Unless you’ve been living under a rock your whole life, you know that goals can be a great source of satisfaction and purpose in our lives.1,2 Goals give us something to look forward to, they give us direction. Goals help us track and measure our progress and understand our shortcomings. Goals are popular for a reason: they work.
But it’s important to understand exactly how goals benefit you first.
Specific Goals Are Best for External Pursuits
Probably the most popular way to use goals—and the way you’ve used them in your own life—is to pursue a specific result.
I want to be an author, so I set a goal to write a book by the end of the year. I want to have financial freedom, so I set a goal to be debt-free by 2022. I want to look good naked, so I set a goal of losing 20 lbs before beach season.
Setting specific, measurable goals works extremely well in helping us achieve tangible, external achievements. This is actually one of the more robust findings in the research on goals and it applies to individuals, groups, and organizations across many different cultural backgrounds, in many different settings, and across all time horizons studied to date.3,4
Specific goals act as a sort of GPS for your life. And just like the GPS on your phone needs a specific destination to be useful, external goals really only work when you have a specific outcome in mind.
For example, “save more money” is the goal equivalent of telling your GPS you want to go to California. Where exactly in California do you want to go? San Diego? San Francisco? Yosemite National Park?
No, no, no. You want fried shrimp tacos from Mariscos Jalisco taco truck on Olympic Boulevard in LA (trust me, you do). Now your GPS can tell you exactly how to get there, turn by turn, down to the number of feet until you sidle up to the window and order your three tacos and maybe some ceviche with hot salsa (not too much though—I’ve warned you).
When you set specific goals, they become measurable and actionable, which then allows you to track your progress. These are sometimes referred to as “SMART Goals.”5 SMART stands for:
So, instead of “save more money,” you could say, “save $5,000 by December 12th.” Now you know exactly what you need to do. If you start saving on January 1, you have 345 days to save, so that’s:
- $14.50 per day
- $101.45 per week
- $416.67 per month
This allows you to know exactly where you’re at with your goal throughout the year too. By day 57, you should have $826.50 saved up. By week 18, you should have $1,826.10 in the bank. And by July, you should have $2,916.69 holed away. Any deviation from these benchmarks is an indicator that you should change your approach (or perhaps change your goal—more on that later).
Another benefit of setting specific goals is that they help you focus on the outcomes you want while ignoring all the extraneous distractions you’re bound to encounter.6,7 It’s easy to know what to cut out of your spending when you know exactly how much to save. It’s easier to know what foods to cut when you know exactly how much weight you want to lose, and so on. Specific goals, when worked towards, can be a source of energy,8 motivation, and persistence.9
General Goals Are Best for Internal Pursuits
Alright, so throw a fucking parade for specific goals. They got us to the moon, built the pyramids, invented Disneyland. What’s not to love about specific goals?
Well, specific goals are great. The problem is that sometimes what we want is not specific.
For example, if I want to be a better writer, how do I actually measure that? Website traffic? Book sales? Glowing emails in my inbox telling me what a Grade A badass I am?
This is where we get into trouble with goals. Because if I decide that “website traffic = being a good writer,” well, there are a lot of shady ways to build website traffic that don’t involve good writing.
You often see a similar phenomenon with people who set weight loss goals. They lose weight… by doing terribly unhealthy things like starving themselves or living off nothing but pretzels and carrot juice for a year. Sure, the weight comes off. But they’re arguably in much worse shape than they began—i.e., their specific goal hurt them rather than helped them.
This is where general goals come into play. It’s not enough to simply want to lose 15 pounds, you also want to be a healthy human being. It’s not enough to want to sell a bunch of books, you want to sell books because you’re a better writer. It’s not enough to make a million bucks, you want to make that money in a way that is ethical and sustainable.
General goals like this—be healthier, have more financial freedom, improve at a skill—are in many ways more useful than specific goals because they are endless and internal. You can never finish “being healthy.” You can never fully achieve “being a better writer.” There’s always something you could be doing better.
And it’s this endless nature to general goals that keeps us honest and satisfied with specific goals. As we’ll see, over-reliance on specific goals can actually harm our mental health. Mixing in general goals can counteract that. Not to mention, they can actually produce even better results.10
This shows us that the best goals are the ones that help us enjoy the process instead of focusing too much on the outcome. You need both general and specific goals to do that. You need the specific outcome to get you excited (“I’m going to earn a million dollars!”). But you also need the general goal (“I’m going to become better at my work”) to stabilize that specific outcome and keep your self-esteem intact.
Because, if you don’t. Well… things can get ugly. And fast.