The Greatest Mistake People Make When Setting Goals

Are you giving away too much control?

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You have many goals this year.

But you’re not sure how to reach them.

Maybe some goals fell flat last year. Maybe this year feels too full of mystery.

Today, I’ll help you set goals you can actually reach — by avoiding the goals that’ll drag you down. And to start, I’ll tell you about the goal I hear all the time… and why I keep telling people to ditch it.

What everyone (unfortunately) wants

I was recently talking with the founder of a restaurant company. It’s successful. You’ve probably heard of it.

“My goal,” this person told me, “is to be on the cover of Entrepreneur magazine.”

Someone says this to me every few weeks — including big-name founders, executives, YouTube stars, investors, and more. Years ago, when I was new as editor in chief, this made me uncomfortable. Here were all these people, asking me to fulfill a long-held desire. And here I was, with the theoretical ability to do it — even though I probably wouldn’t.

Now I’m used to it. And if they seem open to hearing advice, I always tell them the same thing:

“I really appreciate that,” I said, “but the cover is not a great goal.”

Because here’s the thing: There is nothing specific that you can do to achieve this goal. There are no metrics, no qualifications, no barometer, and nothing to work towards. It is not an award, and it does not mark a certain level of success. The decision is completely subjective — it’s just whoever a small group of people at Entrepreneur think would make a good cover.

If you set a goal based on something you can’t work toward, then you’re setting yourself up for a quest with no ending. Your might feel like a failure, unnecessarily so — because you chose a goal that’s disconnected from everything you can achieve.

That’s why I told this founder: If you want to set real, meaningful goals, then set those goals based on actions — and not based on outcomes.

Actions versus outcomes.

There are things we can control.

There are many more things we cannot control.

We all know this. But we don’t always respect it. We sometimes throw ourselves into situations that are outside our control, and then measure ourselves against outcomes we couldn’t shape. That’s not fair!

For example, I thought a lot about this when launching my book. People kept asking me: “Is your goal to get on the New York Times best-seller list?”

My answer was no.

Don’t get me wrong — I’d love to make the list! But I’d never make it a goal.

Why? Because I was too many degrees removed from the outcome! I couldn’t control how many people bought my book, or whether they bought it at the right time from the right retailers (which impacts the Times’s calculations), or whether the mysterious list-makers at the Times decided to include me.

If my goal was to make that list, then I was basically saying: “My sense of worth will be in someone else’s hands.”

Instead, I set a different goal: It was to write a book that I was proud of, and that would matter to people, and then to use every resource I had to promote it.

In the end, I did not make the Times list. Womp womp. But I did achieve what I set out to do — and I consider that a success.

That is the difference between outcomes and actions.

You cannot control an outcome. But you can control your actions. 

So why not set goals based on what you control?

How to set action-based goals.

Here’s how we usually articulate our goals: “My goal is to…”

I don’t love that. It’s like marking a spot on a map, but with no plan to get there.

Start your sentence like this instead: "This year, I’m going to...” Now follow it with an action you will take.

In 2023, for example, I set the following three goals for myself:

  • “This year, I’m going to take my newsletter seriously.”

  • “This year, I’m going to work a little less and see more people.”

  • “This year, I’m going to push hard on my speaking business.”

Notice what’s lacking from each: I never set goals about how many subscribers I’d have, or how many friends I’d see, or how much money I’d make as a speaker. I just committed myself to action.

Because of that, I’m not measuring myself against some arbitrary number. Instead, I’m measuring myself against my own efforts — and I’m really proud of what I did, and what I accomplished. I built the newsletter you’re reading. I carved out more time for friends and interesting meetings. And I did 30 speaking engagements.

But you know what? There’s still so much more to do! My goals for 2024 remain the same, and I’ve added a few more.

No outcomes. Just action.

What’s this year for you?

You have so much to accomplish. And this year, you can do much of it — along with many more things you can’t yet anticipate.

So don’t handicap yourself at the start. Don’t say, “This year is riding on someone else’s decision.”

No. This year is riding on you. You’re in control. You drive it forward. You can make it great, one action at a time. And the outcome will follow.

I’m excited to share the journey of 2024 with you.

That’s how to do one thing better.

P.S. Miss last week’s newsletter? It was about a better way to get what you need. Read!

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