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The Problem With Goals

This is a concept that has been stewing within me for some time. Bubbling beneath the surface, slowly making its way up.

Part of the reason that I think it’s taken some time to express itself is that in many ways it runs counter to our cultural beliefs, as well as what we’re directly taught during our training.

It finally surfaced in the form of a question that appeared in my mind recently as I was taking a walk:

Is it possible that goals hinder progress?

In this article, we’ll discuss

Limitations of Goals

Let’s start with the most pressing thing— what’s wrong with goals?

There are a few important limitations of goals.

1. Goals restrict our happiness

They do this by tying our happiness or our feeling of success to an outcome, and outcomes always exist in the future.

When we focus on the future we’re taking the stance that the present isn’t enough, that we need more in order to feel happy or successful. We’re essentially creating a narrative in which life isn’t good enough right now, and it will only be good enough once we achieve some future thing

This is not a recipe for happiness. Quite the opposite in fact.

2. Goals create a binary relationship with success

When we have a goal—a particular outcome that we want to achieve—we create the dichotomy of success or failure. Even if we make tremendous progress toward this goal, if we don’t fully reach it, we’re often disappointed on some level because we had a goal (an expectation) that was not fulfilled.

All-or-nothing thinking like this tends to not be very helpful, in part, because it’s not concordant with the way the world actually works. In reality, everything is a spectrum, a gradient. Nothing is truly black or white, all or nothing.

3. Goals often lead to the finish line effect

The finish line effect refers to what happens when we reach our goal: we often stop.

As physical therapists, we see this time & time again: a person is in PT, doing their exercises, moving and grooving. Then they reach their goals, get discharged from PT, stop moving (and more tragically, they stop grooving), and the problem returns.

This is because the focus was on the goal, the outcome. Once the goal is reached, there’s no longer something to focus on & the whole thing falls apart.

So why do we do this? Why do we engage in this cycle of hope and disappointment, victory and disarray?

Why do we focus on goals so much?

It’s no surprise that we tend to focus on goals so much. There are many forces at play that lead to this phenomenon. Let’s look at some of them.

1. Payers

For us PTs, one main reason is because of the systems that we find ourselves in.

For the majority of our profession who is not in a cash model, it’s a basic requirement to prove to the payer (the insurance company or government agency) that what we’re doing is effective. This is largely done through tracking outcomes. When we’re tracking outcomes and seeking to optimize outcomes, we naturally focus on the outcomes.

2. Our training

In school, we’re taught the importance of goal-setting. Specifically, setting goals that are measurable and set for a particular timetable.

I can only speak for my program, but goal setting, and especially ‘proper’ goal setting was drilled into our heads. As a result, my patients’ goals (where we want them to be in the future) were at the forefront of my mind quite often when working with them.

3. Our culture

In western culture, we tend to focus on what we want over what we have. Getting more, achieving more, being more are built into our everyday lives in the most basic of ways.

In this cultural context, it’s quite natural for us and our patients to focus on the goals—the hopes, the expectations, the desires for the future.

And so, with our goals & the patient’s goals in the forefront of our mind, we march forward, intent on making things better. Better than now, maybe even better than before. But definitely better.

But this isn’t the only option.

Another option

Instead of focusing our attention on the goals, on the future, what if we focused our attention on what’s right in front of us?

What if instead of the outcome, we focused on the process?

Benefits of a process-focus

Focusing on the process provides many obvious benefits, which fall into three categories:

1. Control

We simply have more control over the process than we do the outcome. Why? Because the process is here right now, while the outcome is out there in the future.

When we focus on the future we tend to miss the present. We’re less nimble, less able to learn and adapt to the present circumstances because our awareness is not here and now.

Focusing on the process allows us to learn from and adapt to the circumstances as they come and as they change.

2. Peace

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of an outcome focus is that because it’s out there in the future, it can feel out of reach, and provides us with no guidance on how exactly to get there.

This can be distressing for the patient, as well as for us. I can clearly remember the pangs in my chest as my mind compared the patient’s current state to their goals, “How can I possibly get them from here to there?” my mind would wonder as it sped up with anxiety.

The process, on the other hand, is actionable. It’s something to do, not just something we want. Focusing on that which we have some control over and taking steps is anxiety-reducing.

3. Flexibility

Focusing on the process allows us the flexibility to change our mind.

When we’re laser-focused on some far-off goal, we might not often stop and ask— do I still want this? When we’re focused on the process—on what’s happening right now—we might discover that our priorities are shifting, as they tend to do over time.

As we loosen our grip on the outcome we can let the process guide us, allowing our priorities and desires to move and change as they do naturally.

When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy.” -James Clear

The real problem with goals

Ok so now’s the time for some clarification. This is the part where we talk through some nuances of this concept:

1. There’s nothing wrong with having goals

The desire to change and grow can be a healthy force in our lives propelling us to become that which we know we can be.

The real problem arises with the attachment to the goals, or the focus on the outcome at the expense of the process.

Focusing on the outcome at the expense of the process can quickly become counter-productive, as we waste our energy thinking about the future instead of taking steps to get there now.

2. There’s nothing wrong with tracking outcomes

Outcomes give us feedback, help us learn, and are useful for research.

Again, the problem arises when our focus becomes the outcome at the expense of the process. It’s absolutely possible to track outcomes without over-focusing on them.

3. A process-focus is not a renunciation of goals, hopes, or aims

In fact, the beauty of a process focus is that the goal is built-in.

Because without an aim, there would be no process. You can’t have a process for nothing, leading nowhere.

So of course the first step of the process is deciding what you want, but then the focus must shift from the what to the how; and there it should stay until the what changes.

How will we know if the goal changes if we’re focused on the process and not the outcome? Simple: we will lose the desire to engage in the process to get there.

So while the goal sets the direction, and is a necessary step, the process is what actually leads to progress.

Simple but not easy

As straightforward as this sounds, staying focused on the process can be quite tricky

Just pay attention the next time you exercise. Let’s say you’re bench pressing and you have the goal of performing 8 reps, or maybe you’re running and you have the goal of running 3 miles.

Pay attention to how many times your mind jumps to the future:

  • “Oh this is easy, I can definitely get there.”

  • “This is getting harder, will I make it?”

  • “I’m not sure if I can.”

  • “I can.”

  • “Can I?”

  • “I can do it, I’m tough.”

  • “Am I tough enough?”

Or pay attention the next time you have a goal related to work. Let’s say you have a presentation coming up and you want it to go well.

As you engage in the process of creating the presentation, pay attention to how many times your mind jumps to the outcome:

  • “Oh I hope this goes well.”

  • “They’re going to love it.”

  • “What if they ask hard questions?”

  • “They’ll be supportive.”

  • “But what if they ask a genuine question that I don’t know the answer to?”

Or simply pay attention the next time you eat. When we eat, we often have the implicit goal of getting full, which makes sense; it’s part of our biology to get enough calories to survive and thrive.

As you engage in the process of eating, pay attention to how many times your mind jumps to the outcome:

  • “Do I have enough?”

  • “Will I get enough?”

  • “I hope I don’t eat too much.”

  • “This is so good, I’m definitely going back for seconds.”

Some of our inner dialogue is encouraging and positive, some of it isn’t. Positive, or negative, focusing on the future pulls our attention away from what’s happening right now, making us less able to adapt to the present circumstances

What if we were able to stay with the process without the imposition of the future? How well could we perform? What could we accomplish? Could we have a more peaceful relationship with life?

How to shift the focus

So how do we do this? How do we help the people we work with maintain a focus on the process so that they can have more control, flexibility, and peace? And how do we get a slice of this for ourselves?

Let’s talk through some ways of doing this.

1. Cultivating Process Awareness

In order for our patients to focus on the process, they must gain awareness of the process.

This requires us to be aware of the process and to share it with them. One way of doing this is by sharing our specific processes (how we operate) with them.

Specific process awareness