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Goals as a Means, Not an End

 

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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.

 

Summary

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?

Further Reading

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Banner credit: Goal notebook image by freestocks.org from Pexels.

4 thoughts on “Goals as a Means, Not an End”

  1. Laura Madsen (Legacy Post)

    Comment by Laura Madsen on the original post in atriumoflight.com:

    Wow! What a timely post for the New Year. I am one who knows well the pattern of setting goals and not achieving them and then getting frustrated and discouraged. I appreciate Jeremy’s reminder that goals are a process.

    One thought I have about goals is that there is a difference between goals that help us DO something and goals that help us BECOME something.

    One of my DOING goals this year—which has been an ongoing goal—is to go to bed at 9:00 p.m. and wake up at 4:30 a.m. Although I am not perfect at achieving this goal, I have learned not to despair. Each day I get another chance. I like the quote from Leslie Householder that says, “Failure is feedback.” If I fail to meet my goal one day, I can look for how to do better, and I can determine to try again. When I look back at past journal entries, I can see how I have gradually improved in this area over the years, and that gives me courage to keep trying. The author David Burns reminds me to “give yourself credit for the things you accomplish instead of insisting that your efforts are never good enough.” So if I go to bed at 10:00 and wake up at 5:30 or 6:00, at least it is better than staying up past midnight and sleeping in, which is what I would probably do if I set no goal at all!

    One of my BEING goals this year—which again is an ongoing goal—is to have more charity. With BEING goals, it is harder to measure success. As I have thought about what I can DO to BECOME more loving, I have decided that I will try to notice times when I think unkind thoughts toward a person. Then I have committed to spending some time repenting and trying to replace the unkind thoughts with more ennobling and uplifting thoughts until I feel better about the person. I suppose I won’t be perfect at this goal, but I know that the process of TRYING to be more Christ-like will increase my faith and help me live a better life.

    The motivational speaker Brian Tracy talks about the Law of Accumulation, the idea that everything we do counts and that small and simple things can add up to big things over time. My hope is that every time I choose to be more loving toward a person, I will become a little brighter and more like the Savior. Then over a lifetime, my personal light will radiate with greater brilliance. I know I will fall short many times, but each time I fail, the Savior is there to help me repent, refocus my goals, and try again. Really, the gospel of Jesus Christ (having faith in Christ, repenting, renewing covenants, receiving the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end) is all about setting a goal (eternal life) and then trying again and again to achieve it. It is the process that brings the reward.

  2. Cole McEuen (Legacy Post)

    Comment by Cole McEuen on the original post in atriumoflight.com:

    As I reflect back on my 2020 goals and prepare to set new goals for 2021, this article gave me a greater perspective on the purpose of goal setting. I felt a lot more motivated in setting new personal and family goals!

    I appreciated the breakdown and emphasis on the text of Preach My Gospel on goals. Specifically, the portion of ‘when’ not ‘if’ we fail to meet our goals, that we should reevaluate our efforts and try again.

    I also liked the personal example shared, and have loved reading the increasingly good additions to your fantasy novel!

  3. Pete Madsen (Legacy Post)

    Comment by Pete Madsen on the original post in atriumoflight.com:

    I love how you pointed out the Preach My Gospel quotes about goals, specifically how you analyzed what it DIDN’T say. On my mission, back in 1981, there was an even bigger emphasis on “numbers”(specifically baptisms) compared to today. It was easy to get discouraged when we so often failed to achieve our goals. However, my companions and I would always try to find the GOOD that we accomplished each day. I loved the movie “The Best Two Years”, because the Elders were always saying: “Let’s go do some GOOD!” You mentioned the quote on page 148 of PMG: “Goals are a means of helping you bring about much good among Heavenly Father’s children”. That is a good saying to remember every day of our lives. Thanks for another insightful blog!

  4. Daryl Cheney (Legacy Post)

    Comment by Daryl Cheney on the original post in atriumoflight.com:

    Jeremy, thank you for your insights about how goals can help us become better as we work on them, even if we don’t achieve them every time. This is great advice that I will share with the youth in my ward as they set new goals for this year.

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