How to Set Sustainable Goals (So You Finally Enjoy the Ride)

In 2016, Seth Godin published a new book. But instead of trying to sell as many books as possible, Godin took an unconventional approach.

“I only printed 5,500 copies of the book, and I’m not going to print any more,” Godin explained in an interview. “That’s all there is. By having that be all there is, I’m not promoting the book. I’m not hawking the book…When it’s gone, it’s gone. And that’s so freeing!”

Instead of optimizing the launch to increase his earning potential, Godin chose to optimize for what he cared about most. In this way, he got to maximize the things that gave him energy (making the book he wanted to make,) while minimizing the things that drained him (promoting the book.)

The Dangers of Infinite Upside

Most things in life have an infinite upside, where there’s always more you can do.

You can always choose to exercise more, work more, travel more, or in Seth Godin’s case, sell more books.

When there’s no upper limit to what you could do, how do you figure out when you’ve done enough?

Without addressing the idea of “enough,” two pitfalls show up.

  1. Dissatisfaction: You never feel like you’ve done enough.
  2. Burnout: Because you push yourself too hard.

(Or both…)

But if you take the time to define what “enough” looks like, you can avoid both of these potential roadblocks.

Two Key Elements for Sustainable Growth

Defining “enough” breaks down into two parts, a Base Goal, and a Goal Ceiling.

Base Goals are the minimum you need to do to feel good about making consistent progress towards the thing you care about. (e.g. I intend to work out 3 days/week. If I do this, I know that I’m making the type of progress I want!)

Defining a base goal gives you a target for “enough,” and a way to combat dissatisfaction.

Feeling satisfied with your Base Goal requires that you consider the big picture of what you’re trying to do, have patience, and believe in the power of marginal gains. After all, the best way to make progress at something is to keep working at it consistently over time.

Goal Ceilings are the upper limit of what you’ll put into something. (e.g. I will not work out more than 5 days/week.)

Goal Ceilings give you something to stretch for. And they address the “infinite upside” challenge.

You could spend more time working out each week. But is that in line with your priorities?

You could put in more hours in the office every day. But does that align with what’s most important to you in life?

Maybe it does, and maybe it doesn’t.

But without defining it for yourself, you’ll be left with the stressful thought of “Am I doing enough?”

Defining “enough” means you won’t overextend yourself during the good times, which means you’ll be more likely to prosper during more challenging times.

Limiting Your Upside Leads to Sustainable Growth

Limiting your upside is all about creating sustainable growth for the long-term picture.

Many people have been putting this principle to work for years, across a range of topics.

  • Nutrition: Eating health-promoting foods is a smart move for your wellbeing. But never giving yourself permission to indulge can create feelings of deprivation by not doing it, or feelings of guilt when you do stray from your guidelines. I combat this by defining a goal ceiling of no more than 6 days of clean eating every week. Every weekend, I get the chance to indulge, which is enjoyable in the short-term, and gets me re-invested in eating well the day after. (HT Tim Ferriss’ Slow-Carb Diet for the idea.)
  • Business: As Jim Collins explains in his book Great by Choice, in the late 1990’s, Southwest Airlines had the opportunity to expand to dozens of new markets. But instead of proceeding full steam ahead to make more money, Southwest acted intentionally, only expanding to 4 new markets in 1996. In doing this, they optimized for sustainable growth, and optimized for what mattered most to them: creating a great customer experience and maintaining control of their corporate culture.
  • Personal Finance: A common investing mistake letting emotional fantasies about “striking it big” take hold. Instead of continually shooting for infinite upside, you can put a cap on certain investments to limit your risk. (e.g. If this investment returns X% in X time period, I will sell it, and wait until the next time period to reinvest somewhere new.)
  • Fitness: Athletes don’t spend every waking hour training. Every training schedule includes activity and recovery. Limiting the number of training days, or time training each day, helps prevent injury by ensuring proper recovery.

Find Your Growth Zone

With all that in mind, it’s worth asking: what are you Optimizing for in life?

I can’t answer that question for you. But if you’re like me, you’re optimizing for

  • Growth: Because you want to become the best version of yourself
  • Contribution: Because you want to give more to others
  • Enjoyment: So you can enjoy the ride and continue growing and giving in a sustainable way

Putting this principle into action can be a huge win for all three of those.

Here are a few steps you can use to approach limiting your upside and setting sustainable goals.

  1. Stay aware of areas in your life with “unlimited ceilings” that cause stress or dissatisfaction. This could be with work, fitness, nutrition, social activities, or any part of life.
  2. Pick an area to address. Which area is causing you the greatest amount of stress? Start there.
  3. Define a Base Goal. What’s the minimum amount of time/energy/money you need to invest to make satisfactory progress towards your long-term goal every day/week/month? (Be reasonable here. This isn’t about the *perfect* scenario. It’s about the reality of what inputs help you make forward progress.)
  4. Define a Goal Ceiling. What’s the maximum that you’re able to invest each time period to avoid burnout, and  maintain balance with your other priorities in life?
  5. Move forward sustainably, knowing that you’re doing enough, and not pushing yourself over the limit.

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