Goals Put You in a Failure State. Do This Instead

How to achieve more in 2024

Olabanji Stephen
16 min readMar 30, 2024

Research says that around 92% of people who set goals never achieve them.
This year, I want you to be a part of the remaining 8%.

At a point in my life, keeping my promise to myself became the most important thing.

I knew there was no other way around it.

You know what I’m saying?

That point where you realize — that you have dreams that won’t just abracadabra happen, and if you don’t move the needle, it won’t move.

That point where you feel terrible for setting goals and consistently falling short of them — not because you tried and failed (because at least you know you did everything you could have) but because you didn’t do the things you said you’d do.

There’s punishment for failing to do the things you say you’ll do — and it auto-activates

For me, it was like evidence staring at me that I’m not who I say I am — that I’m not that great. My mind is at war.

The level of your self-esteem — what you think of yourself, is directly proportional to the level of commitment you keep when no one is watching. Especially then!

The person you have to spend the most time listening to in your life is yourself. Try not to lose that respect.

~ Mark Manson.

Not like you have to win an Olympic gold medal, donate a billion dollars to charity, or move a hideous mountain.

It starts with the tiny promises you make to yourself…

I’ll be up an hour earlier tomorrow.
I’m going to journal today.
I’m going to read a book this week.
I’ll do 10 pushups for 10 days

It starts right there, before cascading into the big stuff — your dreams and goals.

So today, I hope to turn you into a (better) crusher.

A crusher of small and big goals.

And to point you in the direction of the 8%.

Ready? Stay with me.

Stop setting goals

I don’t mean it literally.

I know you’re thinking — how do I reach a destination that’s unclear?

How do I know what I need to do if I’m not aiming at something?

Yes. Yes. Yes, my friend

But think…

Winners and losers have the same goal. You don’t go to the Olympics with an intent to lose, do you? Or start the year with an intent to make less money or do less. But it happens anyway.

So, setting a goal can’t be the ultimate deciding factor. You follow?

I’ll give you three reasons.

Goals put us in a failure state.

When we set goals, we remain in a state of failure until they are achieved.

Even when we’re doing all we can to achieve the goal, it’s failure, failure, failure then… success.

The problem with that is — if we don’t achieve the goal, our self-confidence, self-respect, and ego accounts are debited.

And you know how we do it.

We say stuff like, “I didn’t fail, I was learning”, “I know how to do it better now”, “Failure is a path to success”

Those are not necessarily wrong.

And, you may give up or give it another shot — depending on how self-motivated you are or the environment you are in.

You might even win this time. Who knows?

But the truth is, deep down, you’re conflicted. You don’t really know.

You don’t know if you’re an achiever. Your mind is telling you another story. You could have gotten that stuff but you didn’t — you’re thinking

There’s some war going on up there.

We’re the harshest critique of ourselves — humans

That’s not a great state to be in because the most important relationship in your life is the one you have with yourself.

The excitement is shortlived

Think about everything you’ve achieved.

When were you happier? When you hit the goal or when you were in pursuit?

For almost everyone, the answer is — in pursuit. Because the excitement is hardly in what we have, it’s always in what is next. We want the thrill!

For me, the excitement of achieving a goal is like 5 minutes. What’s it like for you?

A day…? two? three? One week?

How long does it take before the question on your mind becomes — what’s next?

For many people, it’s about the same minute!

We’re designed to look forward to things.
That sense of achievement is a resource — firepower to go in pursuit again. It doesn’t end!

That’s why it’s dangerous to fail consistently. The opposite happens.

Each time you have to go again, if you get to (because many people don’t), you have less firepower.

You’ll have to pull energy from the heavens, the earth, and the seven lost worlds.

Resolutions don’t work for the same reason.
The first time you set them, you failed, so the next time you set them (using the same pattern), you’re likely to fail… again.

You have less firepower.
“But, everyone’s setting goals so why shouldn’t I?”
“I still want to stop drinking.” “I still want to make a million dollars”.

If you don’t interrupt the pattern, that’s one hell of a way to experience life.

What is driving your goals?

You see, anything can drive you, hopefully, it’s positive but many ‘successful’ people have attributed their drive to pain, lack, hate, and a sense of inadequacy. We can’t discount them.

I would like to tell you that love, hope, purpose, and a bunch of positive stuff are the only drivers for achieving great things but I would be wrong.

Could it also be ego, culture, competition, or reaching a type of social validation?

What do you want? A house, car, marriage, children, money.

Now those are not bad, they might be your goals. I want them too.

Or if you’re like me — travel the world trying coffee, reading books, debating ideas, and sharing knowledge.

The source of your drive is important. It’ll determine how you feel on your way to achieving your goals, when you achieve them, and after you achieve them.

Now, you don’t want to lose your health or yourself in the pursuit of your goals. Many people have! You also don’t want to sacrifice something you’ll regret later on.

So you need to know, acknowledge, and even channel but more importantly take the lead and not the other way around.

I’ll show you how. For now, let’s keep going.

Now set goals

I know. I know.

I said don’t set goals. And I just gave you a bunch of reasons why.

In fact, there’s a school of thought that says to outrightly stop setting goals and there are cases where it worked but I haven’t seen enough evidence to validate that it’s the best way to go about it.
If I do, you know I’ll write to you.

So far, you still need a North Star.
You just need to do it differently

So now that you’re locked and loaded with the knowledge of the downsides of goal setting, let me show you how to do it like a badass.

What do you want?

If you don’t know what you want, you will be told what you want, and you will believe it”

~ Dan Koe

Friends, family, the internet, and society tell you what you want.

Your past experiences, pains, losses, and prejudices will tell you what you want.

Most people don’t know what they want. It’s the foundation!

If you don’t know what you want, ask yourself:
“Who do I want to become?”

A billionaire with a great family and societal influence?
A business mogul actively supporting climate change causes?
A loving wife, mother, and partner at Kirkland & Ellis?
A best-selling author changing the narrative of racism globally?
An amazing husband, father, and Astronaut?

Who do you want to become?

Think about this on your own, for yourself — with as little influence as you can manage.
The internet can easily be dictating your life. Not like it’s bad but it’s bad if you’re on the wrong side of it!

More than half of those posts and TV stories you see are either false or half-true.

If you were filming, wouldn't you put on your best sides?
People plan their content. They spice things up.
They are trying to make a living or an impression that leads to a specific end.
They’re hardly putting out their worst days. And when they are, there’s a catch.
They need the likes and comments.
There are good ones but scarcely!
Don’t get caught up in it.

And if you were given the option of switching lives with that person whose reels you see on Instagram, you’d most likely say no anyway.

They can inspire you and show you what’s possible but the choice of who you want to become has to be yours.

They don’t have your genes, childhood, or environment. You are unique

You don’t have to get it right but it has to be your choice.

It can change. Things change. We change.

But change has no meaning or impact if you’re not already on a path.

So, what path are you on?

Who you want to become might be more of a dream than a goal but it’s a start. Just know it (and write it down now if you can)

Then ask why.

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

- Friedrich Nietzsche

“Why do I want this?”

To change the landscape of politics in the US so the next generation of citizens can have an easier life?

To raise successful children free of childhood trauma and hurt?

To be the most loving wife or husband to my spouse so that their success is because of me?

To exist in the chronicles of history thousands of years after I’m gone?

To be the light of the life of anyone I come across?

To save the planet from an impending climate disaster?

To die knowing that I lived?

They might feel like billion-dollar questions but if you want the unfiltered joy of pursuit and fulfillment from a streak of success, you have to attempt them.

If your what and who is more like a dream, you’ll need to unsheathe a goal from it.

What is the next achievable step that moves you closer to who you want to become or what you want this year?

It should not be so big that it seems impossible and it should not be too small that it doesn’t challenge you.

For example, if your dream is to be a best-selling author, your goal will be to write a book. Right?

Now you have a Northstar. A what and a why?

So let’s get to the ‘how’ — the four ideas that put you in the top 8%

1. Set An Anti-Goal

It is remarkable how much long-term advantage we have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.

~ Charlie Munger

Do you have the stomach for some neuroscience?

When you visualize a goal, with focus, for some time, your systolic blood pressure increases, and adrenaline is released in your brain.

You need the adrenaline. It gives you the firepower to get into action so this is good — except that goes down just as fast.
However, we can establish that visualizing your goal is useful in moving you to action.

There’s more to it

As published by Emily Belcetis in SAGE Journals and pointed out by Andrew Huberman, visualization is only helpful in getting the goal pursuit started but almost counterproductive in maintaining the pursuit of that goal.

This is because continuous visualization of the goal does not sustainably produce the same effect or adrenaline, physiologically.

So, constantly visualizing your goal is useful in moving you to action at the beginning of pursuit but it’s not the most productive way to stay in pursuit.

Do you know what works better to keep you going? An ANTI-GOAL

Picture this:

Two people set an alarm to wake up at 5 am to work out.

The note on one’s alarm says:
“You’re gonna be as fat as Shrek in 3 months if you don’t wake your a** up”

The note on the other’s alarm says:
“Lose 15 pounds by the end of June”

Who’s getting up first?
You bet!

The Belsetis lab and other labs have found that there’s a near-doubling probability of reaching one’s goal if you focus routinely on visualizing failure.

That’s because the amygdala — the fight or flight part of our brains responsible for fear and anxiety is also one of the four components of the goal-setting and pursuit circuitry in our brains.

And there’s no bypassing that guy (the amygdala) when it comes to setting or pursuing goals.

Think about it.

If you’re running towards something, you’re simultaneously running away from something.

And, as it turns out, the brain and body are much better at moving away from things we fear than moving towards things we want.

It’s why pressure is a key to growth.
You might have been trying to fix a document for 2 months and not get it done. The moment your boss threatens to fire you, the document is ready in 2 hours!
It’s also why the region-beta paradox exists.
We’ll unpack that in another letter.

You don’t have to make your antigoal your obsession but the more detailed you can get about your anti-goal, the more likely it is that your brain and body will respond appropriately to do what it takes to avoid it.

By all means, visualize success, but also, visualize failure (perhaps more often).

2. Set Systems

You have a goal and an anti-goal.

Now you have to prime yourself for success

Where motivation fails, systems stand.

You see, at the point of setting goals, the feeling is great but at the point of getting work done, the feeling can be all sorts of things from good to bad to terrible to who unleashed the nine powers of hell on me!

But it shouldn’t matter if you have systems in place.

You don’t rise to the level of your expectations, you fall to the level of your training

~ Achilocus

Said differently,

You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems

~ James Clear

A system fixes all the downsides that come with goals.

To set up a system, you need to answer four questions

  1. The activity question — What will I do consistently?
  2. The frequency question — How often will I do it?
  3. The reality question — Why am I doing it that way?
  4. The environment question — Where? Or what do I need to ensure that I do it often?

The activity question — what?

What activities lead to achieving that goal?

If you want to be a millionaire, simply ask, what do millionaires do consistently? How do they live their lives?

If you want to be a best-selling author, simply ask, what do best-selling authors do consistently?

They write? Read? Connect with certain types of people?

Put down a list of activities

The frequency question — how often?

You want to be ambitious but realistic.

If you’re writing for example, are you doing it daily or weekly?

800 words a week? Or 30 minutes a day?

Are you measuring in time or in volume and time?

Time is best if you’re just starting out.

If you’re meeting with people, how often will you do it, and for how long?

Spend 30 minutes three times a week connecting with people on Twitter and LinkedIn perhaps?

The reality question — Why?

Why are you engaging in those activities?

Someone else may be performing an activity with a level of success but it might not be optimal for you. Have you looked at the peculiarity of your circumstance?

You might have a 9 to 5 but your role model doesn’t. That’s not trivial.

You can’t just copy and paste.

No one can design a system for you better than YOU.

You’ll have to be real and open to testing methods.

Your why has to validate the activity — that it’s not only right but it’s right for you.

The environment question — where?

Where are you performing these activities?

At home? At work? On the road? At the gym?

What do you need in terms of tools and space?

A gym subscription?

30 minutes when your daughter is not allowed to come into your room?

Compulsory ice cream date booked weekly for your son and his mom so you have space?

A desk? A computer? Subscription to services? A journal?

Take a realistic view of your situation.

You can’t be planning with what you don’t have or what you aspire to have.

So, make sure you’re thinking about what you can afford consistently in terms of time, space, and resources.

Hey mate, can I assume you’re reading this post with a pen and notepad?
It’s a work session.

Everyone that goes to the Olympics wants the gold but not everyone gets it.

So setting a goal can’t be the only determining factor for success.
Work and training are!

A system is YOUR design based on your current circumstance that clearly states the tasks you need to accomplish consistently to reach your goals.

3. Voluntarily face your fears

You have a goal, an anti-goal, and a system.

Now you have to do the thing.

Here’s an essay by Strangest Loop

Preparing to do the thing isn’t doing the thing
Scheduling time to do the thing isn’t doing the thing
Making a to-do list to do the thing isn’t doing the thing
Telling people you’re going to do the thing isn’t doing the thing
Messaging friends who may or may not be doing the thing isn’t doing the thing
Writing a banger tweet about how you’re going to do the thing isn’t doing the thing
Hating on yourself for not doing the thing isn’t doing the thing
Hating on other people who have done the thing isn’t doing the thing
Hating on the obstacle in the way of you doing the thing isn’t doing the thing
Fantasizing about all of the adoration you’ll receive once you do the thing isn’t doing the thing
Reading about how to do the thing isn’t doing the thing
Reading about how other people did the thing isn’t doing the thing
Reading this essay isn’t doing the thing
The only thing that is doing the thing is doing the thing

We are skillful at finding the most inventive ways to not do the thing.

But, we’re not procrastinating because you’re lazy. We’re procrastinating because we’re putting off the negative emotions and psychological discomfort attached to a task.

The feeling of sucking.

The feeling of facing the blank page

The feeling of what people might think when they see your work.

The feeling of not being enough

Procrastination is a coping mechanism.

So, ask yourself, “What psychological discomfort am I avoiding right now?”

There are three ways to deal with the answer to that question.

Gradual exposure

Gradually expose yourself to the monster — the thing you want to do

If you want to start writing, for example, and you just can't get to it, here’s how you can practice gradual exposure.

Day 1 — decide on what to write about.
Don’t write, just decide on a topic and write it down.
That’s not so hard, is it?

Day 2 — create a blank document and give it a title.
Don’t write a body. Just give it a title.

Day 3 — Write the first sentence and no more!

Try a paragraph on day 4

In one week, you’d have written a page of an article you’ve been struggling to write for a year.

Keep it going and you’d have written a book in no time.

The growth you will experience is not incremental. It’s exponential

In a short time, you’d have moved from not writing to always writing.

Clinical psychologists use this to treat phobias. they call it — exposure therapy.

Research shows that when we voluntarily face our fears, the size of the demon does not reduce, it’s our confidence that gets a boost.

Now you can't wait to hit that black page even though you may not know what to write. You start to love the adventure.

Meanwhile, you’re getting smarter.

You can apply this to any goal.

Stop thinking “Just do it”

Start thinking “Just get started”

You may not have what it takes to write like Dan Brown yet, but you damn well have what it takes to start.

The magic you’re looking for is in the work you’re avoiding.

~ Dipen Parmar

What is the tiniest most feasible step you can take to confront the monster as soon as possible? Do that!

Use your anti-goal

As I’ve established. Articulating and visualizing your anti-goal — what will happen if you don’t get to work, can help move you into action

Find people like you — join a community

One of the most effective ways to get started and stay consistently in pursuit is communities.

Joining a group of people in a 100-day challenge got me to start writing consistently. I haven’t stopped since. You can sign up here

I have co-hosted a podcast for two years now but that’s because everyone in the community is doing it.

We are inspiring, helping, and keeping each other accountable.

Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, Slack and Discord communities, Free and paid.

There’s no scarcity of them

Find people like you, going in almost the same direction, and get in the flow with them.

Extra tip — Use effective tools

I put the DJ equipment on the kitchen counter table.
Many times, I’ll be passing to get a snack and I’ll see it there, stop for a minute to play something quick, and just like that, I’ve done 4 hours of DJ practice

~ Steven Bartlet.

Using the right tools or leaving cues in your environment can make it easier for you to do the thing.

Keep a pen and notepad or your laptop by your bed.

Set up calendar reminders.

Put the guitar stand by the TV.

You know?

Finally, let the system reward you

The people who are experts at any skill become experts because they learn how to be rewarded from the work itself.

~ Dr Cashey

You’ll find that the work itself is rewarding.

The fact that you got up when you said you would and spent that 30 minutes writing is rewarding in itself.

It is you stacking up proof that you’re not a sucker — that you come through on things and you keep your promises to yourself.

It is the antidote to goal depression — The feeling of not being there yet or outrightly failing.

Two things happen in goal setting and pursuit.

  1. You achieve the goal. Or not. It’s probable
  2. You become a better person. SOmetine, another person!
    It’s a guarantee.

The pursuit will have changed you.

You’d have become more skilled, consistent, and confident.

In your pursuit, you might discover something better or different from your original goal. Something you’d rather have, so you trash your initial goal. The hell! Why not? Life is an adventure.

Like moving from wanting to become a best-selling author to owning an income-generating YouTube channel.

You might not even want what you think you want so much.
But you don’t know that if you’re not in pursuit!

So when you set the goal and have systems, allow your system to now become the goal.

It’ll lead you through an uncharted path to a realm of fulfillment and abundance.

Thank you for reading this letter


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Olabanji Stephen

I see the world differently and attempt to interpret it in ways that inspire genius