What’s wrong with me? I should be ecstatic, filled with the joy of achievement. But this is just… anticlimactic.
After six years of med school plus another six of residency, I had achieved the greatest goal of my medical career. The Board Exam is the most important and most difficult hurdle for any German physician — by a mile. I gave it my best, passed with compliments from the chair, but still felt non-plussed.
I finally have it! The title, the perks, the big contract… things I’ve dreamed of for so long. So why am I not floating on air? Is this how the midlife crisis begins?
Nope. It’s just PGAD: post-goal-achievement disorder.
This article is for highly-driven, slightly-obsessed productivity nerds like myself. If setting goals and chasing them is working just fine for you, skip it. Stick to your existing method and be happy you’ve found one that works.
But if you’re thinking, There has to be a better way of doing things, then this framework might spare you some sleepless nights.
Here’s what you will learn:
- How to stop thinking of goals as something you reach. We’ll make the struggle so enjoyable, you will wish it would never end.
- How to stop obsessing over resolutions, milestones, and performance indices. We will introduce a way of going from wishful thinking to actually making things happen.
- How to minimize your frustration in the short term and maximize your happiness & success in the long term.
Ready for a life-changing shift in perspective? Then grab a pen and paper, we’re going old-school on this one.
The PMS you will begin to love
Our new framework consists of Projects, Markers, and Systems. Let’s look at each one and see how you can apply them to improve your life.
Replace Goals with Projects
We’re all familiar with goals. We’ve tasted the bitter frustration of not achieving them. Or the stale aftertaste of an achieved goal with no clear plan for the next step. This is where projects come in.
Think of projects as the granddaddy of all goals. Projects are bigger, more complex, and longer. The best ones are never-ending. Being healthy, having meaningful relationships, maintaining a sharp mind — these are all projects, not goals.
Projects are things you don’t want to achieve just once, but want them as a permanent part of your life. They’re hard and require constant effort. But the rewards have an oversized impact on the quality of your life.
Achieving a goal shouldn’t be your end game. The actual goal is for the game to never end.
So stop chasing the ideal weight, that personal best in the gym, or that title at work. Instead, think of what you really want to achieve. It’s not a title or a number. Rather, it’s liking what you see in the mirror, feeling healthy and energized, or receiving love and respect from the people around you.
Create your never-ending project. Take some time and think: What’s the one thing that would improve my life for years to come? Take your paper and write it down.
Now it’s time to start going after it. This is where the markers come in.
Turn Milestones into Markers
Thinking of a grand idea for a lifelong project is overwhelming. It acts like the dark magic spell Expecto Procrastinatium, conjuring our old friend the procrastination villain. To avoid whis, we will make a list of things we want to achieve along the way.
Let’s say your project is “have a healthy body”. Typical milestones would be: exercise every morning, lose 10 kg, or eat vegetables three times/day. Such lists get flushed down the toilet in less than 30 days.
So let’s be smart about this. Instead of rigid milestones, we will create markers. Here’s what your markers for the “healthy body” project could look like:
- get 2-3 hours of physical activity per week
- eat a bunch of vegetables every day
- cut smoking
- keep the booze to a minimum
Markers take a more qualitative approach. You don’t start by eating vegetables 3 times every day. Instead, you aim at eating more veggies. A marker is there to point you in the right direction. It’s not there to get you all worked up because you’re 500 steps short at the end of the day.
Minimizing frustration is key to any long-term project. And setting the right markers is the way you make the project enjoyable.
But how do we make sure we stick to these milestones? After all, we’ve tried similar things before and they didn’t work. This is where the most important component comes in.
Integrate Habits into Systems
What will you do, when you’re not feeling like it? When you’re under the weather, have sore muscles, and you’re about to catch a cold? One word: habits.
Habits require almost no activation energy. You do them without thinking and with minimal effort. The best example of a successful habit is brushing your teeth. We do it even when we’re tired, angry, or hungover. No excuses. Just head into the bathroom and get it done.
Habits are your autopilot during stormy days. There’s just one catch: habits work great for repetitive tasks, but they break down when you’re evolving. Ask yourself:
If I would do this every day for a year, would I get better at it?
If the answer is No, you need a system.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.Albert Einstein
Systems are a way of modifying habits according to your needs. If you’re pursuing a complex target like becoming a better writer, better athlete, or a better friend, habits are just the tip of the iceberg. They will get you going. But after a while, you need to tweak them.
If you want to run a marathon, don’t just 3 times/week for half an hour. A system would look more like this:
- Run 3 times/week for a month. Add more time as you get consistent.
- Work up to 10 km per session
- Then start alternating between long and short runs
- Rest more after long runs and less after the short ones
Look for someone who’s got what you desire: a good relationship, financial stability, wild surfing skills — whatever. Find out what they do to get better at it. Then, tweak the practice according to your level. Adapt it as you get better.
Habits are great for long-term results. And when you integrate them into a system, it’s like giving them superpowers.
Putting it all together
Using this framework hasn’t just helped me get over my PGAD slump. I used it to create a plan for the whole year. And I’ve started projects that will last for decades.
To make sure you don’t close this page feeling more confused than before, here’s a roadmap to help you get started:
- Figure out your projects. Don’t aim for empty, generic goals. Think about what you want to achieve in the long run.
- Make a list of markers that will guide you along the way. Remember, these are just signposts to keep you on the right path. Directions, not checkpoints.
- Hang this list up in a place where you can see it every day. Trust me on this.
- Form habits that will move you in the direction pointed out by your markers.
- Look around, ask, and create systems to tweak your habits as you progress.
Now comes the hard part: take this knowledge and put it into practice. This, my friend, is solely up to you.