The Dark Side of Goals: Forever Moving Milestones



I've written several articles about achieveing your goals, the implementation of behaviour change through several tools such as COM-B, SMART of whichever model you desire to self-implement. But there is a dark side to this. Having discussed self-implementing or "nudging yourself" with David Perrott on the Questioning Behaviour, he made very clear that in his program, he asks his participants to focus on one goal or one behaviour at a time. Not several, just one. And only when that goal has been reached, or the behaviour required for reaching that goal has become a solid habit and there is proof that you're able to continuously adhere to it, can you add more. And this is something that warrants a bit more analysis.



Once you've made up your mind to better yourself, reach goals and change your behaviour, what is seen quite often is that what people are aiming for is RADICAL change. Suddenly they don't want to just lose weight, they also want to eat healthier (at least that's in the same realm), cut carbs completely (would not recommend), get a new wardrobe to revamp their style for the "new them" (which hasn't been achieved yet), be more disciplined in every aspect of life (e.g. make more money, save more money, go to bed earlier, see friends more regularly, do yoga every morning...) and just do a complete life overhaul. Issue is, that's not sustainable for a variety of reasons. I'm not a massive habit expert - if you want one of those check out work by Wendy Wood or Angela Duckworth. But there's a basic foundation to habits that everyone can grasp: integration and repetition. You need to integrate a behaviour into your life, actively make time for it, and do this often enough that doing the behaviour, repeating the behaviour, becomes so integrated in your life that doing it becomes natural. Doing the behaviour becomes the default, not doing the behaviour becomes the deviation. Obviously, to set new defaults in your own life is slightly more complicated than the goverment changing the default for organ donation to opt-out. As you are in control of this new default in your life there's less accountability and it will take time for the default to become the default. So what habits need is integration and repetition, over a prolonged period of time. So far so good. With tools such as SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely), the setting and integration of this behaviour becomes a lot easier. It's also a tool for figuring out whether this behaviour and new life goal is remotely Feasible, but SMAFT or SMFRT don't make for as great an acronym.



Now what is the dark side of these goals? Well, try applying SMART to a life overhaul. You're trying to integrate 6 new behaviours:

  1. cutting out carbs,

  2. yoga every morning,

  3. getting up at 6am every working day,

  4. making more money (sidehustle?),

  5. saving more money and

  6. setting up regular social meetings with friends).

Looking at these goals seperately, they are doable. Looking at them combined, they are not. Several of these goals require an upfront time investment:

  1. Replanning of your meals, most people do not know how to cook low carb, redoing groceries etc.;

  2. What yoga tutorials are you going to do? Which form of yoga really works for you?;

  3. Are you even a morning person? What time do you need to go to bed to make this happen? What do you need to change in your evenings to accomodate your new mornings?

  4. How does one make more money? Can you aim for a raise? Switch jobs? Are there any aspects of your life to turn into sidehustles? How would you market and sell this? Can you miss that much time?;

  5. Are you able to save more money? Where can you cut expenses? How much do you really want to save and how far are you willing to go for this?;

  6. Which friends do you want to see under which circumstances? How much time do you have for this? Etc., etc.

Now this list is already exhausting to read, and another issue is: it's exhausting to do. Also, this upfront time investment continues through the behaviour itself. Doing yoga every morning costs time. Luckily if you're actually getting up earlier, you'll have this time to spent. But if you're not able to get to bed in time, and not get out of bed in time, this additional time for yoga doesn't exist. Moreover, your non-carb breakfast will probably take some additional time to make, especially in the beginning if you've got no idea what you're doing. And how are the low-carb diet and early mornings working for you? Especially in the beginning both of these will eat away at your energy, as your body is trying to accomodate the change (this is a shock to the system folks). With this reduced energy are you suddenly working more hours to make more money? Either in your current job, switching to a different job, having the burden of a job search or sidehustle. And with that reduced energy, are you still managing your finances? On the topic of finances, going out to see people often costs money, how are you balancing these two different goals? Suddenly, your new goals and behaviours are eating away at each other, before they've even had the time to be integrated. Because you're suddenly changing everything about your life and behaviour, nothing integrates, because you're constantly changing the fabric they needed to be integrated into in the first place. And that doesn't work. Clearly.


Now there is an obvious solution to this: do it one at a time, as David indicated in the podcast. But even then, some people go a bit overboard, continuously moving milestones, never celebrating the one they've just reached, as their focus has already shifted to the next one. I have this problem.

What happens if you set yourself a goal and you reach it? Well, that's great, right? Unless you're someone like me and as soon as this goal is in sight, you challenge yourself Now there's nothing wrong with challenging yourself. But if everything becomes a challenge before you've even reached the previously set goal, well, it's not particularly healthy, and actually incredibly stressful. What you're lacking is the moment that you switch from achieving to maintaining. There is a sense of relief and achievement there; you get to celebrate, and from thereon you maintain the behaviour and the result(s) associated with it. You get to go less hard than you did before, as you can stop changing or increasing the behaviour. Rather than increasing, you can now keep at it. A good analogy for this is working out, especially for athletes. It takes much more effort and more intense measures to get to that stage, this is the increasing and changing of behaviours. But once you're there you maintain what you have, and that's very different. I'm not saying it's not hard work to become an athlete, but there's a massive difference between achieving and maintaining.


The not allowing yourself to achieve a goal and work on maintaining it before moving on is a very stressful thing to do, because there is no sense of achievement. There is no dopamine release, pause for breath or introspection. There's only a continuous effort to improve, with an increased chance of failure: there's limits to what a person can do, especially if the behaviour is poorly integrated. This is also a beast to mental health, as good mental health is often build on giving yourself breaks, taking a step back, looking at how far you've already come and seeing the bigger picture. This forever moving of milestones doesn't allow for that, and as a result, the only thing you'll feel is that there is much more work to be done, that you never achieved anything and that you are a failure. It doesn't take a mental health expert to recognise the toxicity of this type of behaviour and reasoning.





You might be wondering why someone who's such a supporter of SMART would write an article against it. Technically speaking I'm not. I support SMART, to the extent that people are implementing it properly, so one goal at a time, aiming for realistic things and allowing themselves a break and a moment of celebration or just pause when having reached the initial goal. It just feels that sometimes people are going a bit too hard on these goals. As I mentioned earlier, I don't believe in complete life overhauls, I don't think they're sustainable as they don't allow for any integration to occur, and that is a pity, because this makes people fail in reaching their original goals, whereas I'm sure they could've reached them had they aimed for achieving them sequentially rather than in this pure cacophony of behaviour change. Or maybe I just wrote this article to remind myself that I can sometimes take a breather. Who knows.