Here’s how goal-setting works for most of us:
We write out a huge list of things we want to accomplish. We make a plan for the week with a bunch of tasks we need to complete. Sometimes we set a word target or a page count.
And then we don’t make it.
And we feel bad about ourselves. We think that we don’t have enough willpower or self-control to do the work.
So then we do the exact same thing the following week. We move last week’s target to this week and we continue to tell ourselves that we failed, which saps our motivation. And so on, and so forth.
We do this until we come up against an actual deadline, and then we work like crazy to get it done. Which we do, but at a major cost to our sleep habits, stress levels, and overall health.
For most of us, goal-setting and goal-achieving are completely different beasts. There’s no guarantee that if we set a goal we'll achieve it, and not much holding us to account.
WHYYYYY do we do this? Why do we keep working this way?
The problem isn't really with goal-setting, it's with what happens once we set the goal. The problem is with achieving. Here are some reasons why it doesn’t always work:
1. We focus on the outcome, not the process
Setting a goal is about getting a result, right? We want to achieve something specific, which is why we set goals in the first place.
But if we only focus on the outcome and whether or not we achieve it, this can end up being demoralizing and stressful instead of motivating.
We’re setting ourselves up for failure.
We should focus on the process instead. Shifting our focus here will allow us to spend our time on things we can control. It’s important to keep the result in mind, but shifting the focus to the daily and weekly tasks that feed into the goal will help create a sense of accomplishment.
2. We don’t have a good ‘Why’
A goal isn’t really a goal until there’s a ‘why’ behind it. You need to make sure that there’s a strong reason you’re setting a goal, or it will be hard to hold yourself to it.
For example: “I want to finish my dissertation by September 30” isn’t a true goal until you include the reason WHY you want to finish by that date.
The key here is to make the sure that the reason is something that is compelling to you, not to anyone else. And it doesn’t have to be pretty, either. It could be “I want to finish by September 30 so that I can get the hell out of here”—which happens to be exactly the motivation I used to finish my thesis back in the day. Pretty ugly, but it worked.
You need to find a reason that’s going to light a fire in you to achieve your goal. Otherwise you’re spinning your wheels.
3. We bite off way more than we can chew
Most of us set goals way too far in the future, or we set too many goals at once so that we’re slowly moving forward in a bunch of different directions. It’s no wonder we feel like we’re getting nowhere: it’s because we’re trying to get everywhere at once.
This approach to goal-setting is similar to the approach we take in our daily lives: we multitask, creating the illusion that we’re getting things done when in reality we’re just distracting ourselves.
This is why I (and many others) recommend short, focused writing sessions free from all distractions. The pomodoro technique works for a reason: you’re not multitasking.
We need to do the same thing with goal-setting. Most ambitious academic types are doing way too many things at once. We’re trying to move forward several projects simultaneously. But much in the same way that the pomodoro technique is effective for short-term focus, we need to apply that same principle to goal-setting: focus on one goal at a time, get it done, and THEN move on to the next goal.
If you’re focused on a single, massive goal—like a dissertation—one of the best ways to focus your energy is to break up your larger goals into shorter milestones. So if you’re hoping to finish in September and you’re starting in January, break that big goal into smaller milestones you’ll hit along the way and focus on achieving those, rather than aiming for the big goal.
4. We don’t hold ourselves accountable
Goals are easy to ignore when no one’s watching.
There are plenty of ways to build accountability into your goal-setting, and the method that will be most effective for you depends on the kind of person you are.
Everyone has tendencies when it comes to motivating themselves. There's no right or wrong way to be, it's really about being aware of your tendencies. Gretchen Rubin wrote about this in the context of habit formation, and it applies equally well to goal-setting.
If you're the type of person who responds to expectations you set for yourself, you might be okay to set a deadline and get on with things. It will help to have some ways to measure your progress, but essentially you're okay on your own.
If you're the type of person who responds to expectations set by others, you might need a writing group or a writing buddy to set deadlines for you. There’s a lot of power in showing up in a community and declaring your objectives. There’s even more power in promising to deliver, week after week.
5. We don’t review, evaluate, or plan
It’s easy to just slog through the week without taking any time to review how things went and how things can be adjusted in the future.
As soon as I started paying attention to my days, things really started to change. Why?
I was building self-awareness.
Taking two minutes at the end of your writing session, or your day, to assess how things went will make an enormous difference to your productivity.
As you build awareness about your habits and the ideal conditions for your productivity, you’ll be able to plan your days more effectively. You’ll know when it’s prime time to do thinking work or analysis, and you’ll know when you need to do brain-dead tasks because you feel like a zombie.
You’ll also get a better sense of how long it takes to accomplish something, which can help manage your expectations for a particular block of time. If you only have an hour, you know you can’t write ten pages. So you won’t set that as a target and you won’t be disappointed when you don’t hit it.
Which one of these reasons hits closest to home for you, and why? Tell me in the comments!