Goals Making You Miserable? Embrace the Anti-Goal

“Stand where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” - Arthur Ashe

We’ve all heard that you’ll never get what you want in life if you don’t set goals. As a culture, we’re pretty obsessed with it actually. In fact, we are often so future focused and goal driven that the here and now takes a big hit. Goal setters should be sure to ask themselves: Am I enjoying the journey? Are my goals making me miserable?

Harvard Business School researchers are tackling these very questions in their paper, Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting. They theorize that our current culture’s obsession and haphazard methodology around goal setting is making us both more stressed and less productive.

They go far as to say. “In many situations, the damaging effects of goal setting outweigh its benefits. … [we] argue that the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored.”

Harvard researcher or not, we all should be considering what kind of effect goal setting has on our lives for better or worse. And much of that comes down to looking deeper within towards the motivation behind our goals. Why do you want to lose 20 pounds? Why do you want the different job or bigger paycheck?

At the source, most of us are seeking greater fulfillment and satisfaction in life, which is why it’s pretty ironic that many of us also experience great misery when pursuing (and failing at) high-expectation goals. We need to make sure our “success” goals are not making our daily lives worse. Because that is a seriously less successful result.

So how do we strive toward better daily living and still pursue our dreams? Enter the anti-goal, a unique new way to think about designing your life by flipping the script. Instead of going towards all the things you want, go away from all the things you hate.

How could this possibly work?

The reason it holds promise is because it’s an interesting way to turn future-focused, result-oriented thinking into thinking about journey. That, in turn, resets goal thinking into more actionable, smaller steps that serve as means to the desired end. In other words, it places goal pursuit into the now, breaks it into manageable chunks and embeds the motivation in the day-to-day.

The “anti-” factor is also cleverly using your cognitive bias in your favor. Since the brain is hardwired to seek rewards and avoid pain or discomfort, this method motivates by focusing on what to avoid in the short term, instead of what will be gained in the long term (which is understandably less compelling).

Anti-goals also helps curb the cognitive bias of either/or thinking that happens with goals:“I will become or achieve X or I will be a failure.” Which, in the day-to-day translates to I will eat salad or I will have this box of donuts.

The ant-goal isn’t about eating salad to lose weight, it’s about not feeling disgusting during your after-lunch walk.

By focusing on daily activities you don’t want to experience (barfy, sweaty, out of breath walking lady) paired wisely with ones you do (daily walk in sunny summer breeze), you can redefine success in small, measurable and encouraging ways.

It keeps the focus on the positive journey and makes the result the default.  The concept is still in its infancy, but it’s a pretty innovative way to approach motivation. If traditional goal setting is making you miserable, consider the anti-goal.

Rocky Lewis
Rocky Lewis