You Should Stop Setting Goals

They aren’t making you a better person

Photo by nappy from Pexels

As a society, we’re obsessed with the future — that amorphous blob that’s shaped based on the choices we make today. According to self-improvement gurus, the future is completely under our control with a little motivation and focus. We can shape our tomorrows, simply by setting goals. Aim little red dots on your dreams and make your hard work count for something.

If like me, you’ve set more goals than you can remember, perhaps it’s time to take a closer look. Are goals really jet thrusters propelling you to greater heights or simply brick-filled suitcases that you’ve been lugging around?

It’s certainly difficult to escape career goals, given that it’s how we’ve always run our workplaces and organizations. Personal professional goals and team goals feed into bigger company targets that in turn feed the corporate goal of total world domination.

Even in your personal life, there they are: #SquadGoals, #FitnessGoals, #FamilyGoals.

And remember those times when you didn’t meet a goal? That crushing disappointment, wondering what you could have done differently to change outcomes. Even if you did hit the target, the satisfaction is way too fleeting. Naturally, your first thought is, what’s next? Before you know it, you’re back on the grind trying to raise the bar.

The problem is that this constant chase with outstretched arms is neither sustainable nor is it enjoyable. It’s a path that leads to burnout, self-loathing, and eventually, you give up on goals altogether. How many New Year’s Eve resolutions have been left to languish once March rolls around?

There is a better way. If goals are like a fad diet, this is more of a lifestyle change. A way of appreciating the journey rather than the destination.

The Gold Standard

The gold standard was once a monetary system where the value of a country’s currency was defined in terms of gold. This fixed price was used to determine the value of the currency to make exchanges fair. While the system was abandoned in the 1930s, the phrase is still used to describe something that’s the best in class, the most reliable, or most valued.

What if you could start charting Gold Standards for yourself — a set of benchmark expectations and behaviors that guide your path. It’s not anchored to an end-point accomplishment, rather a promise to live by.

Take the following goals versus standards:

“My goal is to purchase my first home by the age of 30,” versus, “I save 10% of every paycheck.”

“I will run a marathon in 2021,” versus, “I exercise in the mornings to get energized for work”.

When you don’t meet goals, it’s much easier to blame external factors and circumstances for the failure. Maybe the housing market didn’t favor first-time home buyers, or an injury kept you from signing up for the race. Standards, however, are more like routine habits that are unwavering in the midst of shifting circumstances. They aren’t based on aspirational ideas or wishful thinking, instead, drawing upon your ethics, values, and principles you live by. You’re held accountable for meeting your personal standards.

See what sticks
We know how to set goals; they have to be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound) to be good ones.

There isn’t such a clean formula for generating your standards. The bulk of the work isn’t in setting them but instead lies in making them stick.

My advice is to first identify areas in your life that you want to work on, limiting it to between 3 to 5 focus areas, to begin with.

Say you decide on the following: Career, Relationships, and Health.

Now, take a closer look at why you chose these categories. Is there something that’s lacking, or that you’d like to improve? Brainstorm ways that your actions could be influencing your experiences in these areas. Could you be holding on to self-limiting beliefs about what your capabilities and potential?

Next, start drafting your standards: What you expect from yourself in these parts of your life. These shouldn’t be too unattainable or difficult to start doing immediately. They could be framed as daily practices or mental frameworks.

Career — “I approach work tasks with a sense of joy and commitment to excellence.”
Relationships — “I check-in with family members every week.”
Health — “I do yoga for at least 15 minutes every evening.”

Take stock on a regular cadence (weekly works best for me) and measure where you’re at with the standards you set. Were you able to meet them, or perhaps they need to be tweaked to make them more doable given what you’ve got going on? They should keep you just at the upper limit of your comfort zone — not too easy that you don’t even need to try, nor should they be so exhausting to meet that all you want to do is drop them.

Ultimately, your standards should become synonymous with who you are as a person. You won’t just be working hard for that promotion at work, but you’ll be the person on the team known for taking on every project with a smile and delivering exceptional work. You won’t have goal tunnel-vision, losing sight of your meaning or purpose at the expense of meeting a mark. It’s a more holistic approach to self-improvement. Sure, some days will test you, but the great thing about standards is that they aren’t transient like goals.

Whether you’re maintaining a baseline or creating a new normal, setting standards can be a stress-free way to grow into the person you want to be. Track and reassess what you’ve been working on regularly and craft higher (or just different) standards to elevate your performance.

Cat person, PhD-qualified Cell Biologist & Science Writer. Interested in trends and emerging technologies in the biopharma industry.

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