Confessions of a Recovering “Goal-aholic”

“What are your New Year’s resolutions?” When I hear that question, I want to say, “I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, I just set goals.” That would ring true, but it would also make me sound like kind of a jerk.

Better to quote a gentleman who was most definitely not a jerk, but highly successful. Tom Landry was the “Dean of NFL Coaches” in his day. He had a record-setting 20 consecutive winning seasons and took his team to five Super Bowls. He said this: “Setting a goal is not the main thing. It is deciding how you will go about achieving it and staying with that plan.”

I can’t improve much on that goal-setting advice. You can Google all kinds of material explaining why setting specific written goals is generally a good thing. Breaking down the goals into specific action items on a monthly, weekly, and even daily basis is even better.

But I will be the first to admit that setting annual goals and making specific plans to achieve them doesn’t always go the way you planned. It can leave you feeling discouraged when you repeatedly fail to meet the goals you so painstakingly outlined.

I should know. I’ve been there. You might even say I’m a recovering “goal-aholic.”

At one time I was almost obsessive about keeping detailed goal spreadsheets broken down by category, month, and week. It didn’t really work out. Too many times, my frazzled self would just put off that week’s goals to the next week, or just ignore them. At one point I got frustrated enough that I just stopped bothering with the written goals entirely.

But my goal-setting mistakes can be your goal-setting lessons. Here are my top five goal-setting mistakes and what you can learn from them.

1. Setting too many goals

Specific, measurable goals are usually better than general goals. So, rather than making it a goal to “get in better shape this year” you might make it a goal to “do 15 pull-ups in a row,” “run a mile under 8 minutes,” etc. You might even break these down into smaller goals, like “do 10 pull-ups by April 1,” etc.

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When you set too many goals, you lose focus

But when you make too many specific goals, you lose focus. I got to the point where I had so many different goals in different categories that it diluted my mental focus too much. I got burned out on the goal setting and tossed the whole list.

Now, for 2017, I’m rebuilding with a more focused list. Experts say don’t weigh down your list with goals you don’t really care about. My own list is still longer than any sane human being should have, but I have tried to eliminate anything unnecessary or unrealistic.

2. Setting goals that are really just things you have to do or like to do

Speaking of unnecessarily cluttering your goal list, I realized that one problem with my goal-setting was that many of the goals I would routinely check off as accomplished were just things I either had to do or liked to do.

For example, I like exercising. It’s actually fun for me. (Don’t hate me, there are probably productive things you like to do that I don’t like.) So making a goal like “do CrossFit five times a week” is not that helpful for me. It’s something I’m going to do anyway.

There are other things I don’t necessarily like to do but must do whether I like them or not. For example, “respond to all discovery requests on time” is certainly a good practice for a lawyer who handles litigation, but it’s not the kind of thing that belongs on a list of goals. I know that one way or another, I’m not going to miss a deadline like that.

So get rid of things on your goal list that are just things you like to do anyway, or that you already know you have to do. Because the main point of your goals is to help you stretch to do things you wouldn’t naturally do. To get out of your “comfort zone,” as they say.

3. Setting goals that are not realistic

While I have sometimes gone wrong by padding my goal list with tasks I know I’m going to accomplish anyway, I have also made the common mistake of setting unrealistic goals.

It’s easy to do this, especially with self-help gurus telling you to dream big, shoot for the stars, etc. The idea is that you need something grand to inspire and motivate yourself. Don’t get me wrong. I like the idea of setting a bold, audacious goal as much as the next guy. But the hard reality is that there is a big difference between a dream and a goal.

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Don’t ignore reality when setting your goals

You want to set a goal that is difficult enough to require some striving, like “invent the flex defense.” But you don’t want it so unrealistic that it becomes a joke, like “securing the border” or “winning the war on drugs” in politics. If your football team’s record was 1-15 this year, setting a goal of winning the Super Bowl next year is probably not productive. How about setting a goal to have a winning season next year? Still difficult, but not impossible.

So go ahead, hold on tight to your dream. But don’t confuse your dream with your goals. Look at your goals as the building blocks for achieving your dream.

And don’t beat yourself up when you don’t meet every goal. I bet you performed better than if you had set no goals at all.

4. Not setting aside time to work on your goals

So many times I would come to the end of the week or month and find I had neglected many of my goals. The problem was that I did not set aside time to work on those goals. This mistake is the most obvious, but also the most common. Like that song says, “the hardest to learn was the least complicated.”

I like my advice of setting goals that are not things you already have to do, but one downside of this approach is that it allows you to procrastinate. If your goals are discretionary—if they are things you are not required to do—then it will be easier to put them off when you get busy. And you will always be busy with something.

Achieving goals takes work, and work takes time. If you don’t set aside time to work on your goals this week, you will probably put them off until next week. And then next month. And so on.

So take some time each week to review your goals, and block out time on your calendar to work on them. Simple, right?

5. Setting goals that are largely out of your control (?)

This one has a question mark by it because I’m still on the fence. But I’m leaning to one side.

A perennial goal-setting dilemma is whether to include goals that you can’t really control, or to stick to the things that, even if they are difficult, are largely under your control.

I say “largely,” because God has a way of reminding you that nothing is totally under your control. Like John Lennon sang, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

I got this reminder big time in 2016 when I was briefly hospitalized (it turned out fine). Sometimes people have to take time away from work to care for a sick child, or an aging parent. They get laid off. Someone accidentally trips you as you were about to cross the finish line and qualify for the Olympics. Your B-17 bomber runs out of fuel over occupied France. Stuff happens.

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Focus on goals you can control

But most of the time you can set goals, even ambitious ones, that are largely under your control. If I set a goal to “do a blog post on Five Minute Law once a week in 2017,” it may be a lot of work, and it may be difficult, but barring a major crisis it’s an action I can control. On the other hand, if I set a goal to “get a new client every quarter in 2017,” there is a lot I can do to make that result more likely, but I really can’t control it.

Similarly, if my goal is “exercise three times a week,” I can usually control that, but if my goal is “do 10 handstand push-ups in a row by the end of the year,” that’s harder to control. Genetics and age may limit my results no matter how hard I work.

It comes down to the difference between process goals and results goals. The process is largely under my control. The results? Not so much.

So I say focus on the process, and the results will tend to take care of themselves. Smarter people who have actually researched this stuff agree with me (see Big Goals Can Backfire).

But that question mark still lingers. If I don’t pay attention to results, how will I know if my process is working? If I don’t set some results goals, what is my motivation to do the hard work to meet the process goals week in and week out? So maybe a few result goals are ok. I don’t know. I wish I could ask Coach Landry.

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Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation. His firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC has offices in Houston, Austin, and The Woodlands. His long-term goal is to play the lead role in a production of “Hamilton.” Or maybe that’s more of a dream.

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