Too Many Goals, Too Few Results

December 10, 2015

by Ravi Raman

There are two common mistakes made when setting goals.

#1 Not setting any goals

#2 Setting too many goals

This post is geared to address the second mistake, the error of setting too many goals. Instead of choosing to chase 10+ goals in various part of your life, you will be more satisfied and happier if you opt to focus on just a few important things.

Read on to learn why too many goals lead to too few results and what you can do about it.

Tyranny of too many goals

“For most of us, though, the problem is not a lack of goals but rather too many of them.” – Roy F. Baumeister, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

Businesses flounder when they chase too many goals. In the article, Stop Chasing Too Many Priorities, Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi spell out what many business veterans have experienced first hand:

“We all know instinctively that we cannot do everything – and our companies cannot either. The most pertinent question you can ask is not: “How can I find more business opportunities?” It is: “How can I focus on the opportunities where my company can excel — and then reap the benefits of that discipline?”

In business, success comes from identifying the few opportunities that offer a real chance for reward, while ruthlessly eliminating all other goals that might be competing with the few that matter.

I recall someone telling me a story about Mark Zuckerberg’s primary goal for Facebook in it’s early days was to grow the user base. New features faced this objective. If a new feature did not further growing the relevance of Facebook to more people, it was cut, no matter how cool or innovative the feature may have seemed. We can imagine how this focus helped Facebook grow from 100M users in 2008 to over 1B users in 2015.

Impact on personal life

Let’s compare the stories of two people, Karthik and Joanna. Karthik focuses on achieving ten different goals for the year ahead, where Joanna focuses on one.

Karthik wanted to accomplish the following:
Run a marathon
Get promoted
Lose 20 pounds
Find a steady girlfriend
Build an iOS app
Learn a new coding language
Become fluent in Spanish
Present at an industry conference
Increase his savings rate by 10%
Travel to a new country

Joanna wanted to accomplish one big thing:
Land her dream job, with flexible hours and a better income

Fast-forward a year and let’s see what has transpired.

Karthik was distracted by all the goals and ended up not focusing on most of them. He made progress in losing a few pounds, and started dating, but didn’t make progress on the rest. He ends the year with some growth, but overall doesn’t feel great about his success and accomplishment.

Joanna, meanwhile, focused on all her energy on finding her dream job. Not only did she find her dream job that allows for more flexible hours, the process of networking she went through to meet her future employer helped her make a handful of friendships that will last a lifetime and inspired her to learn a few new skills.

Who is better off in this scenario?

I think we can all agree that Joanna is better off.

Unfinished goals also have a lasting impression on the mind, unless you take great care to release yourself from any form of guilt!

“Uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to pop into one’s mind. Once the task is completed and the goal is reached, however, this stream of reminders comes to a stop.” – The Zeigarnik effect

While this scenario is fictitious, I have witnessed it countless times, and personally suffered from having too many goals myself.

Focus and willpower

Willpower is a thing. You can imagine willpower to be like gas in your car. You have a finite amount of it. You spend willpower every time you resist eating that cookie (assuming you enjoy eating cookies!), build up the motivation to workout or have that difficult conversation at work.

Managing your willpower carefully and spending it on the most important goals for your career and life is a critical factor in your achievement.

By focusing on a few things that matter, you can better direct willpower towards building habits that will allow you to progress naturally in the direction of achievement, without have to stress. After all, forming habits might take some willpower, but eventually, they will become automatic, and you can reap the benefits without spending your precious stash of willpower.

The better you are at focusing, the higher the rate of your success.

Scott Young agrees. He believes that it is focus, not just effort, that is secret to achievement. Who is Scott? He’s a remarkably focused engineer who achieved internet fame by accomplishing the MIT Challenge, where he completed MIT’s entire 4-year computer science curriculum in 12-months without taking any class.

Rising tide raises all boats

Think back to a time when you accomplished something awesome in your life or business. What happened? How did that feel?

Now think about the rest of your life, by accomplishing that one thing, how did the rest of your life benefit?

For example, I find that whenever I succeed in achieving a goal around my personal health, my career, and ability to do great work always improves. Likewise, when I focus on building healthy relationships, I notice less stress and more happiness in my life.

You see, our lives are not compartmentalized, the life integrates across our work, our health and our personal lives as a whole. Just like the Wheel of Life, our lives are interconnected across multiple dimensions, with each supporting the rest.

When you focus on improving one thing, other areas of you life benefit without needing your attention. Metaphorically, a rising tide in one area of your life raises all boats residing in other parts of your life.

Benefit of multiple goals

Focus is important, it is also true that it is hard to focus on one thing forever. It is also true that you might have more than one thing that is both urgent and important to you.

This is why it is OK to focus on a small number of goals. I like to focus on at most three things. Why three? This gives me enough variety and scope to support multiple areas of my life while not diffusing my ability to focus and conserving willpower.

For example, right now I have two primary goals for the next six months. My first goal is around growing my Executive Coaching business. The second objective relates to my personal health and fitness.

Some days I am more motivated to work on my business, whereas other days I am more motivated to work on my health.

By having multiple goals, I’m able to let my desire lead me to focus on whichever goal is most exciting at the moment.

I am not alone in my belief. Seth Godin, entrepreneur and business strategist, is a fan of goal setting and recommends Zig Ziglar’s approach in his Pick 4 goal setting guide (it’s out of print and quite expensive on Amazon! Look for a copy on eBay). Four goals are still a manageable number though 2–3 goals would be best to start with in my experience. This depends on how big the goals are. Your mileage may vary!

Warren Buffet, meanwhile, has famously coached his pilot to pick five things that matter most while ignoring all the rest.

Whether you choose 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 goals is not as important. What matters is that you feel focused on the few things (or 1 thing!) that you do select. Resist the urge to focus on too many things!

Ideal solution

Set fewer goals to save time, save sanity and increase the magnitude of success you have.

I recommend doing an exercise like The Wheel of Life to inventory all the areas of your life that need work, and then pick a few (start with 2–3) goals that relate to a few different areas of your life.

Don’t forget to make them S.M.A.R.T!

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