The Master Choice: The Dichotomy of Goals and Purpose
Updated: Nov 16
The conversation around goals is a familiar one to all of us. You can read up endlessly on tips and tricks for creating realistic goals, identifying short-term versus long-term goals, measuring goals and pretty much anything else having to do with goals.
This conversation is important because goals are a necessary aspect of our lives, both personally and professionally, and because goals can sometimes prove to be more difficult to achieve than we would like. Accomplishing our goals can require a lot of effort from multiple people. It can also take a big leap in consciousness — a belief in our abilities when we haven’t yet proven to ourselves that we are able.
I’m sure you’ve experienced the following scenario: You have a goal and it’s a really good goal. It’ll definitely, for sure, get you where you want to go. You’ve planned it out. You have checklists written and ready to be checked off. And yet, you just can’t do it. You can’t follow through on one part or another of the goal and it doesn’t get done. Or maybe this one sounds familiar: You’re working long hours. You’re putting in maximum effort and checking everything off your list, but you’re feeling empty. Unfulfilled. You’re not really getting where you want to go. You feel like a mouse in a wheel, moving fast but getting nowhere.
What a lot of goals are missing is the purpose behind them. A goal is really just a tool in service to a purpose! It’s measurable. It can be checked off a checklist. It’s where you’re going. The purpose is why you’re going there - not what you’re getting done, but what’s on the other side of that.
I refer to the dichotomy between goals and purpose as “the master choice” because in my experience, starting with purpose has the highest correlation to success, indispensability and personal fulfillment. At work, you may have to achieve goals that relate to customer satisfaction, sales and project target dates. At home, you might have goals like maintaining a clean household, nurturing important relationships or making healthy choices. And while establishing goals and metrics is vital for accomplishing all that we want, for getting where we want to go and for achieving success, by themselves goals, will have us busying ourselves unnecessarily or feeling stuck and overwhelmed - all while missing the mark on what we really want.
We experience this as customers when speaking with a customer service representative who completes their script to the tee but doesn’t really help and leaves us frustrated. In an office setting, you might be told to accomplish one thing while being pressured to focus on other things, some of which are even counterproductive to your first goal. I once consulted for a manufacturing company whose number one goal was safety. They had signs everywhere saying, “Safety is our priority.” Everyone attended regular safety trainings. And yet the organization had an abysmal safety record. These are all examples of goals without a purpose behind them.
To illustrate how this can play out, let’s use an example I’m sure we’re all familiar with: Laundry.
My daughter shared with me recently that she used to get stuck in the process of doing her laundry. She couldn’t make herself fold her clothes once they were out of the dryer. She’d keep a pile of clean, unfolded laundry on her bed until she needed to sleep, at which point she’d move the pile to the top of her dresser. When she needed to find something to wear, she’d move the pile back to her bed to go through it. She’d often do this, moving the pile back and forth, for over a week! She felt frustrated and annoyed with herself, but couldn’t seem to change the habit. So what’s going on here? Let’s break it down.
When we’re doing laundry, what’s the goal?
Clean my clothes, dry them and put them back where they belong.
What’s the purpose?
Have clean clothes to wear in the upcoming week.
When we look at just the goal, it’s a mystery as to why my daughter wouldn’t fold her clothes. It clearly says, right there in the goal, to put the clothes back where they belong. But when we look at the purpose, we find the answer is clear as day. The purpose is to have clean clothes to wear. Once they came out of the dryer, the clothes were clean and ready to be worn. She had accomplished her purpose even though she had not accomplished her goal. For my daughter, there was no reason to continue with the goal when the purpose was complete.
A goal by itself often does not inspire the energy required to get it done, which is one reason the purpose is so important. My daughter completely changed her habit when she came up with two additional purposes to fuel her goal: to have a bedroom clear of clutter and to avoid getting wrinkles in her clothes. Now, without fail, she puts her clothes away right out of the dryer.
Perhaps you’ve also been in a situation where you’re metaphorically doing laundry too often, every day maybe. You’re checking it off the list, calling yourself productive, all the while feeling like you’re getting nowhere. This happens when we make the goal more important than the purpose. When the purpose is complete, the goal becomes obsolete and should be let go in service to new goals and new purposes. Remember, the goal is a tool in service to the purpose. There’s no use in washing your clothes if they’re already clean.
So you can see here very clearly how a goal is simply not enough. It is the purpose behind a goal that is its driving force and without it, we’re just running around, busying ourselves, without a clear sense of why we’re doing anything. This leads to us missing important things and makes us feel exhausted and like we’re unable to catch up.
What’s your purpose?