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As part of our ongoing coverage about goal setting and goal getting, I’d like to outline today a super important part of goal setting that a lot of people miss – and that is, the why behind your goals. Every goal has three (or four if you like) different aspects: the goal itself, the why behind the goal, the how of the goal, and the benchmark for when it’s done. While all these are important, you’ll notice that the why comes first. This is because the why represents the emotional pull behind the goal. We’re going to look at why that’s important, and how you can make the emotional pull of your goals stronger.

The Why of Why

So… why is knowing why you’re after a goal important? If you’ve read Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch (I highly recommend it), you’ll know that they devoted an entire part of their process to the emotional side of things. This is because emotions, wonderful things that they are, are capable of helping us override reason, and doing things that we would not otherwise do. I mean, let’s face it – most people, by and large, are lazy. It’s emotions that stem from reasons the idea of not putting food on the table or not living up to your own standards, that push us forward that make us actually do stuff.

I have never really believed in the idea that your goals and passions can excite you enough to make you jump out of bed in the morning, full of energy and ready to go. I think that most people actually take a combination of responsibilities and appointments to get them out of bed. I was talking with my friend Micha, who runs an online link building service, and we discussed the idea that it was the why behind the things that you want that do it for most people. Things like having a certain lifestyle, or having the freedom to be your own boss – these are all whys behind the goals that we set (make $x this year, start my own company), and they are what drive us to get up and actually move towards our goals.

Of course, there are other reasons why whys are important when it comes to goals. They can give us a real emotional reason when a goal is long, or when it seems like we’re making no progress towards it. They also force us to think about whether we really want a particular goal or not – if the reason why is not strong enough, we should question whether or not we actually want that particular goal. The whys of a goal similarly remind us of the importance of the goal, and provide a sense of purpose to what you’re doing (which has a lot of social benefits). And at a very basic level, it helps you focus on the goal, and to get things going.

Creating Strong Whys

There are a number of ways to come up with strong whys for your goals:

  • Sometimes, the whys are dependencies. That is, you have to complete one goal to start the next. An example of this would be say you wanted to start investing in REITs or an ETF. Your first goal would be to set aside $10,000 to start, and your why would be “so that I can invest in REIT/ETF”.
  • The most common whys are positive reasons – things that we want and that motivate us. For say a monetary goal, a reason could be “so that I can go on vacation later this year” or “so that I can do XYZ”.
  • A lot of people don’t mention negative reasons but they are actually pretty powerful. Running away from pain is just as motivating as running towards pleasure. For example, for a weight loss goal, you could have “so that I can walk up the stairs without running out of breath” as the why.
  • Remember that the why doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. It can be as mundane as “to be able to buy food” or “because I absolutely enjoy it”. Sure you can make your whys stronger by tying both positive and negative reasons to your goal, but for most things, that just isn’t necessary.

Next Actions

  • Take your existing goals (no matter how big or small) and add whys to them.
  • Whenever you set new goals, be sure to find reasons why to them.
Photo by: qmnonic

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Last Updated: February 9, 2021

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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