Alright, now that we’ve discussed the tradeoffs and systems that come with goals, let’s talk about how to set goals you’ll actually follow.
There are three basic strategies I like to use when goal setting. Let’s talk about each one now.
1. Ruthlessly Eliminate Your Goals
Psychologists have a concept they refer to as “goal competition.”
Goal competition says that one of the greatest barriers to achieving your goals is the other goals you have. In other words, your goals are competing with one another for your time and attention. Whenever you chase a new goal, you have to pull focus and energy from your other pursuits. This is basically The Four Burners Theory in action. When you turn one burner up, you have to turn others down.
Now, there is good news. One of the fastest ways to make progress on your goals is to simply press pause on less important things and focus on one goal at a time. Sometimes you just need to reorganize your priorities a little bit and suddenly progress comes much more quickly because you are now fully committed to a goal that was only getting moderate attention previously.
This is an important insight. Typically, when we fail to reach our goals, we think something was wrong with our goal or our approach. Experts tell us, “You need to think bigger! Pick a dream that is so big it will motivate you every day.” Or we tell ourselves, “If only I had more hours in the day!”
These excuses cloud the bigger issue. What often looks like a problem of goal setting is actually a problem of goal selection. What we really need is not bigger goals, but better focus. You need to choose one thing and ruthlessly eliminate everything else. In the words of Seth Godin, “You don’t need more time, you just need to decide.”
Our lives are like rose bushes. As a rose bush grows, it creates more buds than it can sustain. If you talk to an experienced gardener, they will tell you that rose bushes need to be pruned to bring out the best in both their appearance and their performance. In other words, if you want a rose bush to thrive, then you need to cut away some of the good buds so the great ones can fully blossom.
Our goals are similar. They need to be consistently pruned and trimmed down. It’s natural for new goals to come into our lives and to get excited about new opportunities—just like it’s natural for a rose bush to add new buds. If we can muster the courage to prune away a few of our goals, then we create the space we need for the remaining goals to fully blossom. Full growth and optimal living require pruning.
2. Stack Your Goals
Research has shown that you are 2x to 3x more likely to stick to your goals if you make a specific plan for when, where, and how you will perform the behavior. For example, in one study scientists asked people to fill out this sentence: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at TIME OF DAY at/in PLACE”
Researchers found that people who filled out this sentence were 2x to 3x more likely to actually exercise compared to a control group who did not make plans for their future behavior. Psychologists call these specific plans “implementation intentions” because they state when, where, and how you intend to implement a particular behavior. This finding has been repeated across hundreds of studies and has been found to increase the odds that people will start exercising, begin recycling, stick with studying, and even stop smoking.
One of my favorite ways to utilize this finding is with a strategy I call habit stacking. To use habit stacking, just fill out this sentence:
After/Before CURRENT HABIT, I will NEW HABIT.
Here are some examples:
- Meditation: After I brew my morning coffee, I will meditate for one minute.
- Pushups: Before I take my morning shower, I will do 10 pushups.
- Flossing: After I set my toothbrush down, I will floss my teeth.
- Gratitude: Before I eat dinner, I will say one thing I am grateful for that day.
- Networking: After I return from my lunch break, I will send one email to someone I want to meet.
- Habit stacking works well because you not only create a specific plan for when and where you will implement your goals, but also link your new goals to something you are already doing each day.
I find this to be a helpful way to bridge the gap between goals and systems. Our goals tell us what we want to achieve while our systems are the process we follow each day. Habit stacking and implementation intentions help us move from the goal in our heads to the specific process that will make it a reality.
3. Set an Upper Bound
Whenever we set goals, we almost always focus on the lower bound. That is, we think about the minimum threshold we want to hit. The implicit assumption is, “Hey, if you can do more than the minimum, go for it.”
- An individual might say, “I want to lose at least 5 pounds this month.”
- An entrepreneur might say, “I want to make at least 10 sales calls today.”
- An artist might say, “I want to write at least 500 words today.”
- A basketball player might say, “I want to make at least 50 free throws today.”
- But what would it look like if we added an upper bound to our goals and behaviors?
“I want to lose at least 5 pounds this month, but not more than 10.”
“I want to make at least 10 sales calls today, but not more than 20.”
“I want to write at least 500 words today, but not more than 1,500.”
“I want to make at least 50 free throws today, but not more than 100.”