The number one piece of advice you’ll find about setting goals is to make your goal specific. I’ve given the advice myself, and for the most part, I stand by it.
But looking back at the goals I’ve set in the past year, I can’t help but notice that the most successes and positive changes are the result of vague goals.
Vague Goals And Why They Are (Usually) Bad
To accomplish a thing, you need to know what, exactly, you are trying to accomplish. As David Allen says, you need to know what success looks like.
‘Lose Weight.’ ‘Run Faster.’ These are vague goals.
They have no endpoint. You can never accomplish them. They can never be done. You can never declare victory.
And goals you can never accomplish can be frustrating.
Setting Vague Goals
The past few years, I haven’t set New Year’s resolutions (as such). I’ve completed what I call an intention planner.
These aren’t specific goals or resolutions, but are instead a way for me to think about what I want to focus on in the year to come.
Most of these items are vague goals.
What I’ve come to realize is not all goals have a finish line, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In my experience, setting vague goals can be good because:
They Avoid Setting Arbitrary End Points
Sometimes, creating a specific end result for an otherwise vague goal (for the sole purpose of making it specific), can make it less likely you’ll make progress.
For example: ‘Eat better’ is a vague goal. ‘Lose 10 pounds’ could be a specific version of that same goal.
But, depending on your priorities, it could be a forced (and false) way to define the goal.
Personally, I’m not all that concerned about my weight, so losing 10 pounds isn’t something I’ll likely change my lifestyle for. Forcing the goal to be specific would make me care less about it.
You’ll Never Finish, But You’ll Also Never Fail
The upside of specific goals is you know when you are done. However, you also know when you aren’t done. You know when you fail.
Failing, falling short, or not accomplishing a specific goal can be demoralizing.
If my specific goal is to eat no more than X grams of processed sugar, and I cave one day and eat a cupcake (I’m using that example purely hypothetically, of course), it would be easy for me to fall into the mindset of having failed. Thinking ‘I may as well give up on my goal now,’ either for the rest of the day, month, or forever.
But if the goal is vague (‘eat better’), there is never a point where I can write off the goal as failed.
Each choice is a new chance to eat better. One cupcake won’t derail the entire goal.
They Provide Guidance Without Being Too Prescriptive
Life happens. We all have to figure out how to mesh our goals and our lives.
If your goal is to lose 10 pounds, but then you take a family vacation to Italy, you have to make decisions. Do you treat yourself? Give yourself a pass on your goals for the week? Stick to the plan and deny yourself amazing Italian food?
Vague goals, on the other hand, give you guidelines and a framework for decision-making, not hard-line do/don’t requirements.
You can go on vacation, have an amazing trip, eat wonderful food, and still eat better.
They Can Create Broader Positive Impacts Than You May Have Intended
I first started thinking about positive vague goals when I read an article about how the best goal the writer ever made was ‘do your best’ (I think it was in Inc. magazine, but I couldn’t find the article again, so, unfortunately, I can’t credit the author).
This is the vaguest goal imaginable but it’s also a standard that can be applied to everything. I tried it myself and noticed an immediate uptick in what I accomplished in work, in fitness, in diet, in everything.
A specific goal will ensure you make progress in that specific area, but vaguer goals will often have impacts well beyond what you planned.
For example, a vague goal of ‘eating better’ would likely lead to not only weight loss, but also to a raft of other health benefits you aren’t even aware of.
They Help You Focus On Who You Are, Not Just What You Do
I read an article from James Clear about setting goals that are identity-based, not action based (‘I’m not a person who eats sugar’ not ‘I won’t eat sugar’). This idea is in line with the benefits of setting vague goals.
I’ve found vague goals to be most useful when making lifestyle changes since they help you focus on (and change) who you are, not just what you do.
If my goal is to lose 10 pounds, and I accomplish that goal (yeah!) Then what? Knowing me, I’d take my eyes off the ball, and I’d go back to my old diet (likely gaining weight in the process). Specific goals imply there is a point at which you are done.
But ‘eat better’ is a set of choices that I can make forever. It’s a lifestyle change, not just a goal. I don’t ever want to be done.
What ‘eat better’ means will change (and hopefully improve) as time passes, but there will never come a time when I need to renegotiate or reset the goal.
I still think you should set mostly set specific, accomplishable goals, but don’t discount a goal just because it’s vague.