Themes Over Goals

The beginning of the new year is a great time to reflect on the past year and decide what you’re doing this year. Most people do this by coming up with “goals” for the next year. Goals are well and fine, but I don’t think they are the best tool for most people.

The Problem with Goals

The problem with goals is that they often seem arbitrary. Like someone just came up with numbers based on a gut feel and wrote them down. They can’t really explain why that number is the right one. At best, it’s just a somewhat educated guess.

Unfortunately, most of us are just bad at guessing. We don’t really have enough information to make meaningful goals. We don’t have a good grasp on how long it takes to do certain things, and it’s difficult to anticipate the road blocks we could face.

This is even more true for ambitious goals. When we take on new projects or activities, there’s a lot of “unknown unknowns”. We need to do a bit of learning before we even know what needs to be done. Trying to turn this into goals is shooting in the dark.

It might be easier to make estimates for more mundane goals where we are very familiar with our limits and productivity. Physical activities come to mind. I have been running for a very long time, so I know how far I can run at one time, and i have a good idea of how many times a week I can pull that off. But I’d like to take up a new physical activity this year: cycling. I have no idea what I’m capable of, so making goals become rather difficult.

The catch here is that ambitious goals are the most important ones. Those are the goals that stretch us and push us past our comfort limits. But if we don’t have enough information to make goals, then we’re likely to make bad goals – goals that we can’t hit, or goals that don’t make sense.

Unrealistic goals demotivate us to continue. If we get behind on our goals, we feel like a failure. If we hit our goal too quickly, we lose interest and feel like we took it too easy.

To solve this problem of guessing our goals, we could just update our goals throughout the year as things change. But if a goal becomes fluid, it’s not as much of a goal. And we don’t give as much effort if we know we can always update it.


So, rather than make goals, this year I’m making themes.

A theme shares a lot of the intent of goals, but without the guessing game. A theme is an area of focus. It’s a commitment to work on a project or activity consistently throughout the year. Instead of making a goal to cycle 3x a week and ride 100 miles a month, I can just decide to go cycling and not worry about hitting certain numbers. I might start by going 1x a week, and gradually increase it if I need more intensity. It’s much less stressful this way, and I can enjoy the activity more.

The one danger with this approach is that if you aren’t really motivated to tackle a project, it’s easy to lose focus and abandon the project. This is why you need to setup a system for your theme. A system is really just a plan for allocating time to work on the theme. If you can consistently work on something and give it focus, you will almost certainly improve. You don’t need goals to do that.

If I want to take on cycling, I need to plan for when I’ll do that. I’ve decided to go cycling at lunch time on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Now, I don’t have to put a lot of thought into when I’ll go. At lunchtime on those days, I just automatically put on my biking gear and head out.

When I go out for a ride, I just ride until I’m exhausted for the day. I don’t worry about hitting a milestone. Some weeks I’ll miss a day for various reasons, and other weeks I might add another day if I’m really in the mood. But if on average I’m putting in 2x a week, I”m going to improve my cycling.

Finally, this isn’t meant to be anti-goals. Goals can work for some people, but I’ve learned that goals don’t motivate me enough to be effective. They are too high level to direct day to day activities. If I focus on getting the system down at that level, it builds up to success over time.

You could also make themes and goals. If you do that, I recommend keeping the goals at a low level or short time frame. Instead of setting a yearly goal to read 50 books, just set a monthly goal to read 2 books and then adjust. Prioritize themes, and leave goals as a secondary item. Themes over goals.