useful thoughts here. I appreciate it!

  8. I like how you manage to debunk a cliche, give advice that is actually practical and inspiring, and share your success and progress in a way that feels relatable and not preachy or self-righteous. I enjoyed reading this one. Congrats on your accomplishments!

  9. The results part is something I think the most of us fall over and smack our face on. I think it might be part of humanity’s genetic coding to like shiny things, and goal results are mentally shiny so we focus on that. Then the reality of getting the shiny hits us, we get mad or discouraged, and then move on because the process sucks.
    Which, speaking of process, I really need to learn focus so that I can get a process down for basically everything. If I mastered process discipline I could have been speaking Polish, Spanish and/or Portuguese by now, and have a good collection of pictures (yours is awesome, by the way) and more than one book. Screw it, probably a few ghost hunter videos too, because I used to do that and I sucked at it, but whatevs.

    Long story short. Process discipline is the key to making dreams come true, in my opinion.

    • Oh yeah I too often wonder what I’d be able to achieve had I just remained more disciplined throughout my days.

      And I too get the feeling of wanting that shiny new thing. I guess discovering this process is what we all have to go through, each of us having a unique answer to seek.

      Thanks so much for weighing your thoughts, and for crafting such a well thought out comment!

  10. This is very thought-provoking and interesting. Your daily plan is inspirational and serves as a reminder to start somewhere and do something you want to even if it is little (enter the system, as you termed it)!

    • Oh yeah, we often underestimate what we can do over a long period of time, and discount the little efforts as being ‘too unsubstantial’. Thanks so much for stopping by. I appreciate it!

  11. Great post! Small everyday actions- steps that will get me closer to my goal. That is what I take with me.
    Seems that it works 🙂
    Thank you for this post!

    • Small but consistent steps all the way! It’s a great method for me because I can be pretty lazy at times, and this is my way of coping. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  12. Great post! I think a lot of people believe that getting clear on our goals allows us to subconsciously make decisions that lead us right to them. And this is true…to a point. But that is only half of the picture. Taking deliberate action toward these goals is necessary, and so many people aren’t sure how to do that or give up after not seeing results right away. It’s forced. But I love your take on the action step- changing habits, even in small doses, gets the ball rolling. A reminder we all need at times 🙂

    • You speak the truth! In the end, it’s all about taking action. No amount of thinking or preparing can get you to where you need to be than actually taking those steps.

      Thanks so much for weighing in. You make really great points, and contribute great ideas to other people who might read this. I appreciate it!

  13. The contact is very much on point. It challenges me because, at times, I do procrastinate on some tasks. But on reading this, you get the sense of how you can layoff off some habits.

    • Lol, you’re talking to the master procrastinator here, so I definitely know how you feel. Thanks so much for weighing in your thoughts. I really appreciate it!

  14. This is really practical. Now I feel both bad and a little less guilty that I haven’t been able to meet my new year resolutions. Thanks for the motivation. I am gonna start over.

    • Lol yeah. I have a major problem with that one. I’ve found that to get started easier, I have to trick myself with small steps. It’s the starting that’s often the problem. Thanks for stopping by!

      • I agree. The procrastination is with starting. If only we don’t think and over-think it but just start is what I meant to say. I sometimes finding starting with some things a problem too. Thanks again.

  15. Pingback: Here’s What You Should Be Doing Instead Of Setting Goals – Human Factors

  16. Hmm, I might try that daily plan idea to see if I can build some better habits. I know writing down New Year’s goals has only led me to lowered self-esteem. I even tried setting one goal to work on per month and…other busyness just won out. Also, really good point that focusing on the what rather than the how can lead to some bad decisions. We should always keep in mind whether the ends truly justifies the means when in comes to goals.

    • Yup! This ties in to my two main problems: overthinking and procrastination. Taking things day by day does away with both of them. All I need to do is make sure I do the best I can to move the needle forward.

      Thanks so much for stopping by! Always a pleasure having you around.

    • Oh yeah! To be fair though, everything I’ve ever written down on a piece of paper has mostly come true, but I credit myself for taking the daily steps instead of the goals alone. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  17. Seems like we’re all growing back into the habits mindset!
    I’m trying to make my goals as practical as ever, such as “I drink a sip of water every time I see someone drinking”… I work at a Pilates studio, so people drink at every break in the session!!!

  18. We all make excuses for why we can’t do the things we want to do. But the truth is that it’s never too late to go after your dreams! It’s never too late to be what you might have been.

    In fact, the idea of taking action is so popular these days in the self-help space. Almost everyone emphasized the importance of taking daily, consistent action towards achieving our ultimate goal. But… How can you make taking action a habit? I’ll tell you how.
    “The Only Thing Stopping You From Achieving Your Goal Is INACTION”.

    • Amazing final sentence. Yes indeed, inaction is the only way you can stop yourself from reaching your goals. Not mistakes, not small steps, but just pure inaction. Thanks so much for this great perspective!

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