Oprah, Sean Combs, and Will Ferrell have done it. So have Katie Holmes and George W. Bush. These famous names have all run a marathon–a 26.2-mile test of mental and physical endurance. In the last decade, global participation in marathons grew by almost 50%, according to a study by RunRepeat. In 2018 alone, nearly 1.3 million people crossed a finish line somewhere in the world.
Many people simply love to run, but others enter marathons to build their confidence, test their limits, and pursue a lofty goal. To them, running marathons symbolizes high achievement and an anything-is-possible attitude. However, we rarely see what comes next.
After the celebration
Post-marathon syndrome is a well-documented state of sadness, worthlessness, and letdown that often follows race day. Author and Harvard psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar calls this “the arrival fallacy” in his book, Happier: Learn The Secrets To Daily Joy And Lasting Fulfillment.
According to Shahar, as you chase a target, you begin to expect that you’ll achieve it. That goal-hunting behavior triggers the brain’s reward centers and creates a sense of accomplishment, even as you’re still training. Your mind thinks you’ve already completed the marathon.
Once you cross the finish line, the experience is often less satisfying than expected. The arrival fallacy primes you for a crash. Yet, mainstream culture still pushes us to aim higher. We internalize a false belief that hitting big goals will make us happy, and life is sweeter on the other side of achievement.
But, the dark side of all this hustling is evident: Burnout is rampant. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders now affect 18% of the U.S. population annually. When you pursue a goal for the sake of pursuing a goal, you might find that you don’t end up achieving your own definition of success. The good news is that it’s never too late to step off the treadmill and work toward what matters for you. Here’s a three-step mini-guide to setting more meaningful goals:
Clarify your priorities
Not everyone wants to climb Kilimanjaro or earn $10 million in revenue. Basecamp founder and CEO Jason Fried says he never sets goals. “A goal is something that goes away when you hit it,” he wrote on his blog. “Once you’ve reached it, it’s gone. You could always set another one, but I just don’t function in steps like that.”
I started my company, JotForm, in 2006. I don’t set ambitious targets, either, because I believe the business is a way of life. The work itself needs to sustain and engage me, or else I wouldn’t continue. However, goals can help to identify what you want.
MetaLab founder Andrew Wilkinson wrote in a Medium post that he used “anti-goals” to map out the business he didn’t want. By planning a bad day in the life, Wilkinson and his business partner realized they despised long meetings, constant travel, a packed calendar, and working with people they didn’t trust. As a result, they set rules that included “video conference or pay for people to come visit us” and “no more than two hours of scheduled time per day.”
Not everyone has the freedom or finances to bring clients to their doorstep. However, reverse-engineering your goals can highlight your true priorities–and the pursuits that will boost your happiness and well-being.
Narrow your focus
Never has this phrase been more applicable: “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.” Once you’ve decided what’s essential, build systems instead of targets. Author James Clear wrote in his blog that goals set directions, while systems build progress. For example, if your goal is to write a book, your system is when and how often you write, how you organize the ideas, and who will edit the drafts. A systems-first mentality prevents you from fixating on the finished product. “When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy,” Clear writes in Atomic Habits. “You can be satisfied anytime your system is running.”
Maintain the momentum
You might argue that in life, we need to see progress to be fulfilled. After all, it’s essential for happiness, creativity, and engagement. In the absence of dramatic goals, we still need to find a way to track our growth. That’s where continuous improvement comes in. Fried, for example, wrote on his blog that he designed and sold his first logo for $50, at age 16. His journey to Basecamp has been “one continuous line” ever since. He’s hit other milestones along the way, but there’s no endpoint.
Continuous improvement also means trusting the power of compound returns. Every year, I spend a week in my hometown in Turkey, helping my family pick olives. The annual harvest is a visible reminder of how small actions add up. Each olive is literally a drop in the bucket, but after a week, we have enough fruit to produce gallons of oil. In life, work, and investing, small, consistent actions can have significant results. Most importantly, you’re far more likely to enjoy each step along the way.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.