I’ve been thinking about goals for a long time. What are they, how to set them, and are they useful?
Is it better to have goals or to focus purely on habits and processes? For instance, don’t aim to get an A on your school test, but just focus on ensuring you get the right amount and quality of study time. The grade will then take care of itself.
This type of thinking appeals to me. It aligns with my Stoic ideal of focusing on what we can control. We can never be sure to reach our goals, but we can control our effort and habits.
I have also found that when I reach a goal that I have set for myself, the feeling of joy or happiness from achieving that goal is transient.
In my 30s, I have less reaction to winning a $150,000 project than I had when I was 21 and winning a project for $1,000. Perhaps this is an inventible part of getting older. We have had more time to run on the hedonic treadmill. Because we have had more experiences, it takes a genuinely novel achievement to get that dopamine rush that we will seek.
I feel that there is a connection here to the inherent paradox of Buddhism, where the goal is to extinguish desire, which is the cause of all suffering. But if that is a goal, do we not now have the desire to extinguish desire? And what happens if we achieve that? Do we sit around gloating all day long?
I do think goals are worthwhile to some degree. Just floating aimlessly in life is not good. You will never know who you could have been if you had truly applied yourself. But, goals can also be stressful, and it is easy to over-optimize for a specific goal to the detriment of life as a whole. Like a lawyer who is at the top of their firm with regard to billable hours but is heading straight towards divorce because he spends no time with his family.
My approach to goals has changed over the years, from being an absolute goal-setter, to having a deeper understanding of the interrelation between goals and habits.
So while I still set goals for myself, the main thing is not to use goal setting as a method to hit specific goals at a specific time. It is more to use it to work backwards, from achieving the goals to the habits I need to develop today.
So I might think to myself, I want to get a degree in Criminal Law in the next five years. Apart from the obvious step of signing up for a university and starting my studies, what do I need to do? Focussing on learning to learn, on being able to absorb significant amounts of information, and carving out some time each weekend to read and study. I can then get more granular than hone in on the specific habits.
So to absorb significant amounts of information, I decided to learn to quickly make flashcards from textbooks and articles so that I can quickly test myself in the future and ensure that I retain and fully absorb essential information.
So goals are really just a method to understand what habits to develop right now. And because meaningful goals can take years to achieve, it may not even matter if we achieve our original goals! By getting close to achieving our goals, we may find that our understanding of a “meaningful goal” has changed.
In trying to achieve a goal, we change.