I’ve wasted a lot of time in my life trying to decide between conflicting goals. Mostly, the conflicts are small–do I want to go to that networking event, or should I skip it and go to a boxing class? Should I put in longer hours to get ahead on a project this week, or would I be better off if I got eight hours of sleep?
The choice becomes obvious when I think about what my focus is for that week (or that day), but when priorities from different aspects of my life inevitably compete, it’s all too easy to slip into analysis-paralysis. And what ends up happening? I do nothing. I make no progress, and although I’m technically no worse off, I’m no closer to achieving my goals.
It’s true that life won’t always be a perfect equilibrium. At times, you do have to choose between your career goals and personal goals in order to accomplish one. But as several Fast Company contributors point out, not every goal conflict necessitates an either/or answer. The key is to take the time to reflect, and ask yourself some questions before you make the decision. Here’s where to start.
1. Why did I set these goals in the first place?
People set goals for many reasons, and those reasons can make all the difference on whether or not they’ll stick with it. One wrong reason, according to entrepreneur and executive coach Stever Robbins, is when someone focuses on an outcome, like having a million dollars, reaching enlightenment, or losing 20 pounds. They don’t think about the journey to get there.
Figure out if either of your conflicting goals are based on an arbitrary outcome. Why do you want a promotion? Why are you spending every hour you’re not working on your side hustle, foregoing sleep and exercise? Why do you want to run a marathon?
Only you can determine whether your motivations are extrinsic and come from the need to gain external validation, or are intrinsic and actually give you some meaning. When you ask yourself this question, you might be able to rearrange your life in a way that fulfills the intrinsic motivation behind your goal. Say that you’re not able to set time aside to run a marathon, but you want an incentive to stay healthy and exercise regularly. You can still do this by joining a fitness meetup, or signing up for a 10k race.
2. Are my goals actually preventing me from making a serious change?
Sometimes, setting goals can make it harder for you to achieve the change you want. Far too many of us set goals after a “negative” event. You overindulged over the holidays, so by the time New Year’s comes around, you tell yourself that you’re going to do the Whole 30 diet this year. You make a not-so-insignificant impulse purchase, and you impose an unrealistically strict budget.
As Fast Company contributor Suzan Bond previously wrote, your might have set your goals with the “false hope” syndrome. You feel optimistic at the start, yet when things get tough you can’t find the energy to keep going. Or you realize that even as you achieve your goals, the change isn’t as big as you expected.
Say you have a goal to be your own boss someday, so you decide to start a side hustle on the weekends while still working your day job. But you also have a goal to spend more time with your aging parents who live in a different city. Every weekend feels like you’re giving up one to do the other. When you’re working your side hustle, you feel guilty that you’re not having lunch with your mom. When you drive three hours away to a family gathering, you feel guilty that you’re not using your time to build your business.
Think about your motivation to achieve these goals, and think about whether you can achieve both by switching your way of thinking. For example, you can focus on being present when you’re doing one activity, rather than worrying whether or not you’re spending “enough” time on one or the other.
3. Do my goals align with my long-term priorities?
Your goals should be setting you up for the life that you want to live in the future. There’s no point chasing achievements that lead to a miserable outcome. You shouldn’t aim for a managerial position, for example, when you have no interest in developing people whatsoever.
It’s easy to set goals because you feel like it’s something you “should” want, and to fill your life with activities that seem productive, but don’t actually contribute toward the life that you want to live. That’s a recipe for burnout, and when you’re in this state, achieving any goal can feel downright impossible.
4. What systems have I created to set myself up for success?
Sometimes, the conflict isn’t necessarily in the goal itself, but in the systems you create to achieve that goal. As Daniel Dowling previously wrote in Fast Company, “It’s easy to get frustrated early when you’re trying to make headway on any long-term goal–no matter how confident and ambitious you feel when you get started. That’s a recipe for defeatism, and avoiding it requires a system for patiently breaking down your biggest objectives into daily, weekly, and monthly tasks.”
I discovered this through my own goal-setting experiment in 2018. In previous years, I’d set outcome-based goals but gave little thought to creating a system that would let me succeed. As a result, I often felt overwhelmed, and balancing my financial, career, personal, and health goals seemed like an impossible juggle.
But last year, I took a different approach and made setting up the systems my goal. I automated my savings, rather than trying (and failing) to track every single purchase every single week. I focused on following a training plan for a marathon rather than completing a marathon in a set amount of time. I structured my workweek so that I can spend at least an hour or two on Friday to do deep, longer-term work, and I was promoted about halfway through the year. Setting up a solid system allowed me to rely less on discipline, and more on being consistent and doing things on autopilot.
5. Do I need really to give up one goal in order to achieve the other?
Sometimes, you do need to part with one goal to achieve the other, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up on them forever. You might just need to focus on one right now, and focus on the other when you have the time, headspace, and resources to work toward it.
As Gwen Moran previously wrote for Fast Company, some people work best when they focus on one big goal at a time, whereas others do better when they have lots of small goals. The key is understanding what works best for you, and sticking with that, rather than forcing yourself to adopt an approach that doesn’t play to your strengths.