The Dark Side of Big Goals
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Today at a Glance
- I just completed my first marathon in 2:57:31 just 6 months after I started running. By achieving the sub 3-hour marathon time, I had hit my Big Goal. It felt great, at first. But then came the rut, one which led to a fundamental change in how I'm going to think about goal setting and achievement in the future.
- Big Goals create a perfect storm for unhappiness. If we miss them, we feel like a failure. If we hit them, we feel a temporary satisfaction, followed by an odd darkness brought about by the Arrival Fallacy, purpose dissipation, and their extrinsic focus.
- Focus on Micro Goals is my new, favored approach. Micro Goals are intrinsic, avoid the Arrival Fallacy, and create daily purpose. I will continue to have Big Goals, but I will focus my daily energy around these Micro Goals to create a healthier balance.
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A few weeks ago, I completed my first marathon in 2:57:31 just 6 months after I started running.
In March, I decided that I wanted to pursue a new physical challenge, and given the weather was improving, I picked running. I had developed a very negative relationship with the activity during my baseball years, when it was mostly a punishment for poor performance, but I figured pursuing it in a new context would change that.
I set an ambitious goal to run a sub 3-hour marathon within 6 months of starting. Why? It seemed like the mark of an "elite amateur" and I guessed it was achievable if I really pushed myself.
I registered for the Erie Marathon, which was set to take place on September 10 and started training like a maniac to achieve my big goal.
And when September 10 arrived, I did it...and it felt great, at first.
But what happened next surprised me, and led to a fundamental change in how I'm going to think about goal setting and achievement in the future.
Let's have an honest conversation about the dark side of big goals...
Come to the Dark Side
If you are an ambitious person (which I'm willing to bet most of my readers would identify with), you've probably followed a model that looks like this:
- Start at Point A
- Establish a Big Goal to reach Point C
- Work like crazy to achieve Big Goal
The problem, as I now see it, is what happens next.
There are two potential outcomes with Big Goals:
- Goal Missed: You work and work towards your Big Goal, only to come up short. The pain, sadness, and disenchantment from missing a Big Goal that you worked towards is obvious and real. We all know this pain. It's often the worst if you come up *just short* of the Big Goal, since the outcome we created was binary. This is what I would have felt if I had run a 3:01:00 time in the marathon.
- Goal Hit: You did it! You achieved the Big Goal. You feel an immediate hit of euphoria. Then you go to sleep, wake up the next day, and think, "Ok, now what?" You know you should feel great, but you don't, which makes you feel worse. No one wants to hear about your champagne problems, so you keep them to yourself.
This post-achievement rut is what I felt after running the marathon, and what I want to focus on today.
My view is that Big Goals create a perfect storm for unhappiness via three core pathways:
#1: The Arrival Fallacy
How many times have you assumed that your lasting happiness was on the other side of some Big Goal (a promotion, a pay raise, another degree, etc.)?
How many times have you been proven wrong in this assumption?
The Arrival Fallacy is the term used to describe the false assumption that achieving a Big Goal will create that lasting happiness in our lives.
It's a "When, Then" psychology that says "when I achieve X, then I'll be happy." The reality is that achievement is not a lasting source of happiness.
Our natural wiring (hedonic adaptation) keeps us running—we reset to the baseline and start wondering about what comes next.
#2: Purpose Dissipation
When you are hunting a Big Goal, you wake up with a clear purpose.
In my case, as I was pursuing the marathon goal, I knew that I needed to bring a clear focus to my running and training for the day. I woke up energized and excited to take it on and keep making progress.
After I achieved it, I woke up with no clear reason to push myself physically. I felt a bit lost, if I'm honest, as I didn't know what I was working on or towards that day.
The happiness of the goal achievement was replaced by a wandering sensation of being lost.
The focus on a singular Big Goal created a purpose, but also destroyed it once the Big Goal was achieved.
#3: Extrinsic Focus
In a meta-analysis of 105 studies covering over 70,000 participants, researchers found that valuing and prioritizing extrinsic goals (over intrinsic goals) is a recipe for lower well-being.
My observation is that Big Goals tend to be extrinsic in nature:
- Promotion, title bump, or big raise
- Financial achievement (becoming a millionaire)
- Hitting a specific follower count or level of fame
These Big Goals become how we define success for ourselves and our lives. Achieving the last Big Goal is never enough, as we simply reset our scoreboard and need to achieve the next Big Goal to feel like a success.
By defining our success on the basis of these extrinsic goals, we are setting ourselves up for unhappiness.
The Case for Micro Goals
In the introduction to this piece, I said that my realization on the dark side of Big Goals led to a fundamental change in how I'm going to think about goal setting and achievement in the future.
I'm not going to make the case for eliminating Big Goals from your life. I still think it's important to have big, ambitious, overarching goals that push you to grow and adapt.
I will continue to have Big Goals (though I will try to ground them in intrinsic objectives where possible).
The big change I plan to make: I am going to focus on Micro Goals.
Micro Goals are small, incremental growth and development targets.
They aren't the giant leaps (like the sub 3-hour marathon target), but the small steps that happen along the way (like completing a 10-mile run pain free).
Micro Goals solve the three main pain points of Big Goals:
- Avoid the Arrival Fallacy: Micro Goals are small enough that you don't tie some grand happiness assumptions to their achievement. They keep you motivated to grow, without the pressure that they will individually change your life.
- Create Daily Purpose: Micro Goals are continuous vs. discrete. There is no big purpose let down, because there is always another Micro Goal on the near-term horizon that you can use for motivation. Further, my new practice will always have Micro Goals positioned just after any Big Goal achievement date, to ensure a purpose in the days that follow. An example would be a recovery Micro Goal following a marathon Big Goal, to ensure I had a focus area to attack in the aftermath.
- Intrinsic Focus: These Micro Goals are more intrinsic by nature—partially because they aren't big enough to share publicly for clout or external affirmation. They refocus you internally.
Where Big Goals fail, Micro Goals excel.
My go-forward approach is as follows:
- Establish overarching Big Goal to set direction.
- Establish small, incremental Micro Goals to set daily focus.
- Adjust and course correct Micro Goals regularly based on evidence.
Balancing the Big with a focus on the Micro is where I plan to thrive. Small is beautiful. A lot of small wins add up to something spectacular.
Remember: Ordinary becomes extraordinary.