Goals or Processes?

The claps are inconclusive.

No less an authority than Benjamin P. Hardy (author of Willpower Doesn’t Work) tells us ‘If You Don’t Believe In Setting Goals, It’s Because You Don’t Know How To Do It.’

How can 21K claps and 206K followers be wrong?

According to Hardy, to “actually achieve any goal” you need:

- a clear goal.
- to actually want that goal.
- to believe you can actually achieve your goal.
- to pray to have more faith.
- (to be) 100% committed to your goal.
— Benjamin J. Hardy, ‘If You Don’t Believe In Setting Goals…”

Uberblogger Nicolas Cole (only 37K Medium followers, but he writes so much) pretty much agrees. He tells us to stay ridiculously focused on goals (11.9K claps), stay motivated on our goals (7.4K), not to give up on our goals too early (7.8K), but he also writes that ‘Chasing Goals is Fleeting and Leaves Most People Unhappy and Unfulfilled’ (only 1.6K claps).

Here’s what Cole says in ‘Unfulfilled’:

… I think it’s so important for people to focus on the journey and not the destination. To say you’re after the destination is to say, “I can’t wait until I’m done playing this game.” Well then what are you playing for in the first place? The whole point is to play, to enjoy the process. The moment you reach the final level, defeat the final boss, and have nothing left to do, is the moment you lose your love for playing at all. — Nicolas Cole, ‘Chasing Goals… Leaves Most People Unfulfilled.’


If you’re keeping score at home, even the least popular of this non-scientific selection of Cole’s pro-goals articles are out-clapping his one “journey, not the destination” article by about 5 to 1.

Scott Adams is the famous cartoonist who gives us Dilbert. He “hasn’t been active on Medium yet,” but that hasn’t kept him from publishing several books. One of my favorites is ‘How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big’, in which he tells us:

Goals are for losers. — Scott Adams (the Dilbert Guy)

Given the wild popularity of advice articles on Medium that promise to make you unstoppable (25K claps), feel amazing (7.4K), and achieve immediate self-awareness (16.9K) by an author (Hardy) who sets goals, it might seem no wonder that Adams’ fails at everything.

Or maybe… the reason that these goals, goals, goals articles are so popular isn’t because they work, but because they give readers the feeling of having accomplished something without doing the actual work.

Let me go over that again.

When you set a goal in your imagination, some part of your body thinks you’ve already achieved it. Because you hold it in your thoughts, the cells of your body begin to react to it as if it were already real. You get a little dopamine hit just from thinking about it. And that dope hit is what readers are clapping for, following for, subscribing for, and paying for.

It’s no wonder that Cole tells us that actually achieving our goals will leave us unhappy and unfulfilled. Because the only thing left after accomplishing our goal is a dopamine hangover.

So… we set a bigger goal, and rush like addicts into our imaginations.

Matt Pfeffer explains ‘Why Blocking Jon Westenberg 🌈, Benjamin P. Hardy, et al. will Improve Your Life.’ He compares these self-help writers to the slot machines in Vegas, where the random reinforcement of small dope hits keeps gamblers pulling the slot arm like Skinnerian pigeons, pounding away of the levers of their operant conditioning boxes in search of occasional pellets of reward. In other words, Pfeffer thinks that self-help advice is addicting and he admits “…almost no one is actually going to block these writers.”

But not all self-help advice is like that.

There’s a whole different type of advice that is consistent with Adam’s maxim that “goals are for losers” and it runs along the lines of Anthony Moore’s advice that ‘Ordinary People Focus on the Outcome, Extraordinary People Focus on the Process,’ which has also logged a wildly popular 30K claps.

In ‘Forget About Setting Goals, Focus on This Instead’ (16.2K claps) James Clear confesses that he is a reformed goal-setter.

… for most of us, the path to (what we want to achieve) starts by setting a specific and actionable goal. At least, this is how I approached my life until recently. I would set goals for classes I took, for weights that I wanted to lift in the gym, and for clients I wanted in my business.

What I’m starting to realize, however, is that when it comes to actually getting things done and making progress in the areas that are important to you, there is a much better way to do things.

It all comes down to the difference between goals and systems.

— James Clear, ‘Forget About Setting Goals…

Like Adams, Clear says that goals are actually “at odds with long-term progress.” They both suggest that the key to making progress is focusing on the actions not the outcomes.

It’s the difference between verbs and nouns.

Goals always come in nouns. All the advice on goal-setting suggests that you make your goals quantifiable, specific, measurable — i.e., countable. How else would you know when you’ve accomplished them?

Except that tracking our goals will do little to help us attain them.

Nothing is less important than the score at halftime.

— Bill Walsh, The Score Takes Care of Itself

One of Maarten van Doorn‘s most popular articles is ‘Is It Really Possible to Complete a 1 Year Goal in the Next 3 Months?’ (almost 8K claps). In fact, he quotes Hardy.

The difference is that van Doorn describes the specific actions he is undertaking to advance himself towards his goal. Instead of experiencing the dope hit of fantasizing about having his goal, he describes the difficult work of taking risks, working outside his comfort zone, seeking advice from mentors he admires, and monitoring what’s not working as the types of things he did differently in search of improved performance.

That’s the difference between goals and processes (i.e., systems). The processes are no fun.

One of the advantages of goals is that they sometimes help us get through the negative emotions associated with the processes. We all need to know where our dopamine is coming from, because dope is the reward mechanism that our bodies evolved to keep us motivated. When we get down, or we get discouraged, it helps to call upon our fantasy goals to drip-feed our brains a little dope.

Me at my desk, where I spent 4 hours writing these 1500 words, because I am in love with the process.

To the extent that a little dopamine hit is sometimes confused with love, it’s often said that you have to love the process, not the goal. Nils Salzgeber tells us ‘Focus on the Process, Judge Yourself on Effort’ (103 claps). Hardly anybody claps for that message, but we can imagine how it makes sense. Once we accept that success depends on doing the verbs, then it sure would be convenient if we could fall in love with the process. After all, Americans celebrate obsession (Alex Mathers, 2.1K claps) almost as much as they disparage addiction (Charlie Grosso, 21 claps) as if we could really tell the difference.

Once you fall in love with the process, then you release yourself from the instant gratification fantasy of the goal, and instead draw satisfaction from the processes.

But I’m not so sure.

Muhammad Ali famously said, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’ ”

It’s hard for me to imagine how anyone would fall in love with the brutality of boxing. It sure as heck wasn’t a pleasure that Ali wanted to share with his children, whom he hoped would have careers that used their brains. For Ali, his goals served an important purpose when he felt discouraged, or when he was in pain… that’s when he comforted himself with the reminder of why he had to keep going.

Goals only point us in the direction of the people we want to become. Whether we achieve our goals or not isn’t up to us. There’s too much outside of our control. For example, we don’t get to decide what our competitors are going to do. We don’t decide what the judges will do.

Luck intervenes.

Zat Rana tells us that ‘The Best Things in Life Can’t Be Planned,’ anyway (2.5K claps and climbing).

Only our own efforts are under our control, so it makes sense to keep our goals in mind, but focus our attention and our energy on the processes, systems, habits, behaviors… the verbs that will get us there.

If you want success, find the price and pay it.

— Scott Adams, How to Fail At Everything and Still Win Big

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