The Benefits of Focusing on Principles Instead of Goals
Goals are helpful—so long as you can kill your attachment to them when you need to.
Having a plan is good, but being able to evaluate that plan and change it—or even leave it altogether if necessary—is critical to well-being and sustainable success.
Because life happens. The environment around you changes. You realize that something you thought you could do you cannot. Or that something you thought you could not do, you can.
An alternative to focusing on goals is to focus on principles. Principles—things like health, creativity, movement, intellect, curiosity, and presence, to name just a few—are broader than goals. They are infinite pursuits. You can’t fail or succeed at something like curiosity or presence. This kind of ongoing nature protects against the three biggest traps of goals:
- You become too attached to them (and refuse to shift gears when you ought to);
- You fail to achieve them (and become down and despondent); or
- You achieve them and subsequently become complacent or lost (perhaps you are happy for a day or two, and then feel empty and wonder what’s next).
When you focus on principles it’s not that you don’t set goals. It’s that your goals shift from being be-all, end-all to being adaptable strategies that work in service of something larger.
For example, if your goal is to meditate every day for 100 days and on day 12 you can’t because a family member becomes ill and you must take care of them, then you’ve failed. But if your principle is presence, then you can simply adapt your strategy, perhaps by shifting from formal meditation to being fully there with the person in front of you (though of course these are not exclusive).
This kind of principles-first approach is even applicable in extreme situations. Imagine your goal is to win a gold medal. Well, if that’s your ultimate end-game, then you might struggle to move forward regardless of the outcome, win or loss. But if your principle is mastery, that’s something that continues long after the Olympics, and can even shift outside of sport.
Goals are good, no doubt. They hold you accountable. They can be meaningful. They act as constraints and help you avoid a boil-the-ocean, just sing kumbaya, “I’ll start next Monday” approach. But goals can’t be everything. They are most effective when they are secondary to principles.
So yes, set goals. But make sure they are working toward some kind of overarching principle first. This empowers you to change your goals when appropriate, and to move on from them after you’ve succeeded or failed.
Hi, thanks for the post. I’m trying to develop a set of personal values but I’m not sure how to frame them.
What’s the difference between principles and values? Does it matter?
I got the idea to create a list of principals for the person I aim to be. He, and then I, called it a “manifesto”. I wrote this post about it a few years ago – http://betterme.ca/habits/my-manifesto/
When I set goals or plan / review my days, I do that all with my manifesto in mind. Am I living in line with it? What goal can I set to help me really live this aspect of it? Etc.
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Very well said. Focusing on principle also helps create a “growth mindset” where one seeks opportunities all the time and adapts to it and there is no fear of failure.