Tracking progress, not goals

LeBron James said that champions don’t focus on the goal. They have a vision for where they’re going and a ritualistic focus on the process.

But wait! Doesn’t that contradict the goal-setting advice given to us by every productivity hack? I thought goal-setting was the ONLY way to make your dreams come true motherfucker?!

But now we’re hearing that, arguably, the greatest basketball player of all time doesn’t set goals. He doesn’t even think about goals. All that matters is today. The process. Getting today done right.

I’ve never set a goal. Not one. I could never be sure that when I reached the goal I’d still want what the goal was offering. Because we set goals for the person we are now, not the person we’ll be in 1, 2 or 5 years when the goal is completed. Five years ago, the 24 year old me, wanted VERY different things to today’s version.

If I’d set the goal of earning £1M and owning a company with 50 employees I’d have missed the other opportunities that came my way – like starting a social enterprise, travelling the world (twice), becoming CMO of a fintech startup and most likely wouldn’t have met my now fiancé, Kayleigh.

So, if you’re not setting goals, how are you going to achieve anything?

Just because you don’t set a goal doesn’t mean you won’t achieve anything. You should still know, roughly, where you’re going. And that doesn’t require some fixed goal.

It requires vision. The ability that entrepreneurs have to create new products that positively effect society. And, I must add, the reason Nassim Taleb says that entrepreneurs are the heroes of society.

If goal setting is tunnel vision – a fixation on the end result, while dismissing other opportunities. Vision setting is like having 20/20 eyesight. You know roughly where you’re going, always making progress, but when new opportunities arise you have the choice (and clarity) to take them on.

Jeff Bezos, in conversation with Jason Fried, said “people who were right a lot of the time were people who often changed their minds.”

Bezos goes on to tell Fried that “if someone can’t climb out of the details, and see the bigger picture from multiple angles, they’re often wrong most of the time.”

Someone who’s obsessed with the details – an addicted goal-setter – can only support one point of view. These people miss the bigger picture. Which is where all of the best ideas live.

So are we not tracking progress at all?

Yes, we are.

Goal-setting and tracking progress are two different things. One is future-focused, the other past-focused. The former is a current fantasy. The latter is factual.

I’m learning to build stuff with code. Some days I can’t wait to start to start. Other days, I’d really rather not do it. To make sure I do the work everyday, I track my progress in a spreadsheet that looks like this:

Inspired by Step Smith tracking spreadsheet

This works because I don’t want to break the chain of green cells. Each cell accounts for one day’s progress. Over time this creates a habit of learning and building.

I started this because I realised that I was reading more than I was doing. I was earning theoretical knowledge, to the detriment of my practical abilities. I know how software works – I just don’t know how to build it. How ridiculous. Anyway, I digress.

I’d rather have a clear picture of where I’ve come from and a hazy view of the future than get fixated on some possible, although highly unlikely, future event.

Breaking free of the goal-setting mindset is liberating. That being said, it is important that you still have a vague idea of where you’re heading.

Whatever direction you choose, good luck and just remember to enjoy the ride.

Want to learn more? You should read Scott Adams post about Systems vs. Goals.

Joseph Pack

CMO day job. Learning to build stuff with code. Writing, mainly about learning to build, remote work and psychology. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter, Uncommon Aspect.