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Setting goals in life is important. Goals help you choose a direction and start moving. They help you focus on what is important. Setting big goals can help you achieve big things. But there is also a downside to goals, if you choose the wrong ones you can set yourself up for disappointment.

Is it under your control?

There are three levels of control–

  1. Completely out of your control.
  2. Partially under your control.
  3. Completely under your control.

To effectively achieve your goals, they must be completely under your control. Choosing a goal that isn’t completely under your control means that the goal may be unachievable. You could do everything in your power and still fail to achieve the goal because of other variables.

Let’s discuss each of the level of controls in relation to goals.

Completely out of your control

These are things you have no influence over. Because of this, you should also expend zero energy towards them. You can’t change them so there is no point worrying about them. Things that are out of your control can’t be goals. Such things would include the weather, traffic jams, and changes in the economy.

Partially in your control

Next are the things that you have some influence over but not completely. You have the ability to influence the outcome but there are also other variables involved. Some of the things in this category are the things we care most about including finding a job, getting married, getting into college, and not getting sick. We can affect all of these things but can’t completely control them.

You have the ability to apply for a job, prepare well, and have all of the right qualifications. But the final decision depends on other things like the company and the number and quality of the applicants. Things you care about but don’t have complete control over are often the most frustrating. You can work hard but are unable to control the final outcome.

Completely in your control

Finally, are the things that are completely in your control. These are the easiest to set as goals and succeed at because the outcome depends entirely on you. The harder you work, the better the results. Things completely in your control are usually based on choice– what to eat, how you dress, how you react to a situation, and, for the most part, where you live.

Things completely in your control are less stressful because you have the ability to choose the outcome. The important part is to realize that you do have the ability. For example, I have spoken to many people who feel they have no choice but to live where they were born even though the conditions may not be ideal. And while there are some exceptions, moving to another town, state, or even country is less difficult than those people think.

With complete control comes complete responsibility. If you want to choose how to live your life, you have to be willing to take responsibility. Don’t move things into the “partial control” or “no control” category when you have complete control over the outcome.

Gaining control when you have only partial control (Internalizing Goals)

Trying your best and failing is frustrating. The frustration is higher when you can’t control the outcome. No one wants to work hard on a project only to have it fail because team members didn’t do any work. So the question is how can you set achievable goals when you don’t have complete control over the outcome? Alter your goal so you have complete control over the outcome.

Take a look at the examples below to see how partial control goals are turned into complete control goals.

  • Partial control– Get hired at a top-tier company (you have little control over who views your resume and whether you are selected.)
  • Complete control- Submit two quality applications per day, practice interviews, and join the local chamber of commerce. (This goal is completely in your control to achieve)
  • Partial control-Sleep 8 hours everyday (sleep is something that is difficult to control, especially when stress is involved)
  • Complete control– Stop watching TV or using the computer by 9pm and go to bed by 10pm every night. (Controlling sleep is difficult, choosing when to go to bed is easy)
  • Partial control– Be the #1 skier in the world (You don’t have the ability to control the other skiers or their ability)
  • Complete control– Create a 6 day training regiment based on continuous improvement for technique and speed, and stick to it relentlessly. (This goal focuses on your ability and improvement which is under your control)

Notice that the results for the above scenarios will often be the same. Submitting quality applications and practicing interviews is likely to get your a job. Going to bed earlier will help you sleep longer. The difference is in your achievement.

When your goal is getting hired, you feel that you have failed when you don’t hear back from the companies you applied for or are turned down after interviewing. When your goal is to submit a specific number of applications each day, you have complete control over the outcome. Continually achieving your goal brings confidence and reward. You will be more likely to continue. This is especially true when you are trying to turn something into a habit.

Long term success and happiness

As mentioned above, setting goals is important to achieve the things you care about. Choosing the right goals, the ones you can control, will keep you more successful and reduce disappointment and frustration. Your success in reaching your goals will grow your confidence to choose bigger goals.

I can’t control how many people will read this article. If I base my goal around that concept I may give up writing if I don’t hit the right number of views. If my focus is instead to write quality content each week, I am more likely to continue.

Focus on making the uncontrollable controllable. When you focus on things you can control, there is less frustration.

Check out A Guide to the Good Life and for more information on internalizing goals. Also check out Atomic Habits which focuses on systems and habits for achievement rather than general goals.