My thinking on goals constantly evolves. They’re important, but can be dangerous. Goals have to be handled with care.

I recently read The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. It was revealing and humbling. I landed on it after reading about Stoicism and “negative thinking.” Definitely worth a read.

A chapter of the book is dedicated to the risks of setting goals. Rather than ask you to read the whole book, I’d invite you to jump over to this article and get the gist. I’ll give you a minute…

I really like this idea of using systems rather than goals. It’s clear to me that if you want to be a writer you should do what writers do. And writers rarely plan to write, they write. There’s more magic in shaping character than in creating checklists. Aim to change who you are and you’ll do the right things.

So should we not set any goals? After struggling with that question for years, here’s what I’ve come to: you should define your distant mountain, patiently try to get closer to it, and do big things along the way.

The Analogy

This goal framework comes from a few sources, but let me make another tortured board game analogy to illustrate how it works. (Remember, I love the board game analogies because they help me think unemotionally, facing business challenges strategically rather than judging myself too harshly.) 

This time I’ll tell you a bit about Lords of Waterdeep, a worker placement game very loosely set in the Dungeons and Dragons universe. It’s one of my favorites.

As with any worker placement game, Waterdeep gives you a certain number of characters who go to certain places on the board to get certain things done. When a round is finished, you gather the little guys and do it again.

In this game, your little guys are out recruiting even littler guys to go on a quest. The different types of littler guys are represented by different colors, and once you recruit the right collection of colored cube dudes, you go on the quest. 

None of that really matters for this analogy. What you need to know is that you have a limited number of little guys and they go get you stuff that helps you complete point-scoring tasks. You can’t put them in every spot so you have to use your team wisely. And you get virtually nothing if you don’t place them with an eye to some short-term gains but you’ll win through long-term bonuses.

What does this have to do with you and me? We have to shorten or horizon and use our limited resources to complete big things quickly. And we need to simultaneously move toward the long term.

There are two ways to get points as you go through Waterdeep: completing quests using the right combo of tiny dude cubes, and gaining bonuses at the end of the game if you’ve completed the right quests. So, you’ll score points in the short term while also looking to the long term. This is how we need to think.

Win Points Now

First, let’s think about the short term wins. I’d suggest reading The 12 Week Year by Brian Moran and Michael Lennington. In it, Moran argues that we need to stop having these huge year end production goals because people ignore them until they have to pay attention. Productivity in every business goes up as fiscal years end, and Moran believes you can constantly have that level of productivity if you take big goals and squeeze them into a quarter rather than a year.

This is a level of focus few attorneys cultivate because we think so overwhelmingly in terms of days and weeks. But think about the results. Moran is talking about big things, like writing a book or developing a new product. How many times have you thought about doing something like that, or even set a goal to do it, then let it sit in the back of your mind making you feel terrible about yourself?

Instead, get those quests done as quickly as you can. I don’t know if that changes them from “goals” to just “work,” but I really don’t care about the terminology. I care about what we’ll actually get done.

The book makes it clear that the things we get done have to be big. In Waterdeep, you get nothing for just placing your guy and picking up a tiny colored cube. You have to collect efforts to complete something bigger. Moran just wants you to do it quickly so you’ll actually finish.

I believe in this so much that I’ve stretched the analogy further and defined some quests for my firm and the rewards that come from completing them. I’ve identified more than I can realistically do, but I can focus on one of them at a time and see how the board changes before picking which quest I’ll work on next.

The rewards are all tied to completion of a specific big task. I don’t want to have a vague “we should go to Florida to see my wife’s family” goal anymore. That’s depressing because it never happens and we just feel guilty. With this quest completion framework, I do a big thing and I get a big result. It’s that simple.

This reminds me of a great article Jordan Furlong shared recently called The Tyranny of Convenience. In it, Columbia law prof Tim Wu worries that we’re always looking for day-to-day mastery rather than seeking to do big things.

Here’s the money line: “At some point, life’s defining struggle becomes the tyranny of tiny chores and petty decisions.”

Holy dang. Let that sit for a second.

How often is this you? How much of your day is spent on the mundane, the distracting, and the convenient? For me, this is so real.

Publish, friends. Make something. Build assets. Put the daily affairs in their place and don’t let them define you. You have so much more to offer.

Win The Game

Which gets me to the distant mountain. This is the big game perspective. It’s the end of the game of Waterdeep when you see that you not only completed quests, but you completed the types of quests that fit your character’s needs. This gets you the bonus points. 

The distant mountain idea came from Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech at the University of the Arts. That’s a worthy watch if you haven’t seen it.

In short, Gaiman says you have to have a distant landmark to inch closer to. Some work you do will barely get you closer and some will be a big leap. But the distant reference point helps you gauge whether you’re getting closer or farther away and still have room to adjust accordingly.

Some of that is measured in terms of time. Gaiman gave the example of an editing job he was offered. His distant mountain was to become a writer of novels, comic books, and movies. By the time he received the editing job offer, he’d already written a novel. Before the novel, he’d have accepted that job offer, but at the time he got the call, taking the job would have been a step backward. So he said no.

Honestly, reaching the distant mountain probably isn’t necessary for happiness. Habits lead to happiness, and the mountain helps keep our days in perspective so we’re patient as habits develop.

What Will Your Wins Be?

My piece of advice from this exploration of goals: define a bunch of big things you could do in a 12 week period (your quests) and the big reward you’ll give yourself for getting them done. Then prioritize those quests in terms of which will get you closer to the distant mountain bonus points. Once you do that, schedule one for next quarter.

This combination of short horizon quests based on endgame bonuses may be the best goal-setting formula I’ve seen. I hope it helps.