Goal Traps

The end of a calendar quarter and the start of a new one is a great time to set fresh goals for the next 90-days.

In Conscious Growth Club we go through a 5-step quarterly planning process each quarter, whereby our members review their recent progress and then set and share their goals for the coming quarter. As part of this process, I host a live Zoom call to review the goals that members have set and to highlight best practices and potential pitfalls. The intention is to help members set goals they’re more likely to achieve.

We just did one of those calls this morning. I find them motivating and inspiring because they unearth a lot of insights into how we set worthwhile goals and make real progress, one quarter at a time. It’s especially rewarding to watch members improving in this area each time they go through the process. Some have made impressive strides in the past year, getting a lot more clarity about what actually inspires them and what doesn’t. We pay a lot of attention to the relationship between goals and actual results, and that’s a big part of what we explore on these calls.

During these calls, I like to point out some best practices as well as traps to avoid. I thought a nice topic for today’s blog post would be to share some of those tricky traps to avoid, which can reduce the effectiveness of goal setting. This is really just scratching the surface because today’s call was 3 hours long, so we really go into a lot of depth in CGC, but I’ll aim to share some of the less obvious yet still important items instead of those you’ve likely encountered elsewhere.

Deferred Decisions

A goal is a decision and a commitment. Setting goals can be uncomfortable because you’re narrowing your options and tightening your focus, and it’s common to try to keep your options open by pretending to commit. A common way to water down your goals is by defining a goal as a decision to be made and thereby not really committing yourself.

A telltale sign that you’re doing this is your goal includes words like define, decide, identify, figure out, determine, research, etc. Your framing is that your goal is really to make a decision instead of to implement a decision. But if you don’t know what result you’re trying to achieve, you haven’t really set a goal yet.

It’s fine to research a decision if you really need to do that first. But is your research in service to an end result, or are you just waffling and delaying because you feel uncomfortable – and calling it research?

If people can set a goal to go to Mars and then do the research along the way, what’s your excuse for needing to do the research before you’ve committed to a result? Your destination can still be reasonably clear even before the research is done. That takes courage, so be courageous, decide, and commit.

I recommend making the decision when you do your goal setting. That’s part of what setting a goal is about. Make your choice then and there. Don’t punt your decision into the future, or you’ll end up doing that every quarter. Declare the results you intend to achieve before the quarter begins.

If you choose wrong, you’ll find out soon enough, and you can choose a different goal if it’s really that bad. Or keep the same goal, and plot a different course to it. But it’s usually better to start making progress towards one clear target that may not be the best choice, and then change course while you’re in motion, than to keep your target definition unclear to begin with.

Head-Based Goals

While it’s good to set goals that are rational and sensible, recognize that motivation is emotional in nature. You don’t actually have to pursue any goals for rational reasons. Logic alone can’t even say that your survival matters. So goals that are too head-based tend to be weak in terms of their motivational effect.

Head-based goals look great on a screen, and that’s usually where they’ll remain till you abandon them.

Goals need an emotional context to be motivating. It really helps if you associate a sense of meaning, purpose, character transformation, or story progression with your goals. Otherwise you’re likely to remain stuck in your head when you think about acting on a goal, running yourself in circles and not really progressing towards a worthwhile result.

Numbers goals are a common issue here, like making a certain amount of money or hitting a particular exercise target. If there’s no emotional context to the numbers, they may be demotivating instead of motivating. Some numbers may feel significant to you – perhaps earning $10K per month feel coolers than earning $8K per month – but often such goals are better defined from the heart side rather than the head side.

You can still hit your financial targets if you come at them from a story-based angle, and doing so will probably be more fun too. Picture Apple explaining what you can do on one of their new devices, putting the numbers in context and sharing why they matter: This speed means you can now edit 4K videos, and isn’t that super duper cool?

Remember the marketing campaign for the original iPod? Do you remember how much storage it had? What I remember is: 1000 songs in your pocket. Isn’t that a better context for the number than saying it has 5GB of storage?

It’s wise to do the same for your own numbers. Otherwise the numbers probably won’t give you a strong enough reason to care.

You can do this for exercise goals too. Running for 60 minutes each morning is nice, but I find it more meaningful to know that I can run a loop around the nearest casino and back home again because it’s a meaningfully bigger loop that I used to run. Or I can run to a particular park and say hi to a half dozen rabbits I’ll usually see there. Running to the rabbit park and back is a more emotional way to define a goal than running for an hour.

If you’re going to bother with numerical goals, make damned well sure to give them an emotionally meaningful context. That will significantly increase your likelihood of success.

Some processes of goal achievement are more heart-aligned than others too. Your destination may feel emotionally inspiring, but if the process to get there is dreadfully dull, you’ll likely have trouble with consistency.

The actual emotion linked to your goal isn’t that important, as long as it’s meaningful for you and gets your heart in the game. Some people love the energy of edgy or risky goals. Others prefer playful goals. And still others like linking their goals to social connections, so pursuing their goals involves deepening their relationships. What matters is that you feel something that stirs you to act. That something is emotional.

Splatter Goals

Usually people don’t do so well with splatter goals, where it looks like a random list created by throwing darts at a dartboard. Such lists might include a health goal, a social goal, a career goal, a financial goal, and a lifestyle goal. But they may not mesh well together or support each other. It looks like someone just picked a random token goal for each area of life.

Instead of trying to splatter your energy in multiple directions, consider a hub and spoke model for goal setting. Have one clear central goal for your quarter (the hub) and a few more related goals that support and enhance that hub goal. This is especially useful when you’re working towards a transition like a career, relationship, or lifestyle change.

Trying to make too many unrelated changes in a quarter will likely dilute your focus. But if you know there’s just one central goal to accomplish, and getting that done is the key result that matters to you, arrange your goals to keep your eyes on that prize. You know that your priority is to keep moving towards that goal each day. If that’s all you get done during the whole quarter, it will likely be a memorable and worthwhile quarter.

Suppose your hub goal is to quit your job and start a new business. Then your spoke goals may include doing setup projects for your new business idea, exercising daily to help burn off stress, wrapping up projects at your job, training your replacement, finding a mentor, etc. That can be a lot to pack into a quarter already, so it’s probably not helpful to pile on other goals like building your dating skills or learning a musical instrument. Just focus on the big transition. When that’s done then consider other goals.

The “Big System” Goal

One final problem I’ll share is when you set a goal to plan and implement your “big system” for radically upgrading some part of your life – usually your workflow, your finances, or your business processes.

People rarely succeed with this approach because it’s too much change all at once. Many won’t even be able to implement their systems for a day, let alone a week, a month, or longer.

While a calendar quarter may seem like a long time, it’s actually pretty short and can blow by faster than you expect. It’s so easy to bite off way too much, especially when it comes to habit changes, and those “big system” goals tend to disguise a lot of smaller changes that will likely take way longer than one more calendar quarter to effectively install.

Instead of trying to transform so many habits at once, pick just 2-3 small habits to change first, maybe even just one. Land a beachhead with a 5-minute or 10-minute change in your day. Do that for at least 30 days first. Once you get it established, and it feels like you don’t need much discipline to maintain the habit, then you can build it out more.

Otherwise if you’re trying to change many parts of your day to fit into some beautifully designed system, you’ll probably find that you never get any sort of implementation to stick. Training yourself to implement that whole system and to be consistent with it will probably take more than a year, so bite off small pieces each quarter, work them into habits, and only add more when you’re able to be strongly consistent with the few pieces you’ve added so far.

Realize that the game of life is long. A year or two isn’t so bad for making a long-term improvement that could serve you well for decades. It’s worth the time to build the foundation one piece at a time.

I hope you found these goal traps insightful. Setting well-formed goals is a skill that takes years of practice to develop proficiency, so please be patient with yourself. Keep practicing this skill one quarter at a time, and study the relationship between the goals you set and the actual results you experience, so you can keep improving year by year.

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Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is an American self-help author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of the web site stevepavlina.com and the book Personal Development for Smart People.

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