So, you have your Big Why—your purpose and reason to get up in the morning. Maybe it’s saving rhinos, or being a rhino keeper. Or perhaps you want to write the next great American novel. Your Big Why. It’s uniquely yours.
But how do you go about obtaining such an ambitious dream? We set goals. Or as Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert comic) says in his book How to Fail at Almost Anything and Still Win Big, we create systems.
Making Goals Achievable
How should we go about setting goals, or systems? We’ve heard of the SMART goals, and it certainly has merit. Creating a SMART goal keeps us from going down the vague rabbit hole (“I want to be a zookeeper”, “I want to change the world”). Making your goals Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based helps clarify our ideas and focus our efforts. But there is one aspect we really need to pay attention to in creating SMART goals. And that is “Achievable”.
What is Achievable? Does it mean, “possible for a human to achieve”? Or “within my scope of capabilities”? For example, for years my big goal was to get my book published. Sounds like a reasonable goal, doesn’t it? I mean, getting a book published is definitely a feasible feat for human beings. But publishing my book is no longer my goal. Not because I don’t want it anymore. I still dream of holding my traditionally published book in my hand, cradling it like a baby. No, it’s no longer my goal because no matter how SMART I make it, ultimately, it’s not up to me whether my book gets picked up by an agent/editor/publisher. It’s out of my control. What I do have control over is producing content. Once I release it, whether it’s a blog, a workout video, an article for publication, or my book proposal, it’s out of my hands.
Systems Vs Goal
My goals have shifted from “being published” to creating content. And not just sloughing out words and videos. I examine and collect data from these releases. Were people engaged? Did I lose subscribers or gain followers? Was the article shared? Did people comment? Then I use the data to tweak here and there and I implement either new ideas, or stay the course.
And because my goals have shifted, no longer having a completed behavior, if you will, I agree with Scott Adams. It isn’t a goal. (Actually, he says in the book “Goals are for losers. Winners use systems.”) I’ve created a system where I’m constantly creating and putting out content.
The end result? Well, it’s out of my hands, but I increase my chances of gaining followers and getting my book picked up by an agent or editor. I write more, I get better at writing, and I get better at connecting to my audience.
This system is still SMART. I have specific projects and I break them down (I’ll talk about that next) into smaller specific steps. They are definitely measurable as I collect data from all of them, and I measure how long I work on them. Making them relevant for me is important so I don’t overwhelm myself. (The Stoic gods love to throw new ideas at me to set my creativity against me. Too many ideas and I get stressed out and overwhelmed. But if I get a new idea from the Stoics, then I set it against all the other projects I’m doing and I evaluate how relevant everything is for ZooFit.) And I do put a little pressure on myself to complete projects within certain time-frame.
But the big question is, are these “goals” achievable? Ah, and finally, I can say with certainty that yes, they are. I achieve them nearly every day. Because these systems, this new way of creating goals isn’t based on an outcome I’d like to happen. It focuses on the journey, on what I can do to work toward the desired outcome. It’s focusing on the work, not the reward.
Desired Outcomes Vs SMART Systems
Here are a few more examples of Desired Outcomes (out of our control) vs. SMART Systems (focusing on the practices)
I want to lose weight vs. creating a system of healthy habits (drinking water, logging food, exercising, getting 8 hours of sleep) which support weight loss. I know lots of people who go on diets and get super frustrated when their efforts don’t give them the results they are looking for. If you focus on the system of healthy habits, it gives you wiggle room to tweak and adjust your habits. While it’s highly unlikely you won’t see some change if you develop these healthier behaviors, it’s not your fault if it doesn’t work. There is no “The Way”, you just have to work at finding “Your Way”.
I want to be a zookeeper vs creating a system of doing work that improves chances of getting hired (volunteering, reading books, taking classes, networking). Remember, you can do all the right things and still never get hired. Sending your resume and presenting your best self to the zoo during the interview are in your control. Whether or not they hire you is out of your control. The only thing you can do is learn from each instance and improve or keep trying.
I want to win the Gold Medal in swimming vs. creating a system of practicing swimming. There are a few issues with the goal “I want to win the Gold Medal”. Does this mean if you go to the Olympics and win the Silver, you will feel like a failure? Because, whoa. At the same time, you could swim your absolute fastest you’ve ever swam in your life and come out in third place. But if you focus on the systems of being the best swimmer you can, then you will feel pride to just be at the Olympics, much less take a medal in your event.
I want to be a writer vs. creating system of daily practices to improve my writing skills. This is a tricky notion, because the title “Writer” is self-appointed. Anyone can call themselves a writer, or an artist. But what is the criteria you are setting for yourself? Can you just call yourself a writer and be done with it? Probably not. So what determines for you that you are indeed a writer? Writing daily? Putting out a book every year? A blog every month? It’s pretty subjective. But when we break it down to quantifiers, we find a system which helps us achieve a new and powerful identity, and we act upon that identity.
Let’s make ultra-SMART goals. Create systems which will make our goals achievable and lifelong habits. And achieve aspirations you thought only came true in dreams. Focus on what you have control over and work hard with a positive, growth mindset. Do what you can, making a difference in your life, and the world around you.