Why Big Goals Won’t Make You Successful: A Smarter, Saner Guide to Goal-Setting



Guest post by Aytekin Tank, Founder and CEO of JotForm


In late February, organizers reported that a record-breaking 105,000 people had applied to run the 2018 New York City Marathon. That’s a 34% increase since 2014.  


Everywhere I turn, friends and colleagues are setting mammoth goals – like reaching $10 million in revenues, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, and yes, running 26.2 consecutive miles.


I support and applaud their ambition. I also want to prepare them for post-marathon syndrome.


This is a state of sadness, letdown, and aimlessness that many people feel after crossing the mythical finish line. It’s a normal and well-documented experience.   


There’s also a core belief, called “the arrival fallacy,” that underpins post-marathon syndrome.


As positive psychology expert Tal Ben-Shahar explains, pursuing a future goal activates the brain’s reward centres. There’s a pre-emptive sense of accomplishment that makes you feel like you’ve already reached the peak. So, once you’re standing at the Kibo summit, you don’t feel utterly triumphant – and that’s when the letdown kicks in.


Unfortunately, mainstream culture still encourages us to push harder.


We get fired up on December 31st and make unrealistic New Year’s resolutions (never mind that 92% of people quickly abandon them). We take up CrossFit, go on cleanses, resolve to triple our earnings, and volunteer three times a week.


In the startup community, VC-backed founders face intense hyper-growth targets and hiring goals. They blaze past one milestone after another, racing to meet seemingly-arbitrary success metrics.


So, why do we chase such ambitious goals? Because most people believe that achievement = happiness.


Even media outlets tell us to plug in that coffee IV drip and work through the night. Run when your knees are screaming in pain. Just get there, because there’s success (and therefore, joy) at the end of the dark tunnel.


It doesn’t necessarily work that way.


Over the last 12 years, I’ve slowly grown my company, JotForm, from a simple idea into a thriving business with 3.5 million users and over 100 employees. It has definitely been a marathon, not a sprint.  


We work sane hours and take regular vacations. We don’t set crazy deadlines. I want my entire team to love their work – and their lives.


You can end the push-and-crash cycle of constant achievement, while still making meaningful, satisfying progress in all areas of your life. Here’s how to start.



Step 1: Know your true priorities



Not everyone is swinging for the fences


Basecamp founder & CEO Jason Fried has a successful business and a bestselling book, REWORK. But he doesn’t believe in goals:


“A goal is something that goes away when you hit it. Once you’ve reached it, it’s gone.


You could always set another one, but I just don’t function in steps like that.”


Fried sees Basecamp as an unbroken line. It started when he sold his first logo for $50 and runs continuously to the present day, not in peaks and valleys of achievement.  


Entrepreneurship is a way of life. Even if you sell or start another business, the journey doesn’t end – and you’ll see the same face every morning in the bathroom mirror. So, ignore the shiny distractions and focus on what truly engages you.



Track your “why”


As researchers from four top business schools discovered, some goals can do more harm than good. They studied “stretch goals,” and learned that ambitious goal-setting programs can have negative side effects, including narrow focus, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risks, organizational culture damage, and lower intrinsic motivation.


Clearly, signing up for a triathlon might not lead to unethical behavior or hurt your office culture.


But, let’s go back to motivation. In his 2009 book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Daniel Pink outlines two kinds of motivation: Extrinsic and intrinsic.


Extrinsic motivation is the desire for external rewards, like a raise, a trophy, or being named employee of the month.


Intrinsic motivation comes from within. That’s the sense of pride you feel after writing a tough report, swimming an extra lap, or helping an elderly pedestrian cross the road.


As Pink writes:


“When the reward is the activity itself – deepening learning, delighting customers, doing one’s best – there are no shortcuts. The only route to the destination is the high road. In some sense, it’s impossible to act unethically because the person who’s disadvantaged isn’t a competitor but yourself.”


When you go inward and find your unique why, you can choose a path that will make you happier.


After all, goals are a great way to pinpoint what you really want. That’s where they provide value.


If you’re coming up blank, think about what you don’t want. What kind of schedule, activities, and interactions make you feel dull and drained? These are your Anti-Goals, says MetaLab founder Andrew Wilkinson.  


Andrew’s personal no-fly list included a full calendar, endless meetings, business travel, and working with people he distrusts. So, he reverse-engineered his role to avoid those situations.


Not everyone has full control over their schedule, but you could establish rules like “no weekend work” or “every Friday includes an hour of creative exploration.”


Following your own motivations can put you on track to more consistent, internal fulfillment.



Step 2: Get specific



Focus is your key advantage


You’ve probably heard the phrase “you can do anything, but you can’t do everything.”


It’s true. You have to focus on what matters.


I’ve learned this lesson first-hand. When I first started my business, I had lucrative side projects and lots of different ideas.


At the same time, I knew people needed simple web forms. When they began to adopt the product, I had to make a choice. I dropped everything and concentrated on JotForm.


That was an important step. As we grew, I made another choice: we would strive to deliver an exceptional product. That was our mission. It sounds simple, but it offered a litmus test for all future decisions. For example:


–       Sales and marketing took a backseat

–       We ignored the noisy growth-hacking advice

–       We focused on the customer, instead of the competition. That choice alone brought in more than a million new signups in 2017.


Product still comes first. It guides every decision – and it has yet to lead us astray.


Build reliable systems


Goals and systems are not the same animal. As the brilliant James Clear explains:


“If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.


If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.


If you’re a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.”


I love these simple but powerful distinctions. You can set any goal you want, but if you don’t have a system, it’s going to be a tough slog.


Clear says that goals tell you what systems to establish. That’s their primary benefit. But the system itself is what produces results.


At JotForm, we apply several different systems to respond thoughtfully to our customers’ needs.


Our daily bug report emails outline who’s squashing bugs and how many they’ve exterminated. We also track how people respond to our new releases. There are other systems that ensure our product-centric approach remains front and center – no matter what else is happening.



Establish rigid systems, not goals


Once you know what you’re pursuing and why, a restrictive system can actually help you make progress. Here’s an example.


In a story about Stanford marketing research, authors Helen Mankin and Steve Martin describe how yogurt shop customers who chose a flexible reward card made more purchases than those who enrolled in a strict program, where they had to buy flavors in a specific order.


It’s not surprising to learn that fewer people signed up for the strict program. However, those who did were more than 75% more likely to buy all six flavors. The odds of reaching the “goal” were overwhelmingly in their favor.


We apply a similar principle to our customer support program. Team members must respond to all inquiries in 60 minutes or less. They also have to tackle the oldest tickets first. Those systems are rigid. But, our team can serve each customer however they wish. We encourage them to be creative, generous and empathetic.


Our goal (to delight customers) is flexible, but we have clear tactics to support that ongoing pursuit.


Step 3: Keep the momentum going



Every little step adds up.


If you’re not gunning for a big goal, you need other ways to track your progress. That’s where continuous improvement comes in.


It’s a way of seeking consistent, gradual improvements instead of working toward a major breakthrough.


Not only does continuous improvement offer a saner way to work (in my opinion), but it also provides lots of small triumphs. You see steady progress. Each day presents a chance to “succeed.” You’re not going to win an Olympic gold medal next Tuesday, but you will feel good about what you accomplished – and you won’t be devastated if you come in fourth.


At JotForm, we empower our teams for continuous deployment. As soon as they create a new feature or make an improvement, they release it to our global user base.


We keep improving our product. There’s no finish line. More importantly, I wouldn’t want to reach a summit. I’m in this business for the long haul, and I truly love it.


Your math teacher was right. Compound returns pay off.


I was raised in a small town in Turkey. Every year, I spend a week there harvesting olives from our family’s groves.


As you’re sweating under the midday sun, it’s easy to see how small actions add up. One olive doesn’t fill the bucket. You have to keep picking and eventually, you have enough to press a gallon of fragrant oil.


If you really want to understand the power of compounding, look to the world of finance. As author Darious Foroux explains, billionaire Warren Buffett is famous for small, substantial gains that created a massive fortune.


It’s fascinating to note that Buffett acquired 99% of his net worth after he turned 50. That’s pretty motivating, especially if your own checking account isn’t feeling so flush.


Whether we’re talking about fitness, finances or business, everyday efforts make the difference. Perseverance and consistency, not over-the-top goals, will deliver outstanding results – without the accompanying emotional crash.


Explore your motivations, create meaningful systems, and chart your own course. And if you still want to run that marathon, I’ll be cheering you on from the sidelines.



Author Bio:

Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. Feel free to say hi on Twitter at @aytekintank!