Goal-Finishing 101

Why finishing things is better than setting goals

Hi friends,

Last week, we discussed that self-knowledge is hard. When we don’t know ourselves, we copy others. This makes us set artificial goals, which, we intuitively know, we won’t follow through. Which is why, this month, I’ve collected feedback on my strengths and weaknesses to help me (a) get more insight into myself, and (b) set honest goals.

Point being, when we lack true self-knowledge, we set others’ goals as our goals.

So, this week, I want to talk about goal-setting, uncertainty, and propose a better way to set goals.

The Problem

Goal-setting is the process of imposing certainty on future. When you set goals, you’re trying to make something certain; you’re trying to impose order on chaos; you’re telling your future-self that X must happen. But, only 19% of us achieve our goals. Which makes me rethink the whole idea of setting goals and the problems with it.

The problem is twofold:

  • Goals without self-knowledge don’t work, and

  • Setting goals opens many threads.

I’ve explained the first problem in the first paragraph, so I’ll move on to the second.

Setting goals opens many threads.

Think of life as a yarn of slender threads, weaved together. With each decision (or goal we set), we try to unweave the yarn, and weave our life-line. We set a direction for ourselves.

But this direction is uncertain. When we unweave a complicated yarn, we don’t know what we weave and what we unweave. That’s uncertainty; that’s randomness; that’s things you can’t control.

So when we set goals, we inevitably try to unweave the yarn from too many places. And when we do that, we end up, instead, tightening the yarn. Point being, setting goals opens many threads, from many places, which tightens the yarn, which inihibits our growth.

Example: Try setting goals like I did at the beginning of 2021. Most of them did not work, because I set too many of them.

These problems have two solutions:

  • Essentialism, and

  • Uncertainty management


Practice essentialism. Ask:

What is your one goal you intend to pursue to the exclusion of everything else?

This point is simple, but the irony is that many find it hard to practice. To choose the one goal, we have to be incredibly clear about our vision, about what we want, about who we are.

But most of us don’t have clear answers to that. Unless, of course, you’re Jobs or Musk.

Because, doing nothing is easy. The question is, why do something at all? And to answer that, you need to have an incredibly clear vision, which you can, by having that honest conversation with yourself about who you are and what you want. (I’d recommend reading this post by Tim Urban.)

Once you have that honest conversation and you have that one goal in mind, move on to step two:

Uncertainty management

I recently finished watching For All Mankind on AppleTV, and I ought to say that it’s the best TV show I’ve seen since Breaking Bad. One word: incredible. The show is about the space race in the Cold War era, except that USSR first lands on the moon. The rest is ‘alternative history’, which is exciting.

In the season 2 finale, the final scene is about two astronauts on the moon. Without spoling the show, though, the final scene, at a deeper level, represents epistemic uncertainty. The land of the known unknowns and unknown unknowns. You know what you don’t know and you don’t know what you don’t know. If you’re in state X, it could be due to state Y (or a bazillion different states). It’s like an untraceable Markov chain.

Point is, that, no matter what you do, the cause and effect of a state is untraceable. You can attribute the state to its immediate cause but you can never be sure about it.

How does all this relate to goal-setting?

Well, first, watch the show. And second, start finishing things instead of setting goals. There will always be the land of epistemic uncertainty and the area of regret, so it’s ideal to start finishing things first, set incremental goals along the way, and then start finishing those.

A friend lately told me: “Great people are great finishers.”

The rub of this week’s issue, then, is this:

  • Practice self-knowledge

  • Don’t set goals because that opens up many threads

  • Practice essentialism

  • Start finishing things

Until next time,


Our Commonplace Book

  • For those trying to unravel common misconceptions, here’s a Wikipedia list.