Why setting big goals can make you miserable
A mini guide to setting better goals
Do you know someone who’s training for a marathon?
I sure do. A growing number of friends and colleagues seem eager to cross “run 26.2 consecutive miles” off their bucket lists.
If you’re chasing that goal, you have my best wishes. But I also want to share an important term: post-marathon syndrome.
This is a well-documented state of sadness, worthlessness and letdown that often follows the big day. It’s a natural human reaction.
Psychologists refer to this sense of emptiness as “the arrival fallacy.” According to author Tal Ben-Shahar, goal-hunting activates the brain’s reward centers and delivers a daily sense of accomplishment. In essence, you feel like you’ve already run the marathon while you’re training. Once you cross the finish line, it’s often less satisfying than expected. That’s when the crash occurs.
Yet, mainstream culture is constantly telling us to reach higher.
We make grim New Year’s resolutions (even though 92% of people don’t keep them). We eat nothing but kale for 30 days. We sign up for bootcamps, undertake grueling home renovations, and set dizzying sales targets.
In the startup world, VC-backed founders face aggressive hyper-growth goals. They sprint across one hurdle after another, pursuing an abstract definition of success (which includes making their investors even wealthier).
All these scenarios have one underlying message: achieving big goals will make you happy.
It doesn’t matter if you take a shortcut or burn out completely in the process. Just get there.
I’ve spent 12 years growing my company, JotForm, from a simple idea to a product that serves 3.5 million users. This has been a winding journey, not a sprint.
We don’t set crazy targets or deadlines because I want to have a sane, healthy business — and a meaningful life.
You can stop the treadmill of constant attainment, while still moving toward what matters deeply in your life. Here’s how.
Step 1: Understand your real priorities
First, know you’re not alone
I’m not the only entrepreneur who doesn’t believe in goals. Despite building a wildly successful business and writing the bestselling book, REWORK, Basecamp founder & CEO Jason Fried says he’s never had a goal:
“A goal is something that goes away when you hit it. Once you’ve reached it, it’s gone. You could always set another one, but I just don’t function in steps like that.”
The marathon is over when you cross the finish line.
Building a business should be a way of life; it should sustain and engage you for the long run.
Find your “Why”
“Success is achieved by people who deeply understand reality and know how to use it to get what they want.”
- Ray Dalio
Goals are a great way to understand what you want. That’s their true value.
But when you dig deep and find the why behind your goal, you’re better prepared to choose a path that will truly boost your happiness.
If you’re struggling to find that why, flip your thinking: what don’t you want? What are the elements of a terrible, draining day? What do you want to avoid? MetaLab founder Andrew Wilkinson calls these Anti-Goals.
For Andrew, his worst possible day included long meetings, a packed calendar, dealing with people he didn’t like or trust, and travel — among other red flags.
Once you know what to avoid, you can work backwards to figure out what a fulfilling day, week, or month looks like.
You can set personal rules, such as: “No meetings on Fridays” or “I won’t go more than 3 months without a vacation — no matter how short.”
I started my company to solve a real customer problem, but also because I craved freedom. I’m guessing you have the same desire.
Take some time for this personal excavation and you’ll avoid chasing empty dreams.
Step 2: Narrow and refine
It’s all about focus
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “you can do anything, but you can’t do everything.”
It’s frustratingly true.
As more people began to use our simple web forms, I knew it was time to cut the fat. I chose to focus on building just one product: JotForm.
That was the first step. As the company grew, I decided that we would focus on providing an exceptional product. I know it sounds ridiculously simple, but it set clear parameters for other decisions to come:
- We didn’t focus on sales or marketing.
- We didn’t growth-hack our way into minor improvements.
- We didn’t focus on competition. Indeed, focusing on the customer (not the competition) brought us over 1 million new signups last year.
That focus on product still drives every decision we make.
Create sustainable systems
The brilliant James Clear often writes about the difference between goals and systems:
“If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.
If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.
If you’re a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.”
He says that goals set direction, while systems build progress:
“In fact, the primary benefit of a goal is that it tells you what sort of system you need to put in place.
However, the system itself is what actually achieved the results.”
At JotForm, we have several different systems that help us to achieve our goal of providing a world-class product, while listening closely to our customers.
For example, we have daily bug report emails that list who’s tackling them and how many bugs they’ve fixed.
We also track engagement rates on new releases. When people sign up for our product, half receive the new version, while half get the classic product.
Know when to be flexible, when to be rigid
Once you’ve established your systems — the processes and routines that deliver results — sometimes you still need to set a specific goal.
Authors Helen Mankin and Steve Martin wrote a fascinating article about how restrictive structures can help us to achieve our goals, once we’ve set the right ones.
For example, they cite a series of Stanford research studies that tracked whether yogurt shop patrons would make more purchases when they were given a flexible reward card, versus one that required them to buy yogurt flavors in a set order.
While fewer people signed up for the strict reward program, those who did were over 75% more likely to complete the goal (making six yogurt purchases).
We take a similarly rigid approach to our customer support. Our overall goal is to listen deeply to our customers and ensure they’re happy.
To achieve that, we’ve created a structured support system with a response time of less than an hour. The 60-minutes-or-less time is rigid. We do everything we can do meet it.
We show average response times in a big font on our admin site. Team members must respond to the oldest inquiries first. Those are the constraints, but our team can be creative in how they serve our customers.
The goal is both rigid and flexible in its execution.
Step 3: Maintain your momentum
Strive for continuous improvement
In the absence of a shiny carrot on your goal stick, you need alternate ways to measure your progress. That’s why I believe in continuous improvement.
Jason Fried says he sees Basecamp as “one continuous line back from when I sold the first thing I ever remember making.”
He was 16 when he designed his first logo for $50. The journey has stretched from that initial sale to where he stands today.
I feel the same about JotForm. We launched in 2006 and we’ve just kept going for 12 years — adding over 100 employees and opening new offices on two continents. At the same time, we’re always striving to improve the product.
Our team is empowered for continuous deployment. They can change or build a new feature, then immediately release it to our entire user base.
But we’re not aiming at a random bull’s eye. There’s no finish line on this race, nor would I want to see one.
Trust the power of compound returns
Every year, I take at least a full week off to head back to my hometown to help my family with the olive harvest.
The olive harvest taught me how small actions add up. One olive is literally a drop in the bucket; keep picking and you’ll eventually have enough fruit for a gallon of oil.
Investing is the classic compounding example. In a piece about the power of compounding, author Darious Foroux shows how billionaire Warren Buffett used sequential efforts to build his fortune.
In fact, he acquired 99% of his net worth after the age of 50. If you’re frustrated by your own earnings, how’s that for motivation?
The truth is that daily efforts make the biggest difference. When you combine perseverance with compounding, you achieve outstanding results.
It’s easy to be seduced by audacious goals. Success can seem flashier when it happens out of the blue.
And mainstream culture tells you to keep reaching higher, even if you burn out completely in the process.
But setting and achieving big goals won’t necessarily make you happy, especially when “the arrival fallacy” leaves you feeling unexpectedly lost and empty.
Instead of striving to reach someone else’s definition of success, try to step back, establish a meaningful sense of focus, and get ready to control your own destiny.
Work your systems, every single day (and be sure to enjoy the ride).