The problem with setting goals.
Updated: Jan 27
January is a month of goal setting. In the spirit of new-year’s resolutions the world is awash with people setting goals, hoping they’ll stick to them, for that year. The level of commitment to these goals varies from person to person, with some sticking to them for just a few days (or even hours), and others being successful in achieving them, at least to some extent. Even with the idea of new year’s resolutions set aside, goal setting appears to be a very sensible thing to do. Whether you want to get better at your instrument, progress in your job, or spend less time on your phone, conventional wisdom suggests that setting goals is a prudent way to help achieve this.
There aren’t many books I read twice. However, recently I reread James Clear’s excellent book “Atomic Habits” (link at the end of this post) for the third time and was reminded of why setting goals alone isn’t a good idea. Firstly, winners and losers have the same goals. This may seem obvious, but no one sets out to fail. A musician doesn’t aim to give a bad performance, or a runner doesn’t aim to finish second in a race. Goals alone don’t help find the success that we crave. Furthermore, goals are temporary. Someone who achieves their desired weight on a weight-loss programme often puts that weight back on afterwards, and runners who train for certain distance frequently stop training for an extended period of time when the complete their big race. In music terms, we can often complete the goal of getting through a big recital or exam but how often have we found that things tend to go stagnant afterwards for a time? Goals also create an ‘either-or’ environment where either you succeed or you fail, with nothing in between. This can be an exhausting way of working.
Clear argues that ‘systems’, the processes and habits that lead to our goals, are much more important than the goals we actually set. Having good systems in place lead to longevity in our chosen endeavour. People who are truly successful may indeed set goals, but it is not about any single accomplishment and much more about a continuous cycle of refinement and improvement, or as Clear puts it, “it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress”.
As musicians, we often fall into the trap of saying “I’ll be happy when I learn this new piece” or, “My goal is to get a distinction in this exam”. These things are admirable and perfectly reasonable things to aspire to, however, simply having these goals isn’t enough. Our systems and habits of how often we practice, what we do with our teacher’s feedback and how we approach difficult passages are much more important concepts to spend time thinking about and engrain than our overall goals.
I cannot recommend James Clear’s book or his blog enough. He covers many topics related to habit building and creativity and while he doesn’t come at these topics from a specifically musical angle, they are super pertinent to us as musicians- you can find his book here and a link to his blog here.