Why Goals Aren’t Enough—You Need to Set Directions

Why Goals Aren’t Enough—You Need to Set Directions

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Goals

Recently, I caught up with a friend I don’t get to see often enough. Neither of us were in a Major Life Crisis, so we were doing that thing where we swap minor problems back and forth—everything from busyness to boredom to the various ways our aging bodies are mysteriously misbehaving.

Naturally, we share that delightful human instinct for wanting to share solutions we’ve found. But after the conversation, I reflected on the advice we’d swapped, and I realized we had mostly both been talking to our past selves, rather than each other.

We were sharing things that had helped us, as opposed to things that we thought would actually solve each other’s problems. For example, someone might have said something like:

“Yoga helped me so much… you should do yoga too!”

There’s nothing wrong with this. If something helps us, it’s only natural to want other people to try it too, so they can receive the same benefits.

But we all have differing needs, and take differing things from each experience. What you get out of yoga might not be what I would get out of it. Perhaps you loved it for the quiet reflective time away from the busyness of life, while I really need a vibrant new community.

Of course, yoga can be both, but that’s not the point. I realized that instead of focusing on the object which helped us, it might be more helpful to explain why it helped:

“Yoga helped me [connect with a cool community / become stretchier / spend more time with rubber mats]. Is there an activity which could help you in the same way?”

Instead of pointing my friend specifically towards yoga, I could help them put their needs into words, and make changes which could help meet those needs.

In other words, I realized I could give better, more personalized advice if I focused on why something might help, rather than on what my recommendation was. This idea stuck with me, and I found myself applying it in other areas of my life—in particular, when setting goals.

Finding a Underlying Direction…

I feel like I’m constantly revising what I’m aiming to achieve. At any one time, I’m juggling a few different projects, and my goals can usually be expressed as “finish this, then finish that, then finish the other thing.”

But if I focus on why—on what grander, deeper purpose the goal is supposed to achieve—then my perspective broadens and I realize there are many more options open to me than I first perceived.

For example, imagine I wanted to star in a local amateur musical. I practice, I work hard, and eventually I go to the audition and do my best.

If I didn’t get the part, I would be sad: I failed to meet my goal.

But if I look deeper at my underlying goal—my why—I might see that, actually, what I really wanted was to get out of the house, to meet some people, and to improve at performing. This part was only one specific way I could have met those needs. Now, I can look for another activity—or activities—which fulfill those underlying desires.

If we can express why we have a particular ambition, we can usually find multiple paths to achieving it.

Instead of ‘goals’, I’ve come to think of these whys as ‘directions‘: not a single, specific future, but a whole host of potential futures which all contain something I desire.

… So You Can Move Toward Concrete Benefits

Directions have another advantage over specific goals: we don’t have to complete them in order to see the benefit.

Let’s take another example. Imagine I had the ambition to own a yacht. (It probably won’t be surprising that this isn’t an example from my own life.)

Like before, I could look for the underlying needs I’m trying to meet. Perhaps I want to show off, or to spend more time on boats, or simply want to have more excuses to say the word “yacht.”

Now let’s further imagine that even after going through this process, I’m completely set on the specific goal. Sure, there are other ways I could meet the need to spend time on boats, but I’m determined that I’ll get my yacht, come what may.

Even in that case, it makes sense to determine a broader direction that will move me toward my specific goal—like “having more disposable income.” If I move far enough in this direction (let’s be real: very very far), then I’ll be able to afford a yacht.

But even if I don’t make it all the way, any movement in this direction still brings me the benefit of more disposable income.

It also encourages me to search the broad space of possibilities which move me in this direction. Instead of focusing on the end result—the yacht—which doesn’t suggest any concrete actions, thinking about this direction suggests specific, attainable actions:

  • “I will spend less this week”
  • “I will find temporary, part-time work”
  • “I will write 500 words on my novel”
  • “I will find another three clients for my business”

Thinking about the direction naturally leads us to come up with smaller, more achievable goals, which themselves take us towards our underlying desires and needs.

Why, Not What

Multipotentialites are often accused of leaping from goal to goal, but perhaps we’re simply finding new ways to meet the same underlying need.

Next time you find yourself setting a goal—or even simply wanting something—try to identify why. What’s the need you’re trying to meet? Are there other ways you could meet that need, and are any of those ways better or easier? And does that why suggest a broader direction you could use as your focus?

My final example for the day: in writing this post, my why isn’t to convince you that this way of thinking is the best. It’s to help you out, any way I can.

Maybe that means you’ll look for more underlying whys in your life. Maybe you’ll give better advice, by looking for the need the other person is trying to meet. Or maybe it’ll simply remind you to go back to yoga so you can spend more time with rubber mats. As long as it helps someone, somewhere, I’ve moved in the right direction.

I hope you can do the same.

Your Turn

What are your goals right now, and what are the whys beneath them? Have you set any broad directions for your life at the moment? Share your story in the comments below!

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.


  1. Sid says:

    Really nice post. I could correspond with it through and through. Thanks for an amazing read.

  2. Mojo says:

    Great article!

  3. Michael says:

    Another way to putty it (pun intended) is “Needs versus Strategies” — finding more clarity about needs first, then brainstorming and deciding on a strategy to explore. :)

    • Linda says:

      one “need”, especially for us multipods, is to put a socially acceptable shine on what we want! So we create these elaborate goals to hide what it is that we really want and avoid the judgement of others. :D

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Definitely! I think if I had another 1000 words I’d have gone into much more detail about exploring our underlying needs. Thank you for bringing it up, I think it’s a crucially important aspect of setting goals :)

  4. Doug says:

    I love spending time with rubber mats! Thanks for the article. Great advice, Neil!

  5. Zen Dexter says:

    Hey Neil – thanks for the great post!

    I’m reading “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big” by Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic. He writes that it’s better to have systems rather than goals, and the way I understand it is that a system = direction + specific, attainable actions that you do regularly, as you wrote about.

    I think the biggest benefit of focussing on systems/directions vs goals is the way you feel about it. In goal-oriented thinking, you can strive for months on a goal and miss it (e.g. you lose 9kg instead of 10kg), and feel sad about it.

    But in system- or direction-oriented thinking, you can look to the fact you ate right or exercised 95% of days in the past X months, which is a great achievement with undeniable positive impacts, and something you should celebrate!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Yes, thanks Zen, this is absolutely perfect! As you say, the terminology doesn’t matter – whether we think of it as systems or directions or anything we like. And that’s such a great point about being able to appreciate how far you’ve come if you’re flexible about the actual goal and concentrate on the direction.

  6. Linda says:

    oooohhhhh, soooooo true. Someone said to me once – behind every failed goal is an unspoken / unconscious goal that WAS achieved, making the conscious goal unnecessary. When I went back through all my “failures” I could see the “true goal” that had been achieved and it lifted a massive weight off. BUT not only that, direction is more important than goals when you lose sight of a “true goal” – I struggled to finish (or choose to drop once and for all) my degree until I got back in touch with the real reason for doing it – curiosity. It was easy to finish when I found the direction, rather than focusing on the goal.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      This is a really interesting angle, thank you Linda. I hadn’t considered the unconscious ‘whys’ behind each goal but you’re right that they must be a hugely important factor. Thanks!

  7. Ann says:

    Wow. I love this. Thanks Neil.

  8. Ryan says:

    Greatly enjoyed this post. Asking why from what we think is our end goal is a great way to realize why we’re pursuing something. Toyota asks 5 whys when trying to understand why a vehicle or service failed.

  9. Mehrnoosh says:

    This summer I set a goal for myself to learn 1600 new english words ( I’m Iranian). I got to 1100 words and I got tired of it and stopped. It’s been 3 weeks and I look at it all as a failure. I know learning 1100 new words is amazing but I’m not satisfied at all. Your article really resonated with me. I know I’m looking at everything I do the wrong way but I just can’t shut these kind of ugly thoughts. What can I do? :/

  10. Vanessa says:

    Questo articolo mi é piaciuto veramente!
    Ho cercato di assorbirlo come una spugna. Ci ho trovato molti spunti positivi. Grazie <3

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