Mash's Musings

Have direction, not goals.

Published Aug. 22, 2021

Everyone from parents to managers drills into you the importance of having goals. I think the first time I was taught about making "SMART" goals was grade 9, and it's been a mainstay ever since. The core message being driven home again and again was that you need goals to achieve anything. While I do think goals may be useful in some very specific short-term contexts, the supreme focus on goals does more harm than good.

For starters, likely as a byproduct of being Specific and Measurable, goals tend to be extrinsic. As a result, when most people talk about their goals, they resemble something like, "Attain X title or $Y salary by age Z." And while these goals are SMART, they are certainly not smart. The issue is that truly meaningful goals that result in higher satisfaction are far fuzzier: the things we truly want such as fulfillment, strong relationships, and legacy do not lend themselves well to overspecified goals. Instead, goals bias the goalseeker towards checking boxes that skim the surface of success without actually diving into well-being.

Instead, it is generally more helpful to have a clear sense of direction. By direction I mean orienting yourself towards a given value or lifestyle, with a much bigger focus on the "why" as opposed to the "what" or "how" of traditional goals. Finding direction can be difficult and scary, especially if you're young. But the beauty of direction is that it can be as vague and messy as it needs to be; regular redirection is normal and encouraged! To illustrate the difference, here are a few directions I've had in the past few years, contrasted with some similar golas I've heard:

Each of my directions are absolutely horrendous by measure of any goal-setting framework but their simplicity and breadth are what I find most powerful. By having a broad direction or theme always present in your mind, you can make many smaller decisions to orient towards that instead of tying success or failure to something arbitrarily specific. Taking the first example on living healthier, the broad theme led to a whole host of lifestyle changes encompassing sleep, caffeine, drinking, and exercise. Focus on the big picture and keep the true objective constantly in mind, and you'll find yourself steering your decisions to align in the direction you want to go.

Only once you have a sense of direction, should you even start to think about having some goals. Try to keep these goals as short-lived as possible to avoid the risk of value drift. The longer-term the goal, the easier it is to find yourself committed deeply to something while not remembering why it was important in the first place. I see this manifest itself in situations with friends grinding for a couple more years to complete their CPA despite learning that they never want to do accounting. Or burning the midnight oil trying to get the promotion or salary increase in a role you hate. While this dogmatic focus on achieving our past goals feels good upon accomplishment, it pulls our energies away from focusing on moving in the direction we would like to go today.

Spend some time figuring out a general direction, don't overthink it to start. The key is to keep this direction in mind frequently. It should be easy to challenge, easier to revise, and probably impossible to complete. Make room for small cumulative, permanent changes instead of overindexing on time-bound commitments. Goals are overrated.