Goals Suck

by | Nov 12, 2013

I hate goals. I have a million of them. An application that does bicycle related math. Fixing the oil leak in my car… making rideable and selling one or more of the busted bikes in my house. Lots and lots of blog posts that I thought about, then got self conscious, or lost my train of thought, or something else, and didn’t write. My bachelor’s degree (I meant to finish it by age 22. Here’s 24 and counting, best I can do is a diploma). Trips I meant to take, bikes/cars/motorcycles I meant to build. A thousand different exercise routines that lasted a month or less. From the perspective of “goals”, my life has been a long string of failures punctuated by minor wins.

Luckily I don’t think about goals much. I read an article recently that neatly summed up the way I usually think, framed as advice. Think in terms of strategies, or systems, rather than goals. A goal of becoming a vegetarian, for example, is a form of masochism. (In my humble opinion! Apologies to my friends who are committed and disciplined vegetarians.) Any time you weaken and eat meat, you have failed. You’ll probably fail again and again. Every time you fail, you have to work up the courage again and go, “I’m serious this time! No more meat ever again!” Every failure is painful, and your self-worth takes a hit.

Instead of that, I just don’t buy meat at the grocery store. See, my system is to buy food on Sunday, and make a week’s worth of lunch Sunday afternoon. I usually don’t bother with dinner and I have the same breakfast every day (10 years and counting). So I only have to decide against meat once per week. If I do eat some, it’s usually on the weekend or during a rare dinner, which is likely cooked healthfully for me by some doting relative. So the negative health and financial impacts of eating meat are almost entirely eliminated. I haven’t met the goal of being vegetarian, but I eat very little meat, and more importantly – I’m happy with myself, and my diet causes me zero stress.

In a similar way I make constant progress with all of my projects… I stop at the bike shop on the way home and work on a build for a couple of hours. If I have a long weekend, I usually repair something (that oil leak is next on the list). If I’m mad at myself for wasting time instead of writing code, I start by cleaning my room, and once I’m in motion it’s much easier to get started writing code. So most days I make a little progress, and most weeks I make a measurable chunk of progress, and this year I’m better than I was last year.

As self congratulatory as this sounds, you need to know that I’m writing it while sitting at my work computer, having spent the last 6 hours staring at my editor feeling waves of confusion, anger, and self-doubt as I struggle with a software framework that I’ve been struggling to learn for weeks. Progress feels horribly, painfully slow. All my usual facebook chat buddies are sick of hearing about it, so I’ve got vent somewhere. But every time I learn something or successfully do something, no matter how tiny, I write it in my notes file to read back over when I need it. My probation period ends in 8 days – at that point they’ll decide if I’m worth enough to keep around. At the moment I sure don’t feel like I am. But tiny progress, every day, is better than nothing.