The Problem With Setting Goals

Trying to lose weight is difficult. Common statements about losing weight are along the lines of “I’ll lose ten kg in three months” or “This year I’m going to shred off this belly fat”, “I’ll have a six-pack in six months”. The goals sound very reasonable. After all, you may already know of setting smart goals. Goals that are:


Saying “I’ll lose ten kg in three months” meets that SMART criteria. It’s specific and measurable – lose 10kg of weight. It’s quite achievable. Losing ten kg (22 lb) in twelve weeks means you have to aim to lose just under a kilogram each week on average. Pretty reasonable with a bit of work. And it’s also time-based – to be achieved at a defined time of twelve weeks.

Let’s say it all goes well and you lose the weight in twelve weeks as planned, what do you think will happen to your motivation after that? Do you think you’ll want to sustain that lifestyle of eating rabbit food and training intensely after you’ve reached your goal?

Unfortunately, what tends to happen with a lot of us is that we will stay motivated as we work towards the goal. But once we achieve that goal we set there’s then nothing more to look forward to and so the motivation wanes. So clearly we need a better approach to goals. So let’s talk about the problem with setting goals. The first one is that most goals we set rely on motivation.

Motivation Comes and Goes

I’ve listened to a number of interviews of former US SEALs, the likes of Jocko Willink and David Goggins. If you don’t know much about US SEALs, in a nutshell, they go through intense physical training to qualify as SEALs and their job is to go on potentially life-threatening military missions. David Goggins and Jocko Willink have podcasts you can listen to to get a better understanding of what type of training they go through. It’s hell! Having listened to these guys they all seem to say the same thing about motivation, that it comes and goes. These are guys who’ve had to be disciplined to pass the Navy SEAL training instead of waiting to feel motivated. And also while out in the field, they have to be able to survive during life-threatening missions so they can’t rely on motivation to go through this mental and physical torture. What would happen on days they aren’t motivated?

So motivation won’t cut if you’re working on long term goals. You could be motivated to wash up the dishes this very minute in the short term and you’ll get up and do that just fine and even more. But there’s no guarantee that tomorrow you’ll be just as motivated.

Set systems, not goals

A better approach to use is to set systems, not goals. With a system in mind, focus on that system, the process, instead of the goals. For example, instead of constantly obsessing over losing 10 kg in three months, look at the process of how you’ll do that. 

You’ll have to eat healthier and exercise regularly. And how will you do that? Be realistic with yourself. You could get on an aggressive diet of just eating salad for the next three months but is that really sustainable? How about a fair balance of healthy foods you’ll actually enjoy but will certainly ensure your caloric intake goes down. That way you can carry on with those eating habits for longer-term because they’re a bit more realistic. Look beyond those three months you’ve set yourself. 

And by the way – this is not a weight loss program. I’ve only picked weight loss to use as an example to illustrate my issues with setting goals as it’s one of the most common goals people set. And it’s something I’ve been through myself.

Focus on what you need to be doing right now. So for losing weight, focus on eating a healthy breakfast and exercising. And then a healthy lunch and so on. Focus on today’s one-mile run. And then when you feel ready, step it up to two miles the following week. Keep getting better. Even on the days, you don’t feel like running, the best win you can do for yourself is to put on your running shoes and run for only five minutes. The most important thing is that you showed up today. You’ll worry about tomorrow’s run tomorrow.  You’re better off showing up every day for six days, doing a ten minutes workout each time than showing up for just one day and doing a one-hour workout. The process is what’s more important than the results. And again don’t rely on working out when you feel motivated because some days, if not most, you won’t be motivated. When you start noticing the benefits of the routine such as feeling more alert throughout the day, better cardio performance, then you can increase the intensity.

What you’re aiming to do is to make it a habit that you’ll carry with you for the long term. Goals, on the other hand, are finite. You’ll reach your goal but then if you have a feeble system that’s unstainable you’ll soon be back to binging on unhealthy foods and slouching all the time. 

Here’s another great example to illustrate the importance of focusing on the process. Let’s say you’ve got a messy room and you want to tidy up and give it a clean. You’ll tidy it up now and make it clean but if you’ve got the same habits that got your room to that messy state in the first place, the room will be untidy again in no time. So, instead, focus on the process of keeping it clean and tidy by putting things away immediately when they’re not in use.

Goals are rigid. Life changes.

Another problem with goals is that they’re rigid. In The Tim Ferris Show podcast, there’s an episode when Tim interviews Jason Fried, who’s the founder of Basecamp based in Chicago. This is what Jason had to say about setting goals:

“For me, I don’t want to compare myself to an idea I had two years prior to where I wanted to be. I don’t know where I’m going to want to be in two years. So, to set a goal that’s long-term, in some cases you’re actually setting it for who you are when you set it versus who you are when you’re going to get there”

I’ve noticed what Jason is talking about in my own life. I’ve got a board where I write my goals and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve reviewed my goals and found a lot of them to be obsolete a few months down the line. When you’re setting goals you have a specific direction that you want to take to achieve your goals but life tends to want to take you in a different direction. And down the line, you may look back at those goals and realise that you don’t want that anymore.

Also, when you’re not achieving your goals, you get put off from pursuing them, right? Here’s what Jason went on to say in the podcast:

When you set out these numbers and these goalposts and these goals and these expectations and you don’t hit them then you’re just upset. And once you’ve actually either hit them or not hit them then you come up with another set and you just keep moving these moments of possible joy but most likely disappointment in a lot of cases

So instead of getting upset when you don’t meet your goals, wouldn’t it be better to just focus on doing your best, all the time?

I personally find I’m happier by focusing on waking up early and doing those things I set out to do the night before which are reading, writing, exercising and doing the best in my work. That’s the system I’ve set up. And I know the long term benefits of sticking to the habits of doing that consistently. 


So here’s what we’ve covered:

  • Goals rely on how motivated you are, but motivation doesn’t last. It comes and it goes.
  • So instead, focus on the process, the system, that helps you achieve those goals.
  • And we also spoke about how goals can be too rigid for our dynamic lives. So aim to do the best in everything you do instead.

Do you know what I’m going to say after all of that? You should still set goals. Because I think they are important to success (whatever that is to you). They help you think about what it is that you want. I suppose it’s about how you approach the goal-setting.

Start with setting a specific goal and make sure to write it down. By writing down your goals you can revisit them later and notice how your mindset may have changed then. When you review the goals later they may seem too minuscule, too ambitious or no longer relevant. With the goals written down, break them down into chunks and write down how you’ll attempt to achieve them. That is the process you want to follow. Now focus on that process and think about how it can be a part of your everyday life.