We’ve all been there. We set a goal. We make plans to reach it. We have the best of intentions. And then we fall short.
For me, this happened a lot on my mission. Each transfer, my companion and I would set daily, weekly, and monthly goals for standards such as lessons taught, new investigators found, investigators in church, or investigators baptized. And most of the time, we ended each period with zeros for the last two categories and woefully low numbers for the first two.
What frustrated me most was the seeming capriciousness of whether we met our goals. One week we could work incredibly hard and get ten new investigators; the next we could work equally hard and get one. There seemed to be no correlation between our efforts and how close we came to our goals.
Now, the mission is an extreme example. Unlike most areas of our lives, success in mission goals depends largely on the agency and choices of others. But even when we’re completely responsible for our goals, we still often fall short. For example, in the summer of 2017, I set a goal to write a novel from start to finish in a year. Three and a half years later, I’m barely halfway through the first draft.
But back to my mission. By the time I finished my two years of service, I had developed a dislike, or at least a distrust, of goals. Why set goals, if most of the time we fail to reach them? Why subject ourselves to feelings of inadequacy and frustration over and over again?
Then, a few months after coming home, I was reviewing chapter 8 of Preach My Gospel (the missionary manual). The chapter, which was on using time wisely, had a section about goals. And I began to notice something. While the chapter talked a lot about setting goals and working towards them, it rarely talked about achieving goals. The closer I looked, the more I began to notice what the chapter didn’t say about goals.
To illustrate, I have selected some statements from chapter 8, and beside each I have written what the manual doesn’t say:
|What Preach My Gospel says:||What it doesn’t say:|
|“Meaningful goals and careful planning will help you accomplish what the Lord requires of you” (p. 143).||“Meaningful effort and careful planning will help you accomplish your goals.”|
|“Through goals and plans, our hopes are transformed into action” (p. 148).||“Through actions and plans, our hopes are transformed into reality as we meet our goals.”|
|“When you fall short of a goal, evaluate your efforts and seek for ways to accomplish the goal” (p. 148).||“If you fall short of a goal, evaluate your efforts and identify what you did wrong.”
(Notice the contrast between if and when.)
|“For each key indicator, set goals that help you stretch, exercise faith, and work effectively” (p. 153).||“For each key indicator, you must stretch, exercise faith, and work effectively in order to achieve your goal.”|
|“The ultimate measure of success is not in achieving goals alone but in the service you render and the progress of others. Goals are a means of helping you bring about much good among Heavenly Father’s children” (p. 148).||“The ultimate measure of success is in achieving goals. Only by achieving your goals can you render service and help others progress. By achieving goals, you bring about much good among Heavenly Father’s children.”|
This exercise taught me a powerful lesson. I had always seen goals as part of the end: we set a goal to do x, y, or z, and then we work hard to bring about x, y, or z. But I was wrong. Goals are the means. And they aren’t the means to a certain achievement, prize, or destination. They are the means to a better journey—a better life.
We set goals and strive to achieve them because by so doing, we exert greater effort than we would otherwise. Goals push us off the couch and out of our comfort zones. Goals motivate us to work harder and smarter than we normally would. Goals help direct our energy, time, and resources towards what’s truly important. As Preach My Gospel says, goals “help [us] stretch, exercise faith, and work effectively.”
For me, the main takeaway from this realization is that we don’t need to feel bad when we fail to reach a goal. As long as the act of setting the goal pushed us to greater efforts—as long as the goal helped us be a better person—then it was a success.
I’m learning to adopt this new attitude about goals. Remember my ongoing project to write a novel? Three months ago, I set a goal to complete two chapters of my rough draft a week. The first week, I completed one chapter. The second week, I completed another chapter. Then it took me two weeks to finish the next chapter, and four weeks for the chapter after that. School, work, and family responsibilities pushed me farther and farther behind. But I didn’t despair. I didn’t get down on myself for not meeting my goal. Rather, I recognized that setting the goal had pushed me to complete four more chapters during a busy semester than I probably would have otherwise.
So when the New Year rolls around and it’s time to set goals, don’t get down thinking about all the resolutions you failed to meet, the diets you failed to keep, and the projects you failed to finish since the previous year. Think about how your goals helped you be a little better and work a little harder each day. Then set new goals that are means to those ends.
The value of goals is not so much in achieving them, but in how the process of setting and striving for goals alters our behavior. When we set goals that motivate us, focus our efforts, and exercise our faith, we work more effectively, accomplish more, and live better lives than we would otherwise. By seeing goals as means instead of ends, we can avoid the frustration and discouragement that come from the many times we fail to meet our goals.
Points to Ponder
- What are my current goals, and how do they help me be a better person?
- What is a goal that I failed to meet in the past? How did it help me grow?
- What is the difference between a goal and a promise/commitment? Why is it more important to meet a promise or commitment than it is to meet a goal?
- M. Russell Ballard, “Do Things That Make a Difference,” Ensign, June 1983. (Adapted from a talk given to the Salt Lake Area Young Adults, 18 October 1981.)
- M. Russell Ballard, “Return and Receive,” Ensign, May 2017.
- Alex Hugie, “How Effective Are Your Goals?,” Ensign, January 2019.