When good goals go bad: sometimes focusing too much on your goals can be a dangerous thing

Today, after tidying my room, doing a little exercise, and checking my list of goals, I left the house and spent 150 euros on a brand new guitar.

I now have less than 500 euros in the whole world.

I bought the guitar because one of my goals is “play music every day”. This goal is important to me: I learn instruments by trial and error, and it’s only by physically holding them in my hands every day that I can make progress. Before I gave away my previous guitar in Italy, I had been spending a lot of time figuring out some of the less obvious features of the fretboard, and being unable to continue learning has been a minor niggle in the back of my head for the last few weeks.

One of my other important goals is “control your spending”. I’m terrible at maintaining my savings. When I have money, I spend it with wild abandon. It’s only when I’m down to almost nothing that I finally start to discipline myself.

Setting goals is one of the main methods many people use in order to improve their lives. But it’s a method that has a dark side. Here are some of the dangers of focusing too much on your goals.

Danger #1: Achieving a narrow goal while missing the bigger picture

The biggest danger of focusing too much on your goals, is that you’ll forget the bigger picture of your self-improvement.

For example, you might have the goal “I want to go running twice a week”. You may be achieving this goal. But you might also be using it to justify eating fast food much more frequently too. If this is the case, you’re not going to be getting fitter.

Solution: Avoid rationalising negative behaviours after reaching milestones in your goals.

Danger #2: Achieving one goal at the expense of losing progress in other areas of your life 

It’s not always obvious when your goals are contradictory. In order to play music, I had to buy a guitar. In order to control my spending, I had to not buy one. Two separate goals from two separate areas of my life — perhaps there would have been a middle way if I had been mindful of them both.

Another common example might be the shy person who has the goal “I want to make more friends”, and then begins to spend a lot of time smoking and drinking to overcome their social anxiety. They may be successful at gaining a large circle of genuine friends, but have they really succeeded at self-improvement?

Solution: Consider whether any of the actions you take to achieve your goals impact any other areas of your life negatively. If they do, try to find the middle way.

 Danger #3: Giving up when goals are not achieved

Sometimes life gets in the way of your goals. Sometimes we set goals for ourselves that were just too challenging. In fact, it’s important to set goals that you find challenging – but with this comes the risk of occasional failure.

Nobody wants to feel like they’ve failed – and an easy way to divert these feelings is to stop trying. After all, not trying (we rationalise) means we can’t fail. If we’re lucky we don’t stop trying completely – we just start making our goals much easier to achieve.

There’s a difficult balance to strike here: it’s important to remember that failure is a vital part of self-improvement. Mistakes are how we learn. If we aren’t failing, we aren’t trying hard enough. However, long-term changes are made most effectively when we make them incrementally. The goal “I want to stop eating fast food, become vegetarian, and cut my spending on groceries” is challenging, but you’re much more likely to make permanent changes to your eating habits if you tackle each part one at a time.

Solution: Continue to set challenging goals, but remember to introduce big changes incrementally. Treat failure as a lesson on how to succeed next time.

Everybody sets goals. Avoid these dangers, and you’ll find they can be an effective tool for self-improvement. But goal-setting is not always the most effective solution; don’t forget to make use of other methods, such as habit-stacking, as well.


Habit stacking: Use your old habits to introduce new ones, and new habits to eliminate old ones

“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken”

– Samuel Johnson

We rarely notice what our habits are until we try to change them. Our habits are what we do without thinking. They are the familiar responses that are triggered by the various stages of our routine: we walk through the kitchen in the morning, and we drink coffee; we get into our car, and we drive to work; we sit down in a bar, and we order the usual.

We don’t ask ourselves if we particularly want to do these things, we simply do them out of habit.

It makes sense, then, that changing your habits is easiest when you’re going through a major life transition. The parts of your routine that triggered your habits have changed, and you are forced to find new ways to respond to the world around you.

Creating new habits from old ones

Unfortunately, it’s not practical to undergo major life transitions every time you want to pick up a new habit. You can’t move house just because you want to start flossing. Luckily, you can take advantage of your current habits to build new ones with a technique called habit stacking.

Habit stacking works by attaching a new habit to an old one, like so:

  • “After I brush my teeth, I will floss”
  • “After I eat dinner, I will meditate”
  • “When I open my web browser, I will read one article in my field of study”

By using an existing habit to trigger a new one, you can very quickly introduce new positive activities into your life much more consistently.

Replacing old habits with new ones

But what happens when you want to eliminate a bad habit? Because your habits are caused by triggers in your routine, you can use habit stacking to introduce new habits that distance you from those triggers.

For example:

  • “Before I smoke a cigarette, I will run for 10 minutes”
  • “Before I eat a hamburger, I will eat a salad”
  • “Before I shout at someone I am frustrated with, I will count to 10 in another room”

Often, trying to avoid bad habits directly just makes the urge to engage in them even stronger. The “I want what I can’t have” mentality is very difficult to break. Habit stacking tries to distance your old habit from it’s trigger by inserting a new habit between them. By the time you have completed the new habit, the conditions that triggered the old habit have hopefully passed, and it is easier to resist temptation.

Five goal-setting principles

Using goals to boost performance is a technique that has been widely recommended in business, education, and self-improvement literature for decades. When we decide to try and improve our own lives, we often begin by setting goals for ourselves. However, vague goals such as “I want to get fit” or “I want to be happy” are strongly correlated with depression. Such goals serve only to imply that we do not have what we want, and don’t provide a way to usefully measure our success.

Studies have shown that effective goals tend to follow five principles:

  1. High Clarity
  2. Challenge
  3. Commitment
  4. Regular Feedback
  5. Acknowledgement of Task Complexity

Set goals with high clarity

Clear and specific goals are easy to measure and provide information about how to achieve them. For example, “I want to get fit” is a goal without clarity. “I want to go running twice this week” is a goal that calls for a specific action and has a clear criteria for success.

To set a goal with clarity, you can think about what your overall goal is, and then use the smaller parts method to discover the specific, clear goals that lead towards it.

Set goals that challenge you

Goals that are too easy also tend be boring. Challenging goals spark our interest, and boost the satisfaction we feel when we achieve them. However, overly difficult goals can encourage us to cheat, lie to ourselves, or give up completely when we do not reach their targets.

Make sure your goals are challenging in the right way. For example, if you have never run before in your life, a performance goal such as “I want to run 10 miles” is probably inappropriate. However, “I want to go running twice this week” is a goal that rewards taking part in the activity itself and allows you to feel satisfied with whatever distance you were able to complete.

Set goals that engage your commitment

Setting a goal to which we are not committed is pointless and degrades our overall motivation to improve ourselves. We might read online that meditation is a proven and effective method to reduce stress and increase self-acceptance, but if mediation is not something that appeals to us then it’s clearly not going to be useful as one of our goals.

There are many different approaches to self-improvement. Don’t force yourself to commit to activities that you don’t like. Instead, choose goals that make you want to commit to them.

Set goals that encourage regular feedback

There is little reason to set goals for ourselves if we do not take the time to reflect on our progress towards them. Ideally, a goal should have a time limitation built into it. For example, the goal “I want to run twice this week” encourages us to evaluate our progress after 7 days have passed.

Schedule time to look back on your progress and don’t be afraid to modify goals that are proving ineffective.

Set goals that acknowledge task complexity

Self-improvement is a complex task which often comes with complex goals. However, pushing ourselves too hard by setting multiple difficult goals can cause us to become easily frustrated.

Break down difficult goals into smaller sub-goals, and give yourself plenty of time to complete them. Remember to re-evaluate if you begin to feel stressed or overwhelmed.

Finally, keep it simple

By following these five principles, you can create goals that boost your performance in many different areas of your life. However, it is important to remember that too many goals, or goals that are too difficult, can actually reduce your motivation.

Long-term changes happen gradually, so it is best to introduce new goals gradually. Bear in mind your overall intentions when pursing short-term goals. For example, if you succeed at your goal to go running twice a week, but afterwards you feast on large amounts of fast food, you probably aren’t succeeding at your goal of getting fitter.

Perhaps a good first goal might be, “I want to set effective goals for myself each week”.

Thoughts on programming, carpentry, and imperfection

I’ve been programming since I was 11 years old. This year, I worked for a while under a master carpenter and I had a revelation. When you’re working in a digital medium, you can create, edit, and delete with tools that work within a close to ideal universe. You can calculate and create an exact appearance and behavior that are precisely reproduced every time your code runs.

And it’s easy to expect to apply the same methods when it comes to self-improvement.

In carpentry, every piece of wood is different. You have to adjust the way you use your tools each time, following the grain, working with what is already there. And while you may occasionally create two wooden parts that look very similar, the methods used to create them can often be very different.

I struggled with the fact that the alterations you make to your materials are permanent – there’s no undo button if you drill a hole in the wrong place. But I watched as the carpenter I worked for gradually corrected his mistakes as he went, chiseling, sanding, and occasionally scouring the floor for offcuts to pad gaps that were too wide or at a bad angle. He created some beautiful, totally imperfect pieces of work.

We spend more time in the digital world than any other generation of mankind. But we can’t apply the methods of the digital world while we try to change ourselves. There are no blank canvases in real life; no create, edit, delete, undo; no appearance or behavior that will be reproduced precisely each time.

We have to work with what we’ve got, gradually correcting our mistakes, and hope we end up with something beautiful – knowing it will always and inevitably be imperfect.

Happy people make specific goals: the ‘Smaller Parts’ method

Right now, somewhere in the back of your mind, you have a list of your goals. You want a promotion, a car, a house, a family, a holiday. And these goals are probably making your life suck.

Individuals with non-specific goals are more likely to be depressed. When asked what their goals were, happier individuals tended to give specific information: they knew precisely what they wanted, and that helped them understand precisely how to achieve it.

If you’re finding it hard to achieve your goals right now, chances are it’s because they are not specific enough.

When this happens to me, I use “The Smaller Parts Method”.

The Smaller Parts Method

Let’s take the biggest, most general goal there is: I want to be happy. This is the worst goal on the face of the planet. It doesn’t help you make decisions. It doesn’t give you any direction to make changes in your life. In fact, the only thing it’s really doing is reminding you that you don’t think you’re happy enough.

When something is broken in your house and you want to fix it, the first thing you do is open it up to see how it works. That’s the smaller parts method.

What are the smaller parts of happiness? Health, wealth, relationships, self-acceptance, and higher purpose are a few qualities that contribute to happiness. Now, instead of one general goal, you have five slightly more specific goals.

  • I want to be healthier
  • I want greater financial stability
  • I want better relationships
  • I want to accept myself more
  • I want to feel like I have a higher purpose

We’re heading in the right direction, but we can’t stop yet. We want to find goals that explain how to achieve themselves. We have to break up the goals into smaller parts again, for example:

  • I want to be healthier
    • I want to exercise more
    • I want to have a better diet
    • I want to improve my hygiene
    • I want to limit my bad habits

Again, our goals are more specific, and the actions we can start to take to achieve them are becoming more obvious. We just have to keep breaking them into smaller parts until we reach goals that look like this:

  • I want to be healthier
    • I want to exercise more
      • I will go running twice a week
      • I will get a gym membership
    • I want to have a better diet
      • I want to learn how to cook healthier meals
        • I will buy a cook book and make a meal plan for this week
      • I want to eat fewer sugary snacks
        • I will limit myself to one sugary snack a day for the next 7 days
    • I want to improve my hygiene
      • I want to treat myself to, and make use of, better shampoo/shaving equipment/toothbrush etc.
        • I will buy an electric toothbrush at the store tomorrow
    • I want to limit my bad habits
      • I want to quit smoking
        • I will talk to my doctor about quitting smoking
      • I want to stop going to sleep so late
        • I will stop using my computer and do relaxing activities from 11pm, and aim to be asleep by 12am.

Suddenly, all your “I wants” have turned into “I wills”. You’ve turned I want to be happy, a depressing goal, into a list of instructions which you can be confident will improve your happiness if you follow them.

One vague goal versus many specific ones

The reason that one vague goal is so overwhelming is because it is made up of many different specific ones. Breaking up that one vague goal doesn’t make it any less overwhelming. Now you’ve got hundreds of goals to deal with. But that was always the case. The final step is to identify which of those hundreds of goals you’re going to start on first.

And the good news is, some of them are easier than you could have ever imagined.