The Dark Side of Goals

Over Christmas break I was watching my three-year-old nephew having a great time playing a game on an iPad.  That is, until my son got involved.  It wasn’t that my son was trying to ruin his younger cousin’s fun – he was actually trying to be helpful.  He simply told his cousin the goal of the game, which was to finish one level in order to move on to the next.  By moving through enough levels, he could eventually beat the game.

Apparently, my nephew did not understand that this game came with goals.  Although he was thoroughly enjoying himself, he had been playing the same level over and over again.  Even if he finished a level and could move on to the next, he would just hit reset and start the game over again.

The introduction of a goal changed everything…and definitely not for the better.  My nephew’s enjoyment quickly turned into frustration and anger because he wasn’t able to achieve his newfound goal.  Being a financial planner, I had always thought of goals as something uniformly positive, but observing this little interaction between my son and my nephew got me thinking.  Perhaps there is a previously unexamined dark side to goals that I had never really considered.  This made me think of a simple goal that I had set year after year that I had failed to achieve.

My Annual Goal
Every year I would set the goal of taking vitamins regularly (who knows if they actually work, but it just seemed like a sensible thing to do).  I would set this goal every January, when I was cleaning out my cabinet and throwing away the prior year’s 3/4-full bottle of expired vitamins (so much for that year’s goal!).  This became a bit of an annual ritual for me – throwing away the expired bottle of vitamins that I had purchased the last January and recommitting myself to the same goal I had failed to achieve.  I eventually gave up on this annual charade and ditched the goal altogether.

Mission Accomplished
Having scratched ‘take vitamins’ off my goal list several years ago, something amazing happened in 2012 – I consistently took vitamins for the first time in my life (no unused, expired vitamins in my cabinet this year!).  Without having the goal, I had unconsciously and effortlessly accomplished the goal that had eluded me for years.  Mission accomplished…without even knowing I was on a mission.

Good Bye Goal, Hello Habit
What changed?  A $4 pillbox changed everything.  I bought a $4 pillbox that I refilled each week with my vitamins for the week.  I had formed a simple, daily habit and as a result, had unknowingly achieved a goal I had given up on long ago.  So, for 2013, I do not have a goal to take vitamins regularly.  I don’t need it.  What I have instead is a simple, daily habit that will ensure that I do it.

In no particular order, here are some observations about goals and habits:

Goals, once accomplished, are easy to quit.  Habits, once formed, are hard to break.  Goals have a beginning and, more importantly (and most detrimentally), they have an end. You start a diet and you end a diet.  You start an exercise program and you end an exercise program.  Habits, on the other hand, have no end – they eventually become a part of you rather than something you accomplish and then move on from.  Think about the difference between having a goal to lose 20 pounds versus establishing a habit of eating healthy food on a daily basis.

Goals are complicated. Habits are easy.  Goals require tracking and paperwork… and lots of mental energy.  Habits are easy – no assembly required.  You just do them each day and that is it.  No follow-up.  No tracking.

Goals are focused on tomorrow.  Habits are focused on today.  Goals can cause us to live in the future with a low-grade anxiety (which, in the end, is not living at all).  We can be so focused on tomorrow that we forget to live our lives today.  Habits help us to live in and enjoy the present because they are things we do now, not in the future.

Your success is dependent on your habits, not your goals.  A goal without the habit becomes worthless, but the habit is equally effective with or without a goal.  Think about it.  I no longer have a goal list somewhere with ‘take vitamins regularly’ on it.  Why?  Because I have something far more effective than a goal – I have a habit.   Because I have the habit, I have no need for the goal.  The beauty is that with the habit you get what you are after, even without the goal.  The habit is the key.

A Year of Living Goal Free
I know goals are as American as baseball and apple pie, but what if there is a better, more effective way to get what you want out of life?  I believe the key to your long-term financial success lies not in how many goals you have or how big your goals are, but rather in how consistent your habits are.  So, why not take the pressure off for a year and ditch the goals, adopting a few simple habits instead.  For my fellow Type A personalities out there who just can’t let go of your goals for the year, just start thinking of your habits as goals – mini-goals that you accomplish everyday.  Maybe we can all declare 2013 the year of living goal free.