The Problem With Goals
A simple question that will help you accomplish more in 2024.
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It’s goal-setting season—a time when we get big ideas on what we’ll do differently over the next 365 days.
Like everyone leading up to the New Year, I have a compulsion to set goals.
I sit in the quiet and begin listing standard-issue resolutions that sound good. Read more books! Exercise more! Drink less caffeine! Meditate!
But sometime midway into my list, I always recall two things that save me a lot of time and energy—and move the dial more than goal setting.
My favorite koan.
A conversation I had with Dr. Trevor Kashey.
The ideas in this post will help you do two things:
Get your priorities straight so you’re using your time to pursue changes that actually improve your life.
Help you reframe goals so you can accomplish more.
Let’s roll …
Get Your Priorities Straight
We often choose goals that “sound good” without really thinking about why we’re setting the goal in the first place.
The most common New Year goals are as follows:
Improve mental health
Mine are usually just as cliche. Enter the koan.
Koans, for those who don’t know, are a foundation of Zen. A koan is a puzzling, paradoxical statement, anecdote, question, or verbal exchange that practitioners sit and ponder to aid meditation and gain spiritual awakening.
Koan practitioners admit that koans don’t make any damn sense—until they do. And when they do, they can lead to a mental shift that frees us.
The setup of the koan in question is this: the Buddhist philosopher Fayan is going on a pilgrimage from monastery to monastery.
That, he’s heard, is what a Buddhist philosopher must do to become enlightened.
As he’s leaving one monastery to go to another, he encounters Zen Master Dizang.
And so, the koan:
Master Dizang asked the visiting Buddhist philosopher Fayan, “Where are you going now?
Fayan answered, “I am resuming my pilgrimage.
Dizang asked, “Why do you go on pilgrimage?”
Fayan said, “I don’t know.”
Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
Hearing these words, Fayan had an opening experience.
When Dizang asks Fayan why he goes on pilgrimage, Fayan has a moment of deep reflection where he realizes that he’s just abiding by some social narrative about what Buddhist philosophers do—which is to go on pilgrimage.
Fayan’s mind clears, and he realizes he’s not truly sure why he’s on pilgrimage. With a clear mind—in Dizang’s words, the “not knowing”—Fayan achieves enlightenment.
As one Soto Zen priest explained, “(Fayan) had what he needed all along, only he didn't know it. The way is right beneath your feet ...”
This koan reminds me that my goals or resolutions are often driven by the tales I tell myself about what I need to achieve and when and in relation to who.
But I’m usually better off when I ditch the social narratives and get a bit more insightful about why I want to do something in the first place.
Which brings us to Dr. Trevor Kashey and how to get insightful.
Don’t Set Goals. Solve Problems.
Before setting a goal, ask yourself, “What problem am I trying to solve?”
If you’ve read The Comfort Crisis or 2%, you’re familiar with Dr. Trevor Kashey. He’s a dear friend and confidant. The dude has some intellectual horsepower.
A quick primer:
Trevor enrolled in college at age 14 and got his PhD in biochemistry at 23 before becoming a cancer researcher.
Now, he runs a successful nutrition consulting company, Trevor Kashey Nutrition, where he’s helped thousands of people lose hundreds of thousands of pounds.
He’s applied his ideas to other domains to help all sorts of businesses and institutions.
Years ago, I asked Trevor how he helps his clients achieve their goals. He had a surprising reaction.
He told me he hated the concept of goals.
“Goals feel good to set, but they’re just a diversion,” he told me. “People face no consequence if they don’t reach their goal. So they forget it and set another one again and mess that one up, too.”
No, Trevor wanted to talk about problems.
Too often, he said, we use goals to gloss over problems, pulling arbitrary benchmarks out of thin air—like losing 10 pounds or reading 30 books in a year—without pausing to consider whether hitting those benchmarks will improve our lives.
When we want to do or change something, a more productive framing, he said, is to ask ourselves, “What problem am I trying to solve?”
I’ve since applied this concept to many areas of life, and it’s saved me a lot of time, effort, and money.
For example, last New Year it rescued me from setting a goal of exercising twice as much (I realized I was already fit enough for a desk-bound writer) and from buying a new computer (I saw that my current one was just fine).
Asking “what problem am I trying to solve?” can help you:
1. Decide if this thing you’re trying to accomplish is even worth accomplishing.
You’re forced to unpack your answer and determine why you want to do or achieve this new thing in the first place. Your answers can provide clarity and a better direction.
Say you want to lose 10 pounds. How has your current weight manifested itself as a problem? Let’s say you think the 10 pounds is hurting your health. How are you defining and measuring health? Answering those questions might steer you into a solution that solves a more concrete issue.
Or let’s say you want to lose that 10 pounds because you can’t fit into an old pair of pants. Could you just … buy the same pants in a larger size?
Or let’s say you want to lose those 10 pounds to “get healthier” because you feel tired. Perhaps weight isn’t your issue—perhaps you should look at your sleep behaviors (read 8 Sleep Tips That Actually Work.)
2. Hone your approach.
Solving a problem is inherently more tactical and specific than working toward a goal.
“Problems are usually associated with some sort of existing behavior,” Trevor said. “You can reverse-engineer the steps required to change that behavior, and it’s obvious and measurable when the behavior and the problem it’s causing have changed.” Like fitting into those new pants.
Reverse engineering is underrated. Let’s go back to the weight loss example.
Instead of adding a shiny new goal of eating some complex diet, you might ask yourself, “Why do I have those 10 extra pounds in the first place? What’s the existing behavior causing the problem?”
By reverse engineering, you might discover that your problem is that you eat too much candy after dinner.
Rather than overhauling your entire diet, you might be able to lose the weight by getting the candy out of the house—which is a much more elegant solution. It works by removing one of the three conditions of the Scarcity Loop.
If you’ve identified a real problem, said Trevor, it won’t go away on its own.
You can’t just abandon it like you can with a goal; if you do, it will only get worse. Problems are like a rock in your shoe that digs deeper and deeper.
Focusing on a problem is better at forcing action — and solving a problem inherently improves your life.
Another use case: I recently decided I wanted to read more classic literature. My answer to the “what problem” question was this: I saw that my writing was limited by the fact that I only read nonfiction, and reading more fiction was a way to expand my writing horizon.
The reverse-engineering framework also helped me identify why I didn’t read that much fiction in the first place.
My problem was that I tried to read the classics at night when I was exhausted after reading complex studies all day. So I committed to reading in short stints earlier in the day.
The result: I read much more fiction, and my writing capabilities expanded.
Have fun, don’t die, solve problems, and remember that not knowing is most intimate.
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