Staying in the Game

I recently mentioned that I used to have a win/lose approach to my goals in life. I’d decide what I want. If I achieved it I won. If I didn’t achieve it, I lost. I now realize that this is one of the worst attitudes you can have, despite being promoted frequently as a motivation tactic.

Instead of a win/lose focus, I believe it’s far more useful to emphasize staying in the game. Instead of worrying about whether you’re going to meet your weight loss goal, focus on continuing to exercise, regardless of the outcome. Because the best chances come from playing long enough that you eventually win.

Setting Goals Without Deadlines

A common piece of goal-setting advice (so common, I’ve even written it previously on this blog) is to set deadlines whenever you make a goal. Otherwise, the reasoning goes, you won’t have any pressure to start working. Unless you set a firm deadline for yourself, nothing will get started.

I’ve now realized that for many of my personal goals this advice is garbage. It promotes a win/lose mindset instead of the more important attitude of patience and persistence. I still set deadlines for projects (more on the distinction later) but I don’t use deadlines for big goals for any more than planning purposes.

Once I detail out a plan of action for a particular goal within a timeframe, what’s the point of stressing over it? The energy spent stressing over whether you’ll win or lose is better spent working. If your plan didn’t meet your goal on time, then just adjust the plan and go again.

Imaginary Finishing Lines

There are hard finishing lines. There may be a point in your schooling where student loans or faculty requirements force you to meet your grades withing a time limit. There may be a point in your career where if you don’t reach a critical threshold you’re stuck. But the genuine finishing lines are outnumbered by the imaginary ones we create for ourselves.

The imaginary finishing lines are all the deadlines you set for yourself. But for many of them, if you continued to work after that point the goal is still reachable. If you don’t double your income this year, you can continue working at it in the next year. If you don’t lose 15 lbs this month, you can continue exercising next month.

The problem is while these imaginary finishing lines might motivate you, they also encourage you to quit when you fail. And for many pursuits, it’s more important to keep running than it is to capture every sprint. You may lose the first race, but if you keep running, you’ll eventually reach your destination.

I know many bloggers who quit when they weren’t successful soon. That’s fine. Perhaps they simply found other interests that were more rewarding. However, I suspect some of them had big expectations and quit when they didn’t cross their imaginary finishing line in time. If you expect to be earning six figures after six months, you may quit out of frustration when you failed to earn $100.

Instead, I take the stay-in-the-game approach. I work hard and I use deadlines to plan my efforts, but I don’t worry about whether I meet my goals on time. I know, as long as I was working hard, that staying in the game is what matters most. Few things can physically stop me from writing, so if I keep pushing I can eventually become successful.

I take the same approach when learning a new skill. When I started to learn how to dance, I was frustrated because I was born a clumsy person. But, by focusing on staying in the classes (not reaching some milestone by a particular date) I managed to learn the basics.

Projects Need Deadlines, Goals Don’t

A project is a lot of tasks organized together. Writing a book is a project, because it involves hundreds of discrete tasks, most of which are entirely under my control. Having a deadline for a project helps because there is little chance that my efforts will be completely unrewarded. I may not write a best-selling book, but if I focus hard, I can write a book.

A goal is something you want, but may require more than just sheer effort. Going to the gym every day for a month is a project. Increasing lean muscle mass is a goal. The first is entirely under your control, the latter depends on your fitness knowledge, metabolism and dieting strategy. With the latter, many things could go wrong and you could fail, even if it wasn’t your fault.

With a goal, the only thing I need to ask myself is if I worked hard enough. If I worked hard enough and failed, that was just bad luck or a bad strategy. In either case, it means I need to stay in the game and try again. Only if I didn’t work hard enough is there any point in putting more pressure on myself.

Win/Neutral Scenarios

Most of life isn’t a win/lose scenario. Instead, most pursuits are either a win or completely neutral. If I reach my income target over the next two years, that is a personal win. If I don’t, I’m no worse off than I was before and I can continue to stay in the game.