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Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to work at the highest level in different professional sports, especially in golf. I have several clients that play on the PGA Tour, one of which I’ve had the privilege of working with for several years, starting when he was playing on the Web.com Tour, which is the Tour level just below the PGA Tour. With the clubs he was great, but he knew that he was struggling mentally and that it was preventing him from making that leap to the PGA. So he reached out to me and we started working together.

I’ll never forget our first session. We met at his home in Windemere, Florida and one of the very first things he did when we sat down was to take out a giant notebook. Inside this notebook were tons of goals that he had set for himself that he wanted to achieve—goals for a month from now, goals for 6 months from now, goals for a year from now, goals for a year and 6 months from now, goals for 2 years from now, goals for 5 years from now, goals for 10 years from now, etc. On, and on, and on, and on! It was crazy!

Our conversation went a bit like this:

Me: “Ok, here’s our first order of business. I want you to throw all of those goals in the garbage right now.”

Him: “Wait, what? Seriously?”

Me: “Yeah, throw all of those goals into the garbage. You won’t need them from this day forward.”

Him: “Why am I throwing them away? Are my goals bad?”

Me: “They’re not bad. They’re just not necessary, and it’s very likely they’re getting in your way. Throw them out. You don’t need them. We’re going to utilize a slightly different approach.”

Him: “And what approach is that?”

Me: “Succeeding without goals.”

I’ll also never forget his facial expression when I said that!

We got to work. I discussed in-depth my approach—an approach that involved discarding goal setting to achieve success and instead use a much different approach (I’ll get into this more later). I discussed the negatives that come with goal setting, the benefits of the approach I was presenting to him, and why the new approach I wanted him to utilize was better than the one he was currently using. He was really intrigued, and most importantly, he bought into what I was suggesting. It made sense to him, as he had never even considered that there could be a different approach to success.

In less than a year, he qualified for the PGA Tour, and he did it without setting a single goal for himself.

Today’s mental mythbuster is simple: to present a counter-point to this idea that you absolutely have to set goals in order to succeed, and that you can’t succeed if you don’t. The concept of the absolute necessity of goals to succeed is so ingrained and so heavily perpetuated in everyday society that two things have happened as a consequence of that. First, it’s become a kind of dogma that’s become so common that people don’t even think to question whether it’s actually even true or not. Two, even suggesting a different approach toward success that doesn’t involve goals is seen as wild and controversial.

Well, I don’t mind being controversial and presenting controversial concepts, so let’s get to it!

Before we really get into the nitty-gritty of things, I want to be clear: My argument is not that goal setting is bad, that it doesn’t work, or that it doesn’t provide any kind of benefit. Obviously, goal setting can work just fine and you can succeed in Magic by setting goals. My argument is that there’s a better approach for achieving whatever you want to achieve in Magic that doesn’t involve setting goals, because while setting goals can certainly provide some benefit, it also does come with some drawbacks and negative mental side effects.

A group of Harvard researchers conducted some research on goal setting and wrote a paper called, “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting”. Through their research, they concluded the following:

  • The harmful side effects of goal setting are far more serious and systematic than prior work has acknowledged.
  • Goal setting harms organizations in systematic and predictable ways.
  • The use of goal setting can degrade employee performance, shift focus away from important but non-specified goals, harm interpersonal relationships, corrode organizational culture, and motivate risky and unethical behaviors.
  • In many situations, the damaging effects of goal setting outweigh its benefits.

As a Magic player, here’s a few of the ways in which goal setting can actually be harmful:

Goals can cause you to become more results-focused than process-focused

Once you take something that you want to achieve and you turn that thing into a goal, a psychological shift takes place. That thing goes from something that you’d like to achieve to something that you absolutely must have. This means that, as you work toward attaining your goal, you naturally put way too much focus onto the goal itself and not enough focus on the things that will allow you to attain the goal that you want. For example, you spend all day, every day dreaming about and wishing that you could play on the Pro Tour or at the World Championships that very little focus is placed on the actual processes that you need to fulfill that will allow you to reach those things.

Goals create unnecessary pressure

Once you take something and turn it into a goal, that thing now becomes succeed or fail, do or die, win or lose, boom or bust. There are only two possible outcomes. Either you get what you set out to achieve and you’re a success, or you fail to achieve it and you’re a failure. This way of thinking causes you to place a ton of pressure on yourself to succeed and avoid failure, making the going that much tougher. Every mistake, obstacle, or setback along the way is seen as a direct threat to the achievement of your goal, making overcoming and bouncing back from those mistakes, obstacles, and setbacks much more difficult to do. This, in turn, causes you to be way too self-critical, which again makes it harder to progress.

Goals can cause you to judge yourself based on whether you succeed or fail

As I mentioned previously, goal setting breeds a very outcome-focused, “succeed or fail” mentality. As a consequence, this causes you to judge yourself and your performance purely on whether you were successful or whether you failed. If you’re successful in reaching your goal, you judge yourself and your performance in a much more positive way. But if you fail, the tendency to turn against yourself and judge both yourself and your performance more harshly is likely. This leads to a higher level of destructive self-criticism, a more negative self-image, and a lower level of self-confidence.

Goals reduce intrinsic motivation

There are two kinds of motivation, extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is when your main reasons for participating in an activity are to achieve external outcomes and rewards. Intrinsic motivation is when your main reasons for participating in an activity are to achieve internal satisfaction and fulfillment. The science is 100% clear on this: Intrinsic motivation is better than extrinsic motivation. Being motivated by internal satisfaction and fulfillment is absolutely better than being motivated by external outcomes and rewards. Goals are outcome and reward-focused, and over time cause you to lose the natural intrinsic motivation you have to play Magic. This leads to the last one…

Goals make the game feel like work rather than a game

When you first started playing Magic, you were driven to play it because of the internal satisfaction and fulfillment it gave you. You wanted to play it because it was fun, it was enjoyable, it provided an outlet, and it was something you loved doing. It was a game, and you treated it that way. The more Magic becomes goal-oriented and outcome-focused, the less it feels like a game and the more it starts to feel like work, like something you’re forcing yourself to do rather than something you’re happily volunteering to do, all for the sake of achieving arbitrary targets you’ve set for yourself. When that happens, fun and enjoyment disappear, burnout ensues, and the drive to keep playing almost completely evaporates.

I propose a better approach. This approach allows you to achieve the same things you’d like to achieve in the game, but it allows you to get there without all of the negative side effects that accompany goal setting. My approach is the following: Instead of setting a goal, follow a theme.

What’s the difference between a goal and a theme? A goal is outcome-oriented and outcome-focused. A theme is process-oriented and process-focused. Here is an example of a comparison between the two:

Goal: “My goal is to finish 12-3 or better at this GP.”

The following are the positive side effects of this goal when playing in the tournament:

  • Provides a source of motivation and purpose for the tournament, giving you a reason to want to play.

The following are the negative side effects of this goal when playing in the tournament:

  • Too overly focused on standings, positions, and results rather than play, performance, and execution.
  • “Reach my goal or fail” mentality, introducing unnecessary pressure to win each round or risk failing.
  • Emotional attachment to the outcome causes panic when faced with mistakes, obstacles, or setbacks.
  • Motivation to play is results-based, causing you to lose motivation to play if you start losing.
  • Harder to truly have fun and enjoy the tournament due to pressures of goal attainment.
  • Harder to play to your maximum level due to pressures of goal attainment.
  • Increased self-criticism, increased negative self-image, and lowered self-confidence if goal isn’t attained.

As mentioned, a goal is outcome-oriented. In this case, it’s “finish 12-3 or better.” Goals only provide one benefit, and that’s to give you something to be motivated by—a reason to compete and a purpose to focus on. But that’s the only benefit it provides, and that benefit comes at the cost of a slew of negative side effects, side effects that—ironically enough—make it more difficult to obtain the goal you want, not less difficult. Not worth it at all, as far as I’m concerned.

Now let’s look at an example of a theme and see how it compares.

Theme: “My theme for this GP is to have fun, enjoy the experience, play the game I love, and attempt to play the best I possibly can each and every round.”

The following are the positive side effects of this theme when playing in the tournament:

  • Provides a source of motivation and purpose for the tournament, giving you a reason to want to play.
  • Allows you to focus on play, performance, and execution, rather than results, standings, and positions.
  • No “reach a goal or fail” mentality, eliminating unnecessary pressure, stress, and tension.
  • No emotional attachment to an outcome, greatly reducing panic towards mistakes, obstacles, or setbacks.
  • Motivation to play is process-oriented, allowing you to stay motivated to play even when losing.
  • Easier to truly have fun and enjoy the tournament due to elimination of pressure, stress, and tension.
  • Easier to play to your maximum level due to elimination of pressure, nervousness, and stress.
  • No feelings of self-criticism, negative self-image, or lowered self-confidence if you lose.

The following are the negative side effects of this theme when playing in a tournament:

  • None.

As you can see, there’s no comparison.

A theme is process-oriented and not results-oriented. In this case, it’s “have fun, enjoy the experience, play the game I love, and attempt to play the best I possibly can each and every round.” Themes provide the same benefit that setting a goal can give you by giving you something to be motivated by and a reason to compete (having fun, enjoyment of the whole tournament experience, playing to as close to perfect as possible each round, etc.), but the major difference is that themes come with zero negative side effects, unlike goals. They’re all upside and no downside.

As a competitive Magic player, you’re trying to achieve results and outcomes. Utilizing approaches that make it easier and more efficient to get the results and outcomes you want, and avoiding approaches that make it harder and less efficient to get the results and outcomes you want, is a big edge. Implementing themes rather than goals makes it much easier and more efficient to achieve the results and outcomes you want to achieve, and that’s why it’s a staple with all of the clients I work with, especially professional athletes competing at the highest level where the stakes are highest. The mental approach becomes absolutely essential.

Again, this isn’t to say that goal setting is bad, doesn’t work, or that you’re awful for using it. Goal setting can work and you can be successful using that approach. But for me, themes are much, much better at allowing someone to achieve success, as they allow you to reach the same outcomes without all of the unnecessary mental baggage and hurdles. The idea that you have to set goals to be successful is a myth, but if you want to utilize that approach regardless of the negative side effects it creates, then by all means, go for it!

If you’re interested in this kind of stuff, I wrote a book about improving at the mental side of Magic and I go much deeper than I obviously can in an article. Check it out and give it a read. I think you’ll get a ton of benefit from it and really enjoy it.

I’d love to get your thoughts on this topic in the comment section below, so don’t be afraid to voice your opinion and sound off, even if you disagree. Let’s discuss it. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week!