Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Goals are for losers

All of us have thoughts and feelings that influence the way we make decisions. It’s not always something that can be put into words. An article, book, or television program may trigger emotions that may confirm or deny our own personal experiences and knowledge. Skeptical feelings arise whenever our internal “bullshit detector” gets triggered, sometimes subconsciously. My detector gets twanged whenever someone waxes poetic about goals. I couldn’t put it into words, but the logical part of my brain detects a conflict. I can believe that successful people have goals and setting them is a good behavior, but what about unrealistic goals? How do you know if goals are achievable? Did someone like Steve Jobs just know which goals were worthwhile and which were stinkers? How did his initial failures at promoting the home computer not deter him from pursuing that concept? How was that distinguishable from a bad idea that will never sell? What about the millions of passionate people who disappear into obscurity whom have good ideas and clear goals? Why didn’t goals work for them? Of course, putting all that reliance on one aspect of success is unfair. There are lots of reasons to consider why good people with good ideas fail miserably. However, even successful people with proven track records seem to fail quite often. In fact, the number of failures for meeting goals is way more than their successes. Yet, people continue to promote the importance of goals. Either there’s something “they” aren’t telling us or goals are a load of bullshit.

It was refreshing to say the least when I read Scott Adams book, “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.” The book’s chapters are interspersed with autobiographical accounts of Adam’s life including his failures and mysterious health issue, and his principles for success. The chapter titled, “Goals Versus Systems” yielded an “a-ha” moment for me when he wrote:
To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. That feeling wears on you. In time, it becomes heavy and uncomfortable. It might even drive you out of the game.
My indescribable feeling has been described! Yes! A thousand times, yes! Diet success requires a system, not a goal. Low carbohydrate, high fat is a system. Paleo is a system. Vegan is a system. Not all systems are equal and some may work better than others (and some may not work at all). He even addresses diet in terms of systems vs. goals.
The system-versus-goals model can be applied to most human endeavors. In the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system. In the exercise realm, running a marathon in under four hours is a goal, but exercising daily is a system. In business, making a million dollars is a goal, but being a serial entrepreneur is a system.
Even realistic and achievable goals can be counterproductive to the psyche.
If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.
The definition of system and goals is a little blurry. However, he provides a simple way to distinguish between the two.
For our purposes, let’s say a goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.
Diet needs to be a system. It should be something that increases “your odds of happiness in the long run.” It cannot rely on extraordinary amounts of willpower to maintain. Any system that necessitates starvation or chronic hunger is a bad system. Any system that makes a person feel bad or unhealthy is also bad. I know that seems obvious, but ask some ex-vegans how they felt while on their system of choice, yet they persevered…for a while

The chapter called “Diet” is very insightful. He makes a bold claim that he eats as much as he wants, of anything he wants, whenever he wants. A proviso to his claim is that it works because he “reprogrammed” himself to want the right kinds of food for enjoyment and disfavor the wrong ones. I won’t go into his techniques to eliminate cravings for undesirable foods, so if you’re interested, you should buy the book. However, I can relate his advice to my own experiences. I eliminated the cravings for sugar by abstaining from high glycemic, high carb food and by substituting those foods for tasty low carb alternatives. Ratcheting down on “crutch” foods occurred over time. I practically never use low carb wheat-based flours or consume processed low carb snacks. However, I still use non-nutritive sweeteners and I don’t see that ever changing. Any diet that removes the joy of eating will result in failure.


Goals are for losers. Choose systems that work for you. Buy the book. Read Dilbert.

Bonus link: Goals vs. Systems from Scott Adams' blog.

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