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When to choose a direction instead of a target

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

When to choose a direction instead of a target

Scott Miker

Setting goals can be a great way to take control and reach new levels of success.  Setting a goal can put focus on an area and give a clear vision of where you want to end up.

But I have found that in some situations setting specific goals is an exercise in futility.  Instead I needed to focus on the direction I want to go, not on setting a specific target to hit.

One specific area for me has been my health.  Years ago I would set specific goals around weight loss and getting in shape.  The goals would be specific, measurable, and attainable.  They would have a timeframe associated with them and would have clear understanding of what the goal entailed.

By anyone’s evaluation process the goals were good.  They checked off all of the criteria for setting a good goal.

Yet I missed the mark.  I didn’t even come close to achieving the goals I set.  I would quit sooner than I ever thought and would struggle to have any real impact on the area I wanted to improve. 

Instead of losing weight, I gained weight.  Instead of getting in better shape, my health was deteriorating.  The more I set goals, the more I failed, the more frustrated I grew, and the more I failed.  It was a vicious cycle of failure.

I tried to change the goals around.  I would use different numbers, different dates, different exercises, and different motivation.  But I still failed. 

But the problem wasn’t the goal I set; it was the approach I took to reach the goal.  Until I corrected that, I would never see any real progress. 

But once I changed my approach I would start to make progress towards my goal and I would see improvement.  But goals still didn’t matter.  I would hit some and miss some and it didn’t seem to matter what the goal was or how it was structured, it was all about what I was doing. 

That is when I realized that in this situation the goal is simply improvement.  The goal is to keep improving and getting better.  The goal is to lower my weight instead of reach a specific weight.  The goal was to improve my BMI instead of hitting a certain number.  The goal was to lower my cholesterol overall, not just lower it to a certain level.

The reason I changed my approach was that the numbers didn’t really matter.  If you want to lower your cholesterol number 20 points what does that mean?  What you have to do is change your exercise and nutrition habits.  And changing those habits is what will determine if you improve.  Therefore who cares if you chose 20 points in 3 months or 5 points in 12 months? 

What we ultimately want is improvement.  And we will know when we are improving.  We track where we are and then monitor to make sure the habit changes are effective.  And if they aren’t effective enough, we continue to change the habits by increasing what we are doing.  Add more weight to strength training.  Add more time to cardio workout.  Add more vegetables to our diet. 

Once I changed this mindset, improvement started happening.  It didn’t happen according to some guess of a goal, it happened because I was changing the habits and routines in my life to become more and more healthy.

This approach is very impactful but often overlooked.  It doesn’t just work for health.  It works in most areas of our lives where we want to see improvement.  It might be easy to set a goal to win an award or championship, but otherwise the specific goal is much less important than we make it and the crucial factors are all around how we are going to reach the goal, not what the goal is.