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.

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  • Dave

    Like what you’re saying. This rings well with intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. I have recently taken a similar approach after reading this article:

  • Karthik Kumar | Between a Brea

    Wow, this is an awesome post! This general idea has been buzzing around the back of my head for a bit, but you seem to have found the words to convey them.

    The thought I have been thinking is this:

    Focus on habits, not on results/end states.

    Deciding the end state that we desire is important, but only so far as it helps us decide what are the habits we need to develop to get us there. The added dimension of not including time on goals, and only on projects seems to be the piece that completes that idea.

    This last idea is very important, because as much as we would like our external reality to look a certain way by a certain point in time, life is far too dynamic and complex for us to force our will on it.

    Instead, it’s much more realistic to commit to being a certain way INTERNALLY, by a certain target time.

    Excellent post!

  • Armen Shirvanian

    Hi Scott.

    I like that you removed losing from the equation, because it is one of those items that is always a worry in our minds, but is not really an actual possible result. Life doesn’t tend to cancel out opportunities for those that want them.

  • Valentino

    ..and sometimes you win, but you stop running anyway, because it’s Pyrrhic victory! ever happend?

  • lamia

    Hi scott.

    Great post as usual. I totally agree with taking the losing out of the equation, But i m not sure not having a deadline for my goals will ever get me started! I’d rather have a preliminary deadline and leave myself the possibility to postpone it if anything goes wrong. but then again, it might be just me.