Goals are for Losers: The Life-Changing Advice No One Tells You

by | Oct 28, 2013

Photo by Nathan O’Nions

When I was a dieter I always had a goal. Many goals.

“I want to weigh 120 pounds.”

“I want to be a size 2.”

“I want to eat fewer than 50 grams of carbs every day.”

I thought if I achieved these goals I would be happy. But the truth was that as long as I had these goals, I was frustrated.

I consider myself lucky that as a female I never confused my weight loss struggles with my self-worth. That is, I knew I didn’t need to be skinny to be a good scientist or a worthy girlfriend. But it was incredibly irritating to me that I was doing everything I was told to do––eat salads, avoid carbs, drink lots of water, exercise every day, etc.––and wasn’t getting the results I wanted.

It wasn’t until I stopped dieting and systematically started transforming myself into a healthy non-dieter that the “success” I had been seeking finally materialized. Trading in my goals for a system––a healthstyle––quite literally changed my life.

The greatest adjustment I needed to make was mental. My attitude had always been to “work harder,” which is perpetually frustrating and demoralizing, not to mention exhausting.

When I stopped dieting my attitude changed to “solve problems.” Only then could I address all the little bad habits (like overeating on weekends after going out for drinks with friends) that were actually keeping me from doing what I wanted to do.

It is ironic that it took me so long to realize I needed a system for my health instead of goals (YES, I blame the dieting industry for brainwashing me), since setting up systems was how I was able to achieve success in every other part of my life.

The importance of setting up systems to achieve success became crystal clear to me recently when I read an article in the Wall Street Journal by Dilbert creator Scott Adams, called “Scott Adams’ Secret of Success: Failure” (hat tip to Tim Ferriss for the enlightening tweet).

“Throughout my career I’ve had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways.”

In my professional life I’ve used the exact method Adams describes to put myself through school, become trained in a highly specialized field, then pivot to develop a new career that gets me far closer to my own definition of success.

My system has always been to find the pain points in my life and eliminate them. I never wanted to be “a doctor” or “a professor.” I just wanted to have a meaningful career that helps people in the most effective way possible. I started down the medical professional path, but when I realized I could contribute more with my words I shifted to writing. Only time, opportunity and my own creativity will determine how I forge ahead.

My health is now (finally) on a similar path. I don’t have weight or size goals anymore––I haven’t fluctuated more than three pounds in half a decade. Instead I have developed a system to make sure I eat enough vegetables and other satisfying foods, get my 10,000 steps a day, make it to the gym four days a week, chew my food thoroughly, etc. I barely have to think about it, and only need to adjust when I travel, change apartments, or encounter other things that throw me off course.

For health, building a system is far more effective than setting goals on a purely practical level. Even more impressive though, is how it impacts you emotionally.

Adams writes,

“To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.”

As a dieter I felt like I was in a constant state of permafailure. In those rare moments when I was at my goal, I would feel happy for awhile. But inevitably my success would slip away and the feeling of failure would return.

At best, chronic dieting is frustrating and demoralizing. At worst, it is confidence-destroying and soul-crushing.

Now that my healthstyle is fully developed I feel completely different. Instead of frustrated, I feel like I’m in a perpetual state of creativity, achievement and personal growth. I learn more about new foods and recipes all the time, my healthstyle systems get more robust and effective, and my ability to stay on track feels unwavering. I know myself well, and I know what works. I feel confident and in control.

No diet in the world can offer that. And it feels amazing.

Pop over to Adams’ article to learn how to apply similar tactics to your career.

What systems do you use to achieve success?

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21 Responses to “Goals are for Losers: The Life-Changing Advice No One Tells You”

  1. Lisa says:

    I love this and it makes so much sense to me. I have a home-court habit question (which ties into the idea of systems): How do you figure out what yours are to get to a healthy weight when you’ve never had true success losing and keeping off weight?

  2. Kari says:

    This ties very well into a piece of wisdom that has meant a lot to me. It is Hindu in origin; “you have a right to the labor, but not its fruits.” In other words, you do what you do because you value the task itself, not because you expect a particular outcome. You may get the outcome anyway, but heading disappointment off at the pass doesn’t strike me as a bad thing.

    Applied to my life: I run because I want to. It feels good. If I lose weight, nifty but I don’t plan on it. If I paint a painting it is for the act and the beauty. I don’t KNOW that it will sell. When you do whatever task you’re doing with your whole self, for the sake of doing It as well as you can, I’ve found you get rewarded in any case.

  3. Chelsea says:

    This is brilliant, Darya. The idea of being in a constant state of pre-success failure is so true!! That’s it, I’m changing my focus to problem solving and setting up consistent working systems rather than goals.

  4. Garth says:

    Nice idea Darya, thanks! I’ve never thought about being goal oriented to mean existing in a constant state of failure but you’re right, it’s quite demoralising if you think about it. I still think goals are important (what would the systems be geared towards otherwise?) so maybe a solution is to fragment your goals into many more rapidly achievable micro-goals.

    • Darya Rose says:

      I agree. I don’t think all goals are problematic. I think the essential difference is whether or not it solves a problem. For example, teaching yourself to learn how to eat mindfully (via the goal of chewing each bite of food 25 times until it becomes a habit) is awesome. “Lose 20 pounds” doesn’t solve a real problem and is too vague. The real goal there is better health, and you get to better health by building habits, which brings you back to problem solving.

  5. Roberta Saum says:

    I really enjoyed this article. As someone who has “dieted” even in a healthy manner to achieve my “goal” a little over two years ago I’ve sort of floundered a bit with my mindset. I’ve kept my healthy physical state and shape (and don’t really care about my weight as long as I’m clearly fit and not over weight). The goals are different now.

    I’m still learning and I’m still digesting what I read here but I found it helpful. I will be revisiting to read again.

    Thank you for this! -Roberta

  6. PaulaJ says:

    What a coincidence! I just finished my blog today about a similar topic – to enjoy the journey. Tell me what you think! http://www.raredame.com/2013/10/enjoy-those-roses-or-die-5-ways-to.html

    While I definitely agree with Garth’s comment above that goals are necessary, I think too much weight has been placed on them to make us “happy.” A perfect example of “enjoying the journey” is to eat healthier and stay active as you mentioned, not obsess over weight constantly.

    Hopefully, more people will start to think this way and not let their lives be overtaken by unfulfilled goals and unhappiness!

  7. This is such a great reminder that if you have a system in place, you will naturally reach your goals without that nagging sense that you have failed. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Dee says:

    I think one needs health and fitness goals! Of course you need a plan for the work or ‘system’ to reach your goals… You can’t just wish you lose 10lbs and it happens

  9. Mike says:

    There is 1 point that isn’t touched on here. In favour of goals, and I’m saying this from a sporting perspective, not a dieting one: achieving a goal gives you extraordinary confidence to draw from for future challenges.

    That has been the main purpose of goals in my experience. When I’m hit up with an incredibly hard challenge, be it with programming or running, I think back to when I achieved another seemingly impossible goal…and that belief alone is the difference between people who seem mentally weak and mentally strong.

    I agree with most of the premise though, especially in dieting. Less so with running and other sports, and to an extent startups.

  10. Amber says:

    Great read Darya! I’ve spent countless hours mapping out my goals only to be so tired and disheartened afterwards that I never followed through on them. I’ve found it much easier to simply focus on one healthy habit at a time.

    I love your blog – a favorite of mine. I just started my own health and fitness blog and personal training business. Please check out my site: http://www.foodandfitnessnook.com

    All the Best –
    Amber Johnson

  11. Tora says:

    I have never been very goal-oriented but my partner is, and thrives on them. I agree that “lose 20 pounds” is not a great goal, but I do believe that most people have a weight at which they feel most comfortable and confident, which is then a good goal. I also agree that having a “system” is a much better way to life, BUT having specific goals are often a good stepping stone toward having such a system.

  12. Melanie says:

    Hi Darya,

    I am so grateful I have stumbled upon your book, and this notion of abandoning goals. I have struggled with my weight and body image since I was a child. At 14, I starved myself and binge exercised. I lost a lot of weight, but still yoyoed throughout high school.
    Now in university, I am glad to say that I am totally content with myself. My weight is no longer associated to my self-worth.

    I categorically refuse to diet, although I should lose about 30 pounds according to my physician. My refusal is based on the fact that I don’t want to have to deal the negative thoughts and self-criticism associated with dieting. I don’t want to spiral back into the mindset that my confidence comes from sacrifice and attaining a number on a scale.

    I feel that I have finally found a solution that is fun, manageable and sustainable. My goal is to create the 3 new healthy habits during the next 2 months, rather than losing 30 pounds.

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