No More Shaming Goals!
There’s a revolution happening in our collective understanding of goals, motivation, and achievement. It flies in the face of everything we were taught in school, and what many of us were taught as kids. We’ve been going about it all wrong.
“Be the best.” was the goal I was told to shoot for. Why settle for 2nd place when you can get 1st? Why settle for an A- if you can get an A+? My kid brain didn’t care about those things, but I did care that my mom would clap and smile and kiss my cheeks when I came home with a blue ribbon or a 100% test score.
And when I didn’t, she wouldn’t get angry or yell at me. Her smile would be just slightly lowered, her voice a little less shiny, or she’d look away and sigh. That’s how I knew: I failed.
I learned how to cheat in 2nd grade. Before a spelling test, I wrote the word “environment” onto my arm, so I could sneakily look at it during the test. Problem was, my kid scrawl was so wonky that the word ended up extending down the entire length of my tiny arm. My teacher saw it right away and told me to wash it off, disappointment in her eyes, my face flushed with shame.
I never misspelled “environment” again.
And it would not be the last time that getting caught cheating actually got me to learn the material better.
That’s the power of shame. You will never forget those lessons.
The problem is, it doesn’t work when you grow up because no one’s on the hook for you anymore. Your boss won’t shame you. They’ll just fire you. So you have to start shaming yourself.
Until one day, you realize you can’t get yourself to do anything unless there’s a negative consequence.
Well, I want you to know that you’re not alone, and there’s another way. Keep reading…
Why Most Goals Suck
They’re vague and unhelpful.
They say nothing of how to achieve them.
One quote I read summed this problem up bluntly: “Winners and losers have the same goals.” Though I don’t think about the world in terms of “winners” and “losers” anymore, I get the point. Just having a goal doesn’t mean a thing about whether you’ll achieve it.
(Some of you might be recalling a Harvard study that showed that simply naming goals predicted higher achievement and success. That study has since then been debunked.)
They run on fear of failure and shame.
When you fixate on achieving a perfect, future state, you constantly feel behind. You always feel the lack and emptiness of not having it, and you develop a fear of never having it.
Fear can serve as fuel for a while, but fight or flight can only get you so far for so long.
They establish “striving” and “normal” modes of living.
Ever said or thought stuff like this? “Once I get that job, I’ll stop caring about networking.” “Once I make more money, I’ll stop caring about my budget.” “Once I lose 20 pounds, I’ll let myself eat whatever I want.”
See what’s happening there? You’re splitting your life into two distinct modes.
This kind of “on” and “off” toggle approach to goals creates cycles of rigidity and rebellion. It’s why most dieters usually end up gaining back the weight they just lost and more. It’s why I got straight A’s in high school then got straight C’s in college.
When you get used to getting results through sheer willpower and teeth-gritting sacrifice, you think that’s the only way you can have what you want. It’s unsustainable. And you’ll only be able to achieve short term goals on a temporary basis.
Anything long term becomes impossible. And life is long term.
They make you think you have more control than you actually do.
It’s not up to you if you get that promotion, make a million dollars, become a best-selling author, etc. It’s just not. You can create the conditions for those things to be more likely, but they’re never guaranteed.
And when you believe that the only reason you failed to get what you want is because you fucked up, that’s where shame comes in. It only takes a few devastating knock-downs to start believing your own hype: You didn’t just fail. You are a failure.
No one knows what the future will bring. And there’s a freedom in that. A freedom to let go of the anxiety, shame, and fear. A freedom to focus on something that actually is within your control...
Don’t focus on the Goal, focus on the Process.
That’s right. Don’t focus on the performance, focus on the rehearsals. Don’t focus on the game, focus on the drills. Don’t focus on next year’s promotion, focus on today’s tasks and relationships. Don’t focus on the A, focus on learning today’s lesson.
And don’t just focus on the process. Learn to love it.
Because the process is where you’ll spend most of your time. The process is where your life is actually lived.
“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”
The stuff you want is a byproduct. It’s the result of your actions. You can’t control the results anymore than a chemist can control how two elements react. But you can control what you put into the test tube.
Frankl goes on:
“Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run, in the long run, I say! Success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.”
If a guy who lived through the Holocaust and concentration camps can say that, I can loosen my grip on my security and survival fears, too.
When you learn to love the process, your goals become inevitable.
If you’re ready to create your own non-shaming goals system, simply follow the steps below. It does take some up-front work to create the system, but at the end you’ll have a reasonable, realistic and short list of things to focus on each day.
Steps for Creating A Non-Shaming Goals System
What you’ll need:
Step 1 - Determine your Outcome Goal and your Elephant
Decide on the big goal you want to achieve. You may have several. Pick one to start with - perhaps the one you’ve been procrastinating the most on? :)
Do the 5 Whys Exercise to get to the emotional driver (Elephant) behind your goal. Ask yourself, “Why do I want that?” and answer, “Because I want…” do this five times.
Make sure you deeply connect to your goal on an emotional level. Pick a different one if you have to. The stronger the emotional driver is behind your goal, the more energy you’ll have to achieve it. Adjust your goal as necessary to make it truly speak to your heart.
Step 2 - Educate the Rider and Clear the Path
The Rider is our rational, planning mind. It needs direction and information to plan a route to your destination.
What information or knowledge do you need to get started?
The Path is your external environment. You might be able to clear the way to make things easier.
What external obstacles are hindering or blocking you? Consider your environment, clutter, relationships. What will you do about it?
Write these down as One-Time To Dos. If they’re big and daunting, they may need to become a goal in themselves.
Step 3 - Determine your Performance and Process Goals
Performance Goals are approximate milestones that indicate progress but over which you only have partial control.
What are the milestones you need to hit in order to make your outcome inevitable?
Where do you want to be and by when?
How can you measure progress as your skill grows over time?
Process Goals are the daily and weekly actions fully within your control that you can do to hit the above milestones.
What can I do every day or a certain number of times per week that builds towards my Performance Goals?
What small acts can I do that are fully within my control?
Reference this example of a jobseeker’s goals to get a sense of what Performance and Process goals look like.
Now promptly forget about your Outcome Goal and your Performance Goals. Just let them go. For the rest of this month, all you need to focus on are your Process Goals and your Habits.
Step 4 - Choose your Habits and Use a Habit Tracker
Pick a Keystone Habit that makes all the other habits easier to stick to. It’s a habit that helps you build a strong foundation (i.e. meditation, journaling, waking up early, walking in nature, etc.)
Break up your Process Goals into tiny habits you can realistically commit to every day/week. (“Work out” is not a tiny habit. Break it up into chunks: “Pack my workout bag”, “Jog for 20 minutes”, etc.)
Enter them into a habit tracker. If you start to feel overwhelmed (or greedy) with the number of habits, reduce your list by half. A good rule of thumb is to start with 5 solid habits you can realistically stick to.
Stack them by seeing what habits can be “linked” to habits you already do consistently. This helps build momentum and conserves willpower. (i.e. After brushing my teeth, I will meditate for 10 minutes then read for 10 minutes.)
Ask yourself: How can I make my good habits easier to do (i.e. putting your journal by the bed) while making my bad habits harder to do (i.e. completely signing out of Netflix every time you finish watching, so you have to log back in the next time)?
Check out this jobseeker’s habit tracker as an example.
Step 5 - Set Reminders and Get an Accountability Buddy
Yes, you need an accountability buddy. It’s not a weakness. It’s a feature of being a social animal. Decide together how you’ll work together to celebrate wins and support each other when you get stuck.
Block off your calendar or set automatic reminders to do your habits at set times/days.
Ping your accountability buddy over text/app whenever you do a habit.
Step 6 - Schedule Monthly Reviews and Adjust Goals, Habits and Accountability System as Needed
Put an event on your calendar and ask yourself questions to reflect on what’s working, not working, and what you’ll change about your system moving forward. I recommend just copying and pasting the below questions into your calendar event description.
Your Monthly Review
Outcome Goal: Is your emotional driver still alive for you? If not, what’s changed and how does that affect what you want?
Performance Goals: What percentage are you complete on these milestones? Do they still make sense? Are they realistic based on what you’ve discovered about your ability to achieve your Process Goals?
Process Goals: Which actions have you done consistently and want to keep doing? Which have you procrastinated, resisted or otherwise not completed? Are they still important? Can you find a work-around? Are there different habits that you’d rather do that could achieve the same thing?
Habits: What habits did you have trouble with? Why? What changes can you make to your environment? How can you make them even smaller and simpler to achieve? How can tracking your habits be improved or made easier?
Accountability System: Are you and your buddy working well together? Do you need to create a new arrangement with them or find a new one? What new ways of celebrating can you come up with that sound more fun?
Whew! You’re done creating your system. Now all you have to do is focus on those small actions each and every day. Treat this like an experiment. If you’re having trouble sticking to the routine, figure out how to improve the system. Whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up.
Want help working through these steps? I’m happy to help. Simply hit the button below and let me know where you’re stuck. I’ll answer back with an email.
Quick note: This article contains many, many ideas from other people but not many citations. My brain connects, remixes, and re-organizes everything I learn into a theory that clicks for me. Then I try to explain it using my own style and voice, so that you can hopefully resonate with it.
That said, I’m drawing inspiration from Go masters, Alex Honnold (Free Solo guy), Viktor Frankl, Bruce Lee, artists and craftspeople, nature, George Kao, the Health at Every Size movement, Annie Dillard, George Leonard, Jonathan Haidt, Carol Dweck, James Clear (plus many more I’m forgetting).