Goal Addiction

Last week, I wrote an article entitled, “Life Balance is Overrated”.  In the article, I argued that short-term obsessions are more productive than trying to maintain balance. Accomplishing something important requires a complete focus, splitting your energies between several different areas at once wastes your time and finishes little.

Although I got plenty of positive feedback from the article, I also received many comments from people concerned that short-term imbalances often lead to long-term imbalances.  One reader wrote that he agreed with my ideas, in principle, but in practice he knew people whose lives became consumed by their careers as they focused themselves in one project after another.

I still stand by my comment on the importance of short-term obsessions.  But, I agree with the reader who expressed concern.  Often focusing heavily in one area of life (career, health, finances, socializing) makes it harder to shift your focus elsewhere after you’ve reached an accomplishment. Unless you have the skill of switching focuses after a period of obsession, a short-term mission can become a lifelong burden.

Why Do Long-Term Imbalances Happen?

There are several good reasons why people get stuck on one path:

  1. They like doing what they’re best at.  The loner billionaire likes the confidence he gets from making money but dislikes the ego-bruising he gets when trying to connect with other people.
  2. They’re used to a certain timing of rewards.  The rewards for business aren’t the same as the rewards for travel or relationships.  The timing of work, investment and payoff are different, so this might make you more attracted to one area of life than another.
  3. Denial.  It’s easier to avoid than improve.  If you tell yourself your family, finances or health is fine even when it’s disastrous, you can focus on what you like doing.
  4. They’re on an accelerating treadmill.  Accomplishing a big project at work earns you a promotion and even more pressure and responsibilities.  There may be no logical stopping point as each goal blurs together.
  5. They’re habits of thinking are aimed at one target.  If your daily routine and thought patterns are all devoted to how you can get A’s in school, get in shape or double your income, those habits can prevent you from getting back in balance.

With many of these causes, the further you move away from a point of long-term balance, the harder it is to recover it.  When your entire life is a mess, except for your career, it’s more tempting to keep focusing on that career and ignore your other bankruptcies.

Short-term obsessions are good, even necessary, for reaching goals.  But that’s in a 6-18 month timeframe.  If you’re stuck on the same path for 3-5 years without ever turning away from that goal, it’s much harder to get back in balance.

How to Switch Your Focus

The easiest way to switch your focus is to do it regularly.  I’m in the habit of assigning and changing my focus every 6-8 months.  By placing major deadlines and milestones within these periods of time, I get the chance to switch my focus once I meet them.

You don’t need to be perfectly successful in one endeavor to switch your focus.  When I moved to Winnipeg over two years ago, I made rebuilding my social life my main focus.  This lasted for about eight months, before I switched back to focusing on this website. I hadn’t accomplished all of the things I had wanted, but I knew it would be a good time to switch pursuits.

I did the same thing four months ago, when I switched my focus from business and health over to a large academic project.  I hadn’t accomplished everything I wanted with this website and my fitness, but I still made the switch.

Everything is a Work in Process

Part of the difficulty in switching is needing a sense of closure.  Although it’s nice to reach a huge milestone before switching, it isn’t always practical.  Some goals you feel are achievable in 6-8 months may need 3-5 years.  If you see everything as a work in process, it will be easier to leave some things undone to make accomplishments in other areas of life.

This isn’t the same as giving up just because you can’t reach your target.  It only means once you’ve devoted a significant amount of time to an area, it may be smart to get some distance and focus on a different set of goals.  Assuming both sets of goals are equally important to you, then it shouldn’t matter whether you cycle them in and out every 6-12 months.

Cycling is Smart

Cycling doesn’t just lead to greater life balance, it leads to greater productivity.  It’s easy to get dull if you stay on the same path.  If you’re constantly obsessing about work, health or relationships, you’ll get stuck in bad patterns of thinking.  The space that comes from switching your focus can give you new insights to improve when you switch back.

For the last few years, running this website has been a major focus.  But, cycling it out to focus on my social life, health or other projects has helped me bring in fresh ideas.  After taking a few months of running mostly on autopilot, I often come back with new solutions that are completely separate from my thinking before I took a break.

Picking a Focus

It’s a new year, so it’s a great time to pick a new direction.  If you’re in the middle a few a few projects, you might want to start by defining your current focus, as well as defining when it’s going to end.  If you’ve been stuck in the same focus for too long, maybe now is the chance to pick a new one.

In the short-term balance is static, and doesn’t result in growth.  But, in the long-term, this flips.  Obsessions now become static, and balance becomes a force for change.  Pick your focus, decide when it’s going to end and keep life interesting.

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  • Ruth

    This is a thought provoking post, and an idea that I have mixed feelings about. I did a post about this today on my blog. Part of what I said is:

    A big trap of “undivided” attention and/or obsessive “goal addiction” is something I like to think of as the “irritating song on the radio” phenomena. This happens to me all the time. When I get sucked into a certain task without paying attention to my environment (I have that “single-minded focus”), what I often notice is that, after awhile, even though my attention is certainly on the task at hand, the quality of what I’m doing will start to go downhill. And invariably, it’s because something in the background is irritating me, even though I’m not consciously aware of it, and causing my work to suffer.

    So, do I believe in “goal addiction”? Sometimes. Do I believe that awareness improves my quality of life, work and productivity, whether I have a single-minded focus or not? Always.

    I do appreciate a post that makes me think and question. Thanks.

  • Success Professor

    Great article. I think that some people might be misunderstanding something. When you focus on one priority it doesn’t mean you ignore other areas of your life. When you focused on your social life you didn’t ignore your blog, you just found ways to make it happen without it being your priority.

  • Ilham

    Although I do agree with the post, the fact is for most students trying to make the grade while also have a good social life (that includes a good network of people) is not so simple to just leave in chunks. Maybe the social life is but when it comes to school most students I believe, or at least the ones I have spoken to, are constantly moving from one course to another in trying to obtain those grades they desire.

    Although this is wrong, I believe the correct route is to aim at what you wish to learn or gain from a course – I try to do this more than what the norm do. Sometimes it works, other times it causes me a great disappointment. But in the long wrong, I think not to constantly keep a check on some aspects of life or not having goals on certain aspects of life may be dangerous at times.

  • J.D. Meier

    I cycle through 30 day improvement sprints, so each month is a new focus. This lets me pick 12 bets for testing/growing my portfolio of experiences each year. It’s also nice to have a theme for the month.

  • Richmond

    I am totally for your view that we should see goals as a “work in progress”. Truth is that if you set forth in achieving big goals, you’ll learn anyways. I’ll be practicing this more in my way of thinking. I’m often guilty of goal-closure high, where I feel really really good after achieving a goal I’ve set. While that closure feels great and makes me focused, the downside is I was obsessed with the goal. There were times when that obsession was great (especially when I’m alone), but there were times that – looking back – I would’ve enjoyed more (and achieved the goal on time) had I relaxed and “enjoyed the scenery”.

  • muscle building

    Hey! I admire your writing and the way you explain things. Some of the comments on here too are insightful. I appreciate you. keep it up!