A Better Way to Think About Goals

By Matt Mulcock, CFP® , CEO / Sr. Advisor    |   Behavioral Finance, Finance 101

Goals are overrated. There, I said it. And I’m not picking on goals. I don’t believe in willpower as a strategy either. To be fair, I’ve known some super successful people that rely on both goals and willpower. But goals are limited when it comes to building habits and creating a life of fulfillment.

The Problem with Goals

Here’s how goals fall short as a driver of sustained success:

Goals box you in as you continue to push out

Being focused on outcomes can lead to an “I’ll be happy when” approach to life. It can create a fallacy that life is a zero-sum, win-or-lose experience. You’re not satisfied until you’ve completed your goal. That feeling of accomplishment quickly dissipates and is replaced with the angst of a new goal.

We do this with money all the time. “I need [x amount] before I can slow down.” I’ve heard this more than a few times in my career. When I ask people why they chose a certain amount, I usually get some version of, “I don’t know. It just sounded good.”

The destination seems to never come. $5 million then turns to $7 million, which then turns to $10 million. Before you know it, you’ve gone crazy chasing down a finish line that just keeps moving farther down the road.

Goals often address the symptom, not the cause

You might find yourself stressed about money. You feel like you spend too much. So you decide to make a goal to stop shopping. In fact, you decide to go cold turkey for a month. 30 days come and go and you were able to keep your credit card in your wallet.

You completed your goal and yet, you feel no relief from the stress. You made a goal to address the shopping, which was simply a result of being unorganized with your finances. Until you get a handle on the money coming in and the cash going out, it won’t matter how many times you place an embargo on the mall.

Goals lead to a “whiplash” effect

Let’s say you have a goal to get in better physical shape. You think signing up to run a marathon will be the perfect motivator. And you’re probably right. Chances are by focusing on the race, you’ll find it easier to stay focused on consistent running. You’ll get in better shape as you train.

The issue comes after the race. The goal was completed. And with the finish, so goes your motivation. You find yourself right back where you were—or worse. Research shows that 80% of dieters go right back to their original weight after completing a weight loss program. Many even gain more weight after a strict diet.

Focusing on short-term accomplishments does very little to improve long-term behavior.

If Not Goals, Then What?

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, wrote:

“The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.”

There’s a difference between building a system of success and collecting outcomes. Focusing on the process rather than the result puts you in control at all times. You’ll always feel satisfied as you know you’re making progress.

The truth is that you have no control over the result. There are endless variables you can’t control. Focus your attention on the inputs—and the outcomes will take care of themselves.

A goal without a system is just a wish. You may decide $5 million is your retirement number. That’s a worthy goal. That’ll give you a solid direction. But that’s all. Most of your time and energy should then be focused on your savings and investing system.

Notice I said goals are overrated, not worthless. Goals help narrow your focus. And in the short term, they can work well. But giving too much attention to the end as opposed to the means will lead to a higher likelihood of being dissatisfied. A goal should provide a general direction, not a finish line.

Goals are not a requirement for success. All you need is a solid system and consistent habits.

Most importantly, focusing more on the process rather than the outcome opens you up to enjoy more of the moments along the way. Being present is the key to a life of joy and meaning. Learn to love the process rather than obsess over the endpoint. You’ll set yourself up for a much more satisfying and enjoyable journey.

Matt Mulcock, CFP® Matt Mulcock, CFP® is the CEO of Dentist Advisors. In addition to advising dentists across the country, he oversees advisor development and the implementation of service improvements. Matt is co-host of the Dentist Money™ Show podcast and author of the “Money Matters” blog. Learn more about Matt.

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