Why you struggle to achieve your goals
Defining a goal is only the start. You also need a project—a concrete plan and action—to achieve it.
Hey everyone! This week we’re looking at a framework that helps us make an honest assessment of where we spend our time and energy. It has been both a motivator and a punch in the gut for me personally. I know it will help you too. Let’s get into it!
From the Mid-century
In preparation for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.
- Dwight D. Eisenhower
Ambition, I have come to believe, is the most primal and sacred fundament of our being. To feel ambition and to act upon it is to embrace the unique calling of our souls. Not to act upon that ambition is to turn our backs on ourselves and on the reason for our existence.
- Steven Pressfield, Turning Pro
I don't have as many goals as I once thought. My guess is that you don't either. But I suppose this depends on what we call a goal.
I recently came across an important distinction from Tiago Forte:
A goal without a project attached is just a dream.
A project without a goal is just a hobby.
When we want something, no matter how badly, but do not make any plans to accomplish it or take any action toward it, this is a dream. We don't earn the right to call something a goal until we actually work toward it by making a personal sacrifice in service of this future. This is more than mere semantics—the distinction matters. Talking about your goals with others or even opining about them in a journal can give you a little taste of the joy that comes from actually working toward them. These small and frequent sips of satisfaction can fool us into believing that these abstract "goals" are a concrete aspect of our life, even though we haven’t moved any closer to them.
Given this distinction, how many goals do you actually have? You don't need to search your heart or mind for this answer, it is revealed in the ledger of your past actions. What did you actually do? For how long? Under what directive? Can you point to any concrete planning or actions taken toward that goal? How have your habits changed to bring you closer to your goal?
This set of past actions also reveals Tiago's second point between goals and hobbies. In looking at how you spent your time, can you be said to have any projects or simply a bunch of hobbies? This was the most revealing question for me. I do have distant dreams, but I mostly fall into the second trap. I am always working toward many things at once but often fail to give any single pursuit my full effort and, worse, I rarely create a concrete plan to achieve any of my "goals." It is far more accurate to say that I have a rich set of hobbies but very few goals. Even our work with IHD, for Shane and I both, more often falls into the category of a hobby with unfrequent but focused periods toward a distinct goal.
There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. They just give a framework for honest assessment. Dreams are wonderful. They are fun. They inspire. They connect us to something outside ourselves. And they can motivate eventual action. We need hobbies too. We need activities that we do simply for intrinsic joy and nothing else. We don't need to excel at everything or monetize every passion project. But elevating our hobbies and dreams in our minds to the status of projects and goals skips the most critical steps: planning and consistent action.
In the modern world, we fetishize and identify with our goals. We publicly declare them in hopes of conflating them in the minds of others, as well as our own, in hopes that the wanting of something makes us closer to the type of person who actually embodies it. We all know the type of person who is perpetually trying to quit smoking, but we cannot find any evidence of this "trying" other than dreaming of the day when it will be true. Many of us have a similar relationship with getting into shape, saving money, and writing our novels. With enough dreaming and talk, we delude ourselves into believing that these pursuits are a concrete part of our life despite having no plan or consistent work toward them.
Accomplishing a goal requires action. This is obvious. But action is more than a means to accomplish a goal. It is a spiritual act. Action is a communion with the force that animates us. Dreams are not just fanciful thoughts to entertain us. They pull us up to be something greater and we should see them for what they are, a calling forth from a divine source. Our dreams and ambition are, as Steven Pressfield says, the "primal and sacred fundament of our being" and to work toward them, through action, sacrifice, and commitment is to honor the deepest part of our being. Intentionality feels good. Action, then, is an end in itself.
The intimidation that we feel in starting something new and the difficulty we face in remaining consistent are the forces that give a goal-driven journey its meaning. This resistance prevents us from transforming our dreams into goals but it is this transformation, though dedicated action, that brings far greater fulfillment than the final accomplishment.
So we must ask ourselves, what "goals" do I have that are actually just dreams? What can I do today to bring an amorphous, gaseous dream into the solid form of a goal? Equally important, what dreams are best left for later, and whose calling I can ignore until the time is right? And finally, what distant dreams can I recognize as such to release my expectation that I will someday accomplish them, freeing me up to pursue my real goals?
We only have enough commitment for a few true goals at a time. Let us choose wisely and let us choose with our hands and feet as much as with our hearts and our minds.
A personal update
Marika just raced at the Hyrox World Championship this past weekend in Las Vegas. Check her out!
Thank you so much for reading this week and remember…life is too short to be normal!
Good reminder to periodically revisit my goals and clean up. Not everything that 2015 Me wanted to do still applies. And I am sure that 2030 Me won't necessarily want what 2022 Me aims for.