walking on custard

Why Goals Aren’t Enough—You Need to Set Directions Too

12 Dec 2018

Photo by Heidi Fin on Unsplash

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Recently, I caught up with a friend I don’t get to see often enough. Neither of us were in a Major Life Crisis, so we were doing that thing where we swap minor problems back and forth—everything from busyness to boredom to the various ways our ageing bodies are mysteriously misbehaving.

Naturally, we share that delightful human instinct for wanting to share solutions we’ve found. But after the conversation, I reflected on the advice we’d swapped, and I realised we had mostly both been talking to our past selves, rather than each other.

We were sharing things that had helped us, as opposed to things that we thought would actually solve each other’s problems. For example, imagine saying something like:

“Yoga helped me so much… you should do yoga too!”

There’s nothing wrong with this. If something helps us, it’s only natural to want other people to try it too.

But what you get out of yoga might not be what I would get out of it. Perhaps you loved it for the quiet reflective time away from the busyness of life, while I really need a vibrant new community. (Of course, yoga can be both, but that’s not the point.)

Instead of focusing on the object which helped, it might be better to explain why it helped:

“Yoga helped me [connect with a cool community / become stretchier / spend more time with rubber mats]. Is there an activity which could help you in the same way?”

Instead of pointing my friend specifically towards yoga, I could help them meet their underlying needs.

I realised I could give better, more personalised advice if I focused on why something might help, rather than on what my recommendation was.

This idea stuck with me, and I found myself applying it in other areas of my life.

Finding a Underlying Direction…

I feel like I’m constantly revising what I’m aiming to achieve. At any one time, I’m juggling a few different projects, and my goals can usually be expressed as “finish this, then finish that, then finish the other thing.”

But if I focus on why—on what grander, deeper purpose the goal is supposed to achieve—then my perspective broadens and I realise there are many more options open to me than I first perceived.

For example, imagine I wanted to star in a local amateur musical. I practice, I work hard, and eventually I go to the audition and do my best.

If I didn’t get the part, I would be sad: I failed to meet my goal.

But if I look deeper at my underlying goal—my why—I might see that, actually, what I really wanted was to get out of the house, to meet some people, and to improve at performing. This part was only one specific way I could have met those needs. Now, I can look for another activity—or activities—which fulfil those underlying desires.

If we can express why we have a particular ambition, we can usually find multiple paths to achieving it.

Instead of ‘goals’, I’ve come to think of these whys as ‘directions‘: not a single, specific future, but a whole host of potential futures which all contain something I desire.

… So You Can Move Toward Concrete Benefits

Directions have another advantage over specific goals: we don’t have to complete them in order to see the benefit.

Let’s take another example. Imagine I had the ambition to own a yacht. (It probably won’t be surprising that this isn’t an example from my own life.)

Like before, I could look for the underlying needs I’m trying to meet. Perhaps I want to show off, or to spend more time on boats, or simply want to have more excuses to say the word “yacht.”

Even if I don’t make it all the way, any movement in this direction still brings me the benefit of more disposable income.

It also encourages me to search the broad space of possibilities which move me in this direction. Focusing on the end result—the yacht—doesn’t suggest any concrete actions. But thinking about this direction suggests specific, attainable actions:

  • “I will spend less this week”
  • “I will find temporary, part-time work”
  • “I will write 500 words on my novel”
  • “I will find another three clients for my business”

Thinking about the direction naturally leads me to smaller, more achievable goals, which themselves help me meet my underlying desires and needs.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having goals, but sometimes it helps to zoom out and consider what the point is. This process might help you revise the goals, or it might help you achieve them.

This article was originally written for Puttylike

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.

Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."

He would like it if you said hello.

© Neil Hughes 2019 — 2024
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