When goals get in the way


“Sometimes to do more you must simply achieve less”

It is commonly espoused  that to become successful at something a person needs to set goals.  Indeed, this idea is the essence of many lucrative promotional programs oriented towards dieting, fitness, marketing, networking, sales, and so on.  We are told that reaching goals will boost our confidence, that having goals will keep us on track.  While goals certainly do have a place for many of us trying to improve some aspect of our self or our situation, the notion that goals are always good is simplistic and, quite frankly, fallacious.

I have a tremendous array of interests including the outdoors, conservation, fitness, web design and blogging, travel, guitar, writing, film making, investing, and so on.  Then there’s family.  I cherish my role as husband and father more than any other role I’ve ever had.  And of course I am a physician with all the weight and responsibility that comes with that.  And I’m an educator.  Naturally I take pride in succeeding at everything I do.  But in most areas I fail to reach my potential.  Why?  It’s not because of laziness, or ineptitude, or lack of desire.  It’s not because of some intrinsic cognitive, emotional or physical limitation.  Instead, it’s usually because I simply have too many objectives.  Not too many interests or obligations, mind you, but too many objectives (read: goals).  For me, it is inevitable that any goal I set will give birth to  inevitably and extensive and arduous to-do list.  Stacking one to-do list on top of another and on top of yet another ultimately creates a never ending sense of urgency that gets reborn each morning and grows into a fierce and intimidating foe by the evening.

Naturally, like any high functioning over achiever I combat this daunting foe by prioritizing.  This allows me to concentrate all of my energy on doing the most important things first.  But which things are really most important?  Usually those that make the top of the list are those things that others are depending on.  This ensures that I don’t let anybody down.  Or does it?  Unfortunately I tend to let myself down instead.  By choosing my priorities based on what matters to other people, I relegate my favorite things, or things that are good for me, to the bottom of a list that grows longer day by day.

Since I am a fan of solutions, I propose a few here.  First, in what may seem like a drastic move, I am going to delete my to-do list at the end of each day and rebuild it each morning with a fresh eye.  It’s all too easy to carry incomplete tasks over to the next day only to have them carry too much false weight by virtue of being “overdue.”  Secondly, I’m going to set fewer end points.  Instead of “reading that journal” I’m going to “read from that journal.”  Seems like semantics, but there is an important distinction.  The first implies completing the journal.  That’s exactly the kind of goal that will suck away time and energy from my many other laudable endeavors.   Instead of “posting to my blog,” I’m going to “write a draft post” for my blog.  Again a subtle but important distinction.  Thirdly, my goals will be more action oriented, and less end-point related.  For instance, I will practice my guitar for 20 minutes a day, but I will not learn to play a Stairway to Heaven without making mistakes.  I will work out to improve my core strength, but I will not “develop a six-pack.”

To some this might sound disingenuous, like giving up, or making excuses.  But I don’t really think that’s true at all.  That journal just might get read cover to cover – albeit in stages.  Those blog posts might just get published.  That song might ring true off the steel strings of my guitar.  With time that six pack might show itself.  Certainly if I don’t change my approach one of these things may happen, but if I do change my approach there is the potential for all of them to happen.

I have a shirt from a True North Kayak Adventures, a kayaking company based in Homer, Alaska.  It’s nearly 10 years old, but it remains one of my favorite shirts.  It reads, “The journey is the destination.”  And so it is, and so it shall be.


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