Many of us are very goal-oriented. Goal-setting, working on goals, and achieving goals are all often seen as the crux of self-development, meaning, and happiness. However, there are various downsides to this goal-obsessive attitude. A lot of the time, it’s more beneficial to focus on growth rather than reaching goals. Here’s why.
Many of the goals we set are achievable, but they might still nonetheless involve a massive change, whether it’s becoming highly skilled at something, losing a bunch of weight, or having enough cash to travel the world for a year. The problem with focusing single-mindedly on these goals is that they can appear too difficult to achieve. You may set the goal but find the idea of achieving it – getting from where you are now to the goal – as overwhelming. This can zap your motivation.
Personal growth, on the other hand, is a much more gradual process, with small changes and improvements taking place every day (as long as you remain focused on what aspect of yourself you are working on). In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear argues that we should stray away from thinking that big changes in our lives require big actions. Instead, he stresses the importance of making small improvements on a daily basis.
Over time, these daily small habits add up to big results. Not only do they direct you towards a goal you have in the back of your mind, but they also train you to become self-disciplined, with the positive habit in question becoming second-nature.
Making a 1% improvement in a particular habit every day is much more achievable than trying to reach a goal in more sudden strides. Focusing on small habits (such as tiny improvements in a new skill) can sustain your motivation more effectively than becoming obsessed about a goal you have in mind.
Telic vs. Atelic Activities
‘Telic’ derives from the Greek word telos meaning ‘end’, ‘purpose’, or ‘goal’. Telic activities, therefore, refer to activities that are defined by some endpoint. Atelic activities, on the other hand, are activities that you can engage in that don’t have a goal attached to them.
The philosopher Kieran Setiya discusses the problem of the midlife crisis in his book Midlife: A Philosophical Guide and argues that the best way to resolve the midlife crisis is to focus one’s attention on atelic – rather than telic – activities. But really, his argument applies to other stages in life, especially those times when we feel unfulfilled by the achievement of goals.
Reflecting on his own midlife crisis, Setiya realized he felt unfulfilled in life – in spite of great successes – because he was overly focused on goals. After all, when you set a goal, you are dissatisfied until the point at which you achieve the goal (although, working on the goal may also have some meaning for you). Then, when you achieve the goal, you experience momentary satisfaction and perhaps a sense of pride and a boost in self-esteem, but then these feelings fade away, and you are left with the need to set a further goal, perhaps a more difficult goal, to achieve those feelings again. And so the process repeats. When you focus on goals, there is never any lasting satisfaction; there is just constant striving.
However, working on personal growth is quite different. We can say that it is an atelic activity. This is because, arguably, personal growth never ends; it doesn’t have an endpoint. Of course, you may want to work on personal growth in order to enhance your well-being or have better relationships with others, but there is no ultimate endpoint like there is with telic activities.
Other examples of atelic activities include walking in nature and spending time with friends and while we may also want to engage in these activities because they make us happier, like with personal growth, we do not spend time in nature or with friends for the sake of getting to a particular point. Just as with these activities, personal growth is often satisfying to us each time we focus on it. There is not this feeling that satisfaction will only come once the activity leads us to a certain outcome.
Focusing on growth rather than goals, therefore, can benefit not only your levels of motivation but your overall well-being as well.