101: There is No Growth Without Goals


June 6, 2017, Posted in Inflection Point by Chris Sparks

A simple breakdown of why goals are critical to success.

The most important, and most often neglected, skill for growth is introspection. Taking the time to look within yourself and decide what you really want is essential to success. This is where goals come in. For our purposes, let’s define a goal as your desired outcome or destination in life, where you would like your efforts to lead.

Whenever someone comes to me for help with productivity, I always have them start by defining their goals and the “why” behind them. A sketch of an ideal future informs current actions. As the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland observed, with an unknown destination, it really doesn’t matter which way you go. Without a goal, you will find yourself perpetually lost, running faster and faster but making no true progress. Goals give us directional clarity, a simple litmus test for where to allocate our time, energy, and focus each day.

When you set a goal, I would emphasize the importance of starting with uncomfortably long timelines. On a long enough time scale, anything not precluded by the laws of physics is theoretically possible. I usually start with 25 year goals, which is a long enough period to remove the concept of “impossible” from consideration. Framing your short-term actions as necessary in the pursuit of challenging and rewarding achievements has been shown to greatly increase motivation.

This long-term orientation is what allows us to distinguish between the Important and the Urgent. Urgent tasks have decaying value. Pretty much all email or deadline-driven work falls into this category. Important tasks have lasting value that compounds by actually moving the ball forward, opening up new opportunities and capacity. With a long-term focus, we direct our energy toward setting up supporting structures that extend our reach upwards. It is the difference between putting out fires and preventing future fires.

The decision point of “does this really lead me to my goals?” sets up clear trade-offs which are best resolved upfront. This is why it is critical to internalize opportunity cost. Fundamentally, opportunity cost means that reading this post comes at the expense of literally everything else you could possibly be doing at this moment.

Using this frame of opportunity cost, our less important goals are actually obstacles coming at the expense of our most important goals; an unseen and quite expensive cost to pay. These secondary goals temporarily become your “Not to Do List” — this reserves your focus. In the same vein, all urgent work distracts you from your important work and therefore must be limited.

As Ray Dalio observes in Principles:

“[Setting goals] is the step where you face the fundamental limit: life is a giant smorgasbord of more delicious alternatives than you can ever hope to taste. So you have to reject having some things you want in order to get other things you want more.”

The essential skills for time management are planning and reflection. We are intentional about where time is spent and continually course-correct to more closely track our long-term goals. If allocating time towards a new project navigates us toward our most important goals, we prioritize it. If not, we say no to the opportunity or consciously limit resources allocated towards it.

I believe that life, at its core, is a single player game. We write the rules for play and keep our own score. We decide how to define and measure our own success. If we loosely define growth as moving towards a desired state, growing would have no true objective value independent of a goal.

Take it from me, open-ended “growth” is a fool’s errand. I spent years of my life working towards a nebulously-defined quest to “improve myself”. Without an important project upon which to focus my efforts, the years of my life passed with often little to show for it. Thus, while no one can really tell you what to value or pursue in life, I feel very qualified to underscore the importance of giving this process the attention it deserves.