The Problem with Setting Goals (and What to Set Instead)

problem with goals

This is Part II of II. If you missed Part I, read The Foraging Choice: The Choice That Makes or Breaks Our Work

I don't set goals. Not really.

I have an idea of what excites me. I love the work I do and want to constantly improve. I adore the journey most days (though not all days, because that's just reality, even for People Who Say Pithy Things For A Living.)

But this pithy little idea that success requires you to set and reach goals is simply not true. That's too broad, too simplistic, and too universal. There is no "one right way" to do most things in this wonderful work that we do. So instead of set goals, I set something else. It's something I first encountered in hosting Unthinkable and later codified in writing my book thanks to all these wonderful humans whose stories I was grateful to tell. It turns out they replace their goals with something else too. I call them aspirational anchors. But to understand what I mean, you first need to understand the foraging choice.

Yep. The foraging choice. Last week, most people reading this newsletter (perhaps you?) learned about the foraging choice just a few days after I did. (If you missed that, go back and read about it here.)

The foraging choice is the decision between exploiting your existing position and exploring other possibilities. This psychological concept was most recently explored in a research study at NYU which I was lucky enough to get my hands on before publication to the outside world, all thanks to my secret agent planted deep inside the psychology world. (She is also quite pretty and smart and charming and warm and married to me.)

Think back to last week's newsletter. Remember what causes us to exploit our current position rather than explore new and potentially better options? As the study observed, "chronic and acute stress" prompts us to cling more fiercely to options we know and reject the notion of exploring the unknown. As a result, we act like nervous squirrels insisting that there will be just a few more nuts left in this tree and OMG what if those other trees are barren or HOLY WALNUTS what if there are foxes and hawks out there? Let's just stay here. Yup-yup-YUPYUP! Here's good, here's good, here's good...

Oh boy. In the workplace, when we beat the ever-loving crap out of a tactic or do something merely because "that's how we do things around here," we're deciding to exploit rather than explore. So what can prompt us to explore? I don't believe setting goals is the answer.

In fact, I'd argue that goals add to our stress. Goals are like mile markers in a race. We want to reach THAT spot over THERE. But once we reach that goal, there's another, and another, and another. So we can't reach that spot fast enough. Worse, because everybody in our industry seems to be running this same race towards that same spot, it's so tempting to compare and contrast and get stressed out. They make the race look so effortless. They reached that mile marker so much faster than we did.

I think goals are a way to measure what we did in our work, not how we did it -- and how we do our work makes all the difference between exploitation and exploring. Goals anchor us to a spot in the distance, but they do little to adjust the course we take in the first place. In reality, they encourage us to take ANY course we can in the effort to reach that spot, and so, many of us look for cheats, hacks, tips, tricks, blueprints, and gurus who promise get-there-quick tactics. If we bring our own sensibilities and personalities to our goals, that's great, but they're not automatically a part of our work. I think that's broken. I think setting a goal should somehow incorporate how we operate, not just where we want to go.

That's why I believe in setting aspirational anchors.

Aspirational anchors are personal or team-based mission statements that focus us on the change in our behavior, not the outcome of that behavior. They add in the "how" in a powerful way. For instance, when we set a goal, we might say, "Let's grow our subscribers 50% month over month," and that may encourage us to repeat the old playbook with more urgency or adopt any and all tactics that profess to grow traffic fast. All we focus on is reaching THAT spot over THERE, and we find ourselves in a similar race to everyone else. But what if we set an aspirational anchor like "Let's show the world how fun and relevant we really are" instead? What if we said THAT to ourselves or our teams? We might encourage everyone to consider how we're operating now and what change we'd like to make in ourselves. We're no longer interested in purely the mile marker. We're interested in the course we take. The how. The change. In focusing on that, we can run our own race, too.

Aspirational anchors combine two powerful things about our unique situations: our intent for the future and some kind of hunger we have today. Goals omit the latter, and so we never feel inspired enough to go exploring with confidence. If we're trying to fix a bland and boring blog in order to generate more subscribers, a goal would merely articulate our intent for the future. "We want to grow our subscribers 50% month over month." We're not inspiring anyone, least of all ourselves. But if we add in some hunger, some dissatisfaction with our behavior, our company, or our industry, then suddenly it becomes an aspirational anchor.

What's your intent? To grow subscribers. What's dissatisfying about your work today in trying to do that? We have to dig deeper to answer that. Maybe we realize our tone of voice is too bland, or that we're so focused on results that we're copying too much, or that we're serving "leads" instead of customers. Whatever the case, adding the hunger part makes the anchor aspirational enough to prompt reflection and change.

Intent: Grow our subscribers. Hunger: Our voice is too bland. Aspirational anchor: So let's show the world how fun and relevant we really are!

If our goal was to create the industry's most fun-and-relevant blog, instead of merely to grow our email list, suddenly our behavior might change. We'd stop googling or asking people on social media for tips, tricks, cheats, and hacks, and we'd develop more self-awareness and situational awareness. We'd look more intently at our environment for the answers. This, according to the NYU study, is that precursor to making good foraging choices: knowing our environment enough to make informed, confident decisions to explore, not merely exploit.

Aspirational anchors thus provide a sort of first-filter before we make our choices at work. They help us vet all that information out there more quickly, with more clarity and more confidence. Some ideas or some best practices get through our filter because they make sense for our specific aspiration. Some things get stuck and thus we ignore them, even if they were spoken by an industry expert we admire. But the only way we can make these decisions is if we know what we aspire to do.

These statements are also personal. Aspirational anchors give us a reason to apply who we are in our work, because make no mistake, who we are is the ONE thing competitors can't access. Who we are is our unfair advantage. Are you using that advantage to its full extent in your work?

So if we want to do our best work, and if we believe we can't merely cling to the past precedent or the latest trend, we need to explore rather than exploit. But when we're stressed, we rarely decide to do so. Aspirational anchors provide the necessary inspiration and direction for an individual or group to see their environment more clearly. If we're trying to reach THAT spot over THERE .... AND .... we want to take THAT course forward ... then we need to change our current course. We can make decisions based on what works FOR US rather than the general wisdom or advice. We realize we can stop exploiting and begin to investigate new and better possibilities. This spot's no good! Gotta go!

Ask yourself: "What is my aspirational anchor? What is my intent for the future? And what is the hunger I feel today, some dissatisfaction with my or our work? How does that lead me to create an aspirational anchor?"

What is your personal or team-based mission statement? Can you focus less on the mile-markers and more on the behavior change you need? Best of all, how can you make your work more personal so you're running your own race entirely? Even if a whole pack of competitors races down the same path, you might waltz the other way, because you have the clarity and confidence to know what works best FOR YOU.

What is your aspirational anchor? If you can articulate it, you'll step back from that endless cycle of best practices, conventional thinking, and trendy new tactics. You'll realize just how much you or others get caught in exploitation mode, and with confidence and clarity, you'll inspire yourself and those around you to do something exceptional instead.

Let's go exploring...

To learn more about how to make better decisions in your work (regardless of the “best practice”), explore Break the Wheel. Available everywhere Oct. 16, but readers in the U.S. can pre-order signed copies at

Posted on September 19, 2018 .