I am not a productivity coach. I don’t even like the concept of a productivity coach. I’m also not a mental health coach, although I am successfully managing mental illness, and I assure anyone dealing with depression, mania, or anxiety right now, that you matter. Things can and will get better.

I haven’t written much about mental health since I rebooted my blog. Today, I want to talk about how goals affect our state of mind.

I think people misunderstand the purpose of goal-setting. Productivity articles suggest that you should set SMART goals yet they cant even agree on what the acronym means. Here are some definitions from the top five search results for “Smart Goals”:

  • S
    • Specific
    • Significant
    • Stretching
    • Strategic
    • Simple
    • Sensible
  • M
    • Measurable
    • Meaningful
    • Motivating
  • A
    • Achievable
    • Attainable
    • Agreed upon
    • Acceptable
    • Actionable
    • Ambitious
    • Aligned
  • R
    • Realistic
    • Relevant
    • Reasonable
    • Results-based
    • Rewarding
  • T
    • Timely
    • Time-bound
    • Tangible
    • Trackable
    • Testable

Those are all noble adjectives, but SMART goals are clearly not specific, motivating, agreed upon, relevant, or tangible. Other unfortunate letters of the alphabet could have as much or more to say on the topic! The advice in all the articles on SMART goals is valuable, but I think it’s not enough.

What is the ultimate purpose of setting goals? That’s another ambiguous list. Most authors suggest that goals help you be:

  • successful
  • productive
  • effective
  • efficient
  • in control
  • accomplished

Again, there is a common theme here, but it’s only partially accurate.

Goals should make you happy. It’s that simple.

Yes, most people are happier when they feel productive and successful. But too many people set goals that ultimately make them feel miserable.

If goals don’t make you happy, they should at least not make you unhappy. Missing a goal should not be demotivating or depressing.

A key technique is to make non-binary goals. Create a range of successful outcomes. For example, I try to write between 400 and 1000 words on my book every day. I usually shoot for 1000 and miss, but that’s great, because I often end up in the 500-800 word range. it’s above my lower bound, and I feel like I achieved something.

I also have longer term goals, like 4000-6000 words per week. That is an average of 500-800 words per day. My daily range aligns well with that.

I want to finish the first draft sometime in February. That’s another range (Somewhere between February 1 and 28). It also aligns well with the weekly arrangement. I know about how long the book will be, and 4000-6000 words per week should have me finished sometime in February.

I also have a non-binary goal on how many days I spend writing each week: 5 to 7 days. It’s ok to miss a day here and there. I don’t whole-heartedly believe in the Seinfeld method. Breaking a streak is demotivating and fails in the ultimate purpose: to make me feel happy.

One thing I agree with from the SMART rhetoric is that goals should be measurable. If you can’t definitively say when you’ve achieved it, the goal failed you. Any decent measurement can be changed to a range goal. If it can’t, it’s too binary of a measurement in the first place.

The hardest part is making sure that you emotionally identify with the lower bound. If your goal is 3-5 hours of exercise per week, but you only feel successful at 5 hours, it’s not a true range goal. Part of the solution here is tweaking the goal ranges so the maximum is challenging but achievable and the minimum feels like an achievement. However, it’s also important to retrain your brain and emotions to think in a non-binary way. Not thinking in black and white is beneficial in all parts of your life, and range goals can help you practice it.

Your achievement has to feel personally meaningful to you. Otherwise it won’t actually improve your happiness. This is partially a matter of taking the time out of your day to acknowledge your accomplishments. But you also need to be setting the kinds of goals that resonate with your emotional well-being. If your goal is to meet a work deadline because your boss told you to, it’s not going to be that meaningful. If your goal is to meet the deadline because you value your boss’s opinion, or because you are looking forward to a promotion, or because you really believe in the company and its success, then it’s going to feel good when you accomplish it. You aren’t going to feel motivated by the fear of being fired, so it’s better to feel invested in the success of paying the rent.

Finally, while happiness should be the point of having goals, it shouldn’t be a goal. Too many people have the unrewarding belief that if they are not delighted, then they are unhappy. Happiness benefits from non-binary thinking, too. Sometimes it’s ok to be unhappy. More importantly, if you’re 75% happy, that’s a pretty good day.