The Trap of Ambitious Goals

“Build a 1 million dollar company by age 30”

This goal has been sitting on my goals list for at least 5 years now. Today, I’m just a couple of months away from turning 30, and the chance to make that goal happen before my 30th birthday is the same as my chance to win the lottery. However, I never bought a lottery ticket, so basically you can say my chance is zero.

There is nothing wrong with setting big goals to yourself, it even may feel insulting to your ego to set small goals. Have you ever thought to yourself: “I want $1000 MRR” and then thought: “Man, that’s easy, dream big!”. “Maybe I should aim for a $100k company? Meh, not ambitious enough.”

The danger in ambitious goals, especially for a procrastinator like myself, is not that the goals are so big, but the fact that they take a long time to achieve. Building a 1m dollar company doesn’t happen in a span of weeks or months. We are talking about 3+ years in the most optimistic scenario. To back this with some facts here is the result of a study from 2014 by Forbes*:

“of the 10,000 respondents, only two individuals had successfully created companies with $1 million in revenue in less than a year. For the vast majority — 62.65% of them, in fact — it occurred only after they’d been in the entrepreneurial game (whether at the same company or multiple) for 11 years or more.”

For a procrastinator, this is the ideal environment for procrastination. 11 years? Ah okay, I have time. Like anything with a deadline, you will always think you have enough time to start tomorrow, and tomorrow you still have time to start the day after. The year ends, you get frustrated. You write that goal again for your new year’s resolution and the same cycle starts again and keeps repeating itself. This is the trap of ambitious goals. You think you are doing yourself a favor by dreaming big and being different from others who have such low expectations in life. You want to be different, unique, you want to be the next Steve Jobs or Elon Musk and leave your mark on the world.

Well, this is what I was dreaming of at least. My big goals were filling me with energy and making me feel like I can conquer the world. I will do, I will build, I will do this and will do that. Mmm, but not today, today I have to finish the thing for work. I will start tomorrow, and tomorrow never came.

Micro Goals

To get out of the ambitious goals trap, we need to bring the deadline closer and make our goal more tangible. In my case I replaced “build a 1m company” with “get 1 paying customer”. I choose this goal not because it’s easier and now I can feel better about myself. But because it’s fundamental, whatever idea or business I’m working on if it can’t get me just 1 paying customer, how the hell am I supposed to build a 1m dollar company out of it? I can worry about growth later but for now, I need to worry about one single customer. If I can’t get one customer then there is something fundamentally wrong, either with me or the business, and it’s a sign that something needs to be changed. So, micro goals not only easier to wrap your head around but will also help validate the idea faster.

Still, micro-goals alone are not enough. If I set a 1-month deadline for my micro-goal, for my brain one month is still a long time, I will probably procrastinate again! Let’s take a step back, and remember why we procrastinate in the first place:

  1. We think we have enough time.
  2. The current task makes us anxious or uncomfortable.
  3. Fear of failure.
  4. Absence of structure.

Having micro-goals with a deadline only takes care of the first issue. To overcome the 3 others, we need structure, something easy and fun to start with. In other words, we need a system of micro-actions.

If you’ve added an idea to your list of ideas, I assume you have some sort of motivation and excitement about it. But most of the time the first step is the hardest, check this out:

Motivation + Excitement > Current obstacle + Fear + Anxiety

If this equation returns False, there is a good chance you will never start. Your mission is to break down the right side of this equation so it returns True at all times.

The Plateau of Latent Potential

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear said:

“We often expect progress to be linear. At the very least, we hope it will come quickly. In reality, the results of our efforts are often delayed. It is not until months or years later that we realize the true value of the previous work we have done. This can result in a “valley of disappointment” where people feel discouraged after putting in weeks or months of hard work without experiencing any results. However, this work was not wasted. It was simply being stored. It is not until much later that the full value of previous efforts is revealed.”

This is so true, his words left me thinking, how does this align with the trap of ambitious goals? James suggests that to survive the Plateau of Latent Potential you need to stick long enough with your habits by focusing on your system instead of the goal. And a big part of this book is about building a system, but we will talk about that in other chapters. For now, I want you to check out this graph:

A modified version of James graph from Atomic Habits

You can see that the more ambitious your goal is, the bigger the Valley of Disappointment. The purpose of micro-goal is to shrink that valley and maximize your chances of reaching your goal before the disappointment peaks and, as a result, you procrastinate and eventually give up.

Here is a real-life example when I was trying to validate an idea for a newsletter, I never built a newsletter before. An ambitious goal would be: “Get 1000 subscribers in one month”, That’s around 34 subscribers a day. With every day I don’t manage to hit this number my disappointment would grow bigger and bigger. After a week I either realize I wasn’t realistic and adjust my goal or worse, I decide that the idea is not worth pursuing and just let it go.

So instead of chasing the shiny goal, I decided to break things down and make it easier for myself to start:

Day 1: create Lean Canvas (30 mins)

Day 2 : create a basic free landing page on Mailchimp (1 hour)

Day 3 : connect landing page to a custom domain (30 mins)

Day 4 : Post on Reddit and Quora (1 hour)

Day 5 : Talk to ppl and get feedback (1 hour)

Day 6: Revisit the canvas and make a decision (1 hour)

Day 7: Repeat step 4 to get more feedback (1 hour)

The tasks are simple and easy and you can probably do them all in one day. But I highly encourage you not to. The reasons I moved away from the do-everything-in-1-day approach are:

  1. I can validate multiple ideas at the same time
  2. When I focus on 1 idea I tend to forget about other things and I get attached to that idea.
  3. I avoid spending so much time on my computer and feel burned out after the first week
  4. It tests my motivation. If after the first day I’m not excited anymore then maybe I shouldn’t be working on that idea

Parkinson's law of triviality

Image by @jackbutcher

If you never heard of this law before it simply says: “The amount of discussion is inversely proportional to the complexity of the topic that has been around for a long time.” 

Parkinson provides the example of a fictional committee whose job was to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant spending the majority of its time on discussions about relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed, while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself, which is far more important and a far more difficult and complex task.

While you may use micro-goals to avoid the trap of ambitious goals, you could find yourself falling into another one. I saw many developers, makers and Indiehackers fall into this new trap (me included). Let’s take the newsletter from above as an example: Since I never built a newsletter before, the first thing I asked myself: “what email service should I use? Mailchimp? ConvertKit? Emailoctopus?”. 

I won’t lie, I spent some time trying to figure out which one of these is perfect for me before I realized what I was doing. It’s the trap of triviality, we tend to spend most of our time trying to figure out answers to the least important questions. I’m sure you did this before or at least saw hundreds of developers over the internet asking questions like: “I want to build X, should I use React or Vue?”. Instead of using the skills they already know, most of the time whatever technology you use is irrelevant to the problem you are trying to solve.

This is another form of procrastination, procrastination is not the absence of activity, it is the absence of meaningful progress. Think of it like a treadmill, you are still moving but you are not getting anywhere.

To sum things up, switching from ambitious goals to micro-goals help you create a balance between expectations and actions. To make any meaningful progress you need a clear destination (micro-goal), a set of steps to get there (micro-actions) and very importantly, the right direction to go (law of triviality). 

Instead of having a very far finish line you can barely see, break it down to closer ones that you have some sense of, to keep you motivated and moving forward in the right direction, maybe not as fast as you want yet. But at least you are moving, and if you are patient enough the snowball effect will kick in and procrastination will be history.

📕 This chapter is part of my upcoming book “TL;DR — a book about productivity by a procrastination master”. If you enjoyed this one, check out the book main page.