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The secret to success? Set fewer goals.

Like most people, I am pretty good at setting goals and not always so good at achieving them. But we may not be giving ourselves a fair chance. We sometimes need fewer, clearer, more connected, and more meaningful goals to be successful.

The greatest obstacles to achieving your goals are your other goals.

We all know there are only so many hours in a day, so much money in the bank, and limits to our physical and emotional energy. In this zero-sum game, when we pursue one goal, we take away from another one. It makes sense, but we find it hard to resist stacking goals on top of each other.

We often have the belief that we have to be good at a lot of things. We have a narrative running in the back of our mind that we need to be a well-rounded person. We believe that being a well-rounded person means that we have to invest and improve in different areas at the same time. But it provides diminishing returns as we devote less and less energy to more and more goals. Yet, at the same time we are amazed and envious of the expert who stays focused in one area and achieves mastery. We wish we could do the same, but we really haven’t given ourselves a fair chance.

Eliminate distractions.

We often need to eliminate the extraneous things that compete for our attention. Some of these come from the environment around us, some of these come from the environment within us. We can set goals and priorities, set aside things that are not urgent or important, and take the time to make the time for what is truly important to us. We may also need to manage the chatter in our minds that drives us to over-plan, over-work, and under-appreciate ourselves. We have to create an inner sense of clarity, purpose, and confidence.

In Buddhism we are sometimes told the story of muddy water in a jar. Initially the water is cloudy and dark. But, if we set the jar aside and leave it undisturbed, it will become clear. This clarity comes naturally, but we have to be disciplined enough to stop, resist from shaking the jar, and give clarity time to emerge. When we eliminate distractions, we give ourselves the peaceful space to clearly see our true nature.

Focus on identity goals.

A lot of goals involve acquiring things. It may be cars, houses, money, education, relationships, you get the idea. But in our heart, we know that these are not long-lasting. As the old saying goes, there ain’t no U-Haul behind a hearse. Material things are wonderful enablers of happiness. But without meaning they are an empty fraud.

We have the get the order right. Who we are is not what we have. But the things we have manifest as we live. Let’s say we wanted to be a teacher to help others. The experience of helping others makes us feel good and deepens our connections with the world around us. Along the way we gather the attributes of higher education, specialized training, and recognition. Like road signs they point to the meaning of our life, but they are not the meaning itself. The things we have in our life point to its meaning but they are not a replacement for it. So, we must decide who we are first. Then we will know what our goals should be. Like an artist, we must first imagine the painting before painting it.

Find your flow.

Have you ever been so involved in an activity that you lost track of time? Or, had a sense of effortless effort, of natural, spontaneous mastery? That is flow. Flow is complete and satisfying immersion in a task. You are painting, running, or reading, but you are transcendent at the same time. All your skills are at play, but your mastery is naturally synchronized. Flow often arises when we do what we love. But it is more than that. It is when we do things that resonate deep within us. The author Joseph Campbell used to tell people to find their bliss. Flow is when bliss and action meet. If we can find what creates that perfect union within us, we have probably found a good goal.

Fix your flaws.

Sometimes we are our own biggest enemy. Having focused goals is great, but can be undermined by all sorts of personal deficiencies. Over two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle said that it is by playing the harp that men become both good and bad harpists. His point was simple, improvement does not come from repeating poor behavior. It comes from learning. Effort counts. But it must be the right kind of effort. Getting to a goal may mean that we change ourselves along the way.

In this way, the goal is enlarged. It is more than the desired achievement. It includes the personal growth and development that we gain on our path. The satisfaction expands. We are happy when we reach the goal, but we are also pleased that the path was one of personal improvement. We know we are better than we were before.

For more insights see my books and blog at

Or, my YouTube channel, The Coping Expert, at

James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life – whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.

Image credit is Unsplash.

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