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If you flip through the self-help section of the bookstore, you will see several books focused on setting goals and achieving them. How can we set effective goals? How can we make consistent progress toward our goals? Goals, goals, goals.

Goals Can Be Tricky

Goals aren’t a bad thing. But they can be tricky. One problem with goals is that they shift our focus from the process to the outcome. We are focused on the goal we are trying to achieve. Whatever our goal is (e.g., lose 20 pounds, get married, buy a new car), the focus is on the outcome.

Achieving Goals Can Let You Down

The problem with focusing on the outcome is that once we get it, there is a natural let down. Maybe you have had this experience in your own life. You have a big goal in front of you, and all your time and energy is focused on that goal. When you achieve the goal, you enjoy it for a short time, but then the positive feelings fade away quickly, and you’re left with empty space. It’s actually pretty common to experience a sense of letdown (or even depression) following the achievement of a big goal.

Values vs. Goals

The alternative to having a focus on goals is to have a focus on values. Values are defined as directions of committed action. We never “achieve” our values, but we can engage in actions that are in line with our values over the course of our entire life.

Life as a Journey

This definition of values might still seem a little murky and vague, so let me use a metaphor that has helped me differentiate between values and goals. Let’s say you are on a long journey. Maybe you’re on a backpacking trip and want to see the world. Values set the direction you are heading—for example, maybe you want to head east. You can keep heading east for the entire journey—you never “arrive” at east. Goals, on the other hand, are specific points along the way. Maybe you see a mountain in the distance, and you would like to get to the top of the mountain peak. That’s a goal—you can get to the top of the mountain peak and be done with it.

Concrete Examples

Here are some examples that can help make the difference between values and goals more concrete. Living a healthy lifestyle is a value. Losing 20 pounds is a goal. Loving your partner is a value. Affirming your partner once per day is a goal. Doing meaningful work is a value. Publishing a book is a goal.

Develop a Healthy Relationship with Values and Goals

Let’s return to the journey metaphor, because I think it can help us develop a healthy relationship with values and goals. Remember, the journey is a metaphor for your life. If your main focus in life was to get to the top of the mountain peak, you could see how you might experience a letdown once you got there. You made it to the top, but you’re not dead yet. What now?

However, let’s say your focus in life is on traveling east. This never really ends. You can travel east your entire life. The goal of getting to the top of the mountain peak can help you in your journey east, as long as the goal is kept in perspective. It can be helpful to pick out a point in the distance to journey toward, because it can keep you heading east. But the point of the journey isn’t to get to whatever landmark you have picked in the distance. The point of the journey is to keep heading east.

In the same way, the point of life is to engage in committed action in the service of our values—over the course of our entire life. The point isn’t to achieve some specific goal. However, setting a goal can help us to keep heading east, as long as the goal is kept in perspective.

Discussion: What do you think of the difference between values and goals? Which do you focus on more in your life: values or goals? What is one goal you are striving toward right now? What is the key value underlying that goal?