Goals? No thanks…

Goals. The start of the year, any year, seems to be all about goal-setting. And it’s easy to get sucked into the idea that we need to set a ‘S.M.A.R.T’ goal then make rapid progress on it – in no time at all. What a shame that academic publishing and grant-winning have slower lifecycles!


Indeed, the discourse around goals can feel out of place in your academic career. Why?

Non-linearity of academic careers

While goals can be great for setting an overall direction or guide for an area of life or work, academic careers for early and mid-career researchers tend to be non-linear, so it’s hard to plot the steps to our career future in the way you might with structured careers, say in government. You may do a postdoc, move into industry, return as a teaching academic, do another postdoc, move into Uni administration, or join a policy think-tank. The routes are many and varied so we need to allow ourselves to relinquish hard-and-fast time frames and routes to achieving goal x or y.

Serendipity in career success

Another reason why goals are out of place in academic, or any other, career is that it’s often the chance encounter with, or fortuitous opportunity offered by, people who aren’t connected to your specific goals that leads to your career ‘story’. These opportunities and people actually play a bigger role in your career success than you probably think (eg: it’s not what you know but who you know!). It’s hard to open yourself up to these sorts of relationships and opportunities if you’re narrowly focused on a certain direction and outcome.

Ambivalence about an academic career

Our attitude towards our academic career (as we try and try for greater job security in those first several years out from our PhD) can be somewhat ambivalent, if not downright skeptical. This means that while we may achieve a goal of say publishing x papers or submitting x grant proposals, we may feel like those achievements are hollow if we’re unconvinced about the academic track to begin with.

The anxiety and discontent in an achievement focus

Academics are notorious for being high-achievers. But this has its downside – anxiety. If you don’t achieve that goal you set out, where does that leave you? And on the days – or weeks and months – that you’re unable to make progress or ‘achieve’ that goal you’re shooting for, where will you get your sense of validation? Anxiety and low self-esteem are the hallmarks of such a dominant focus on achieving future goals. It’s hard to be content with who you are and where you are when you peg your sense of fulfillment on some future moment.


So what can we do to make progress without goals?

Focus on systems instead.


The idea, written best by Scott Adams, is that you choose projects and practices that will cultivate transferable skills or long-term relationships – even if those projects end up being unsuccessful. This approach reorients us around a longer term progression or advancement of key skills and the cultivation of capital (be it social, cultural, political etc) by regular practice of those skills and habits that lead to the achievement of a goal. So a student’s ‘goal’ may be to complete a unit, but his/her ‘system’ is regular study and homework. This process, applied over and over, would generate the result of the unit being completed, without the need for the ‘goal’. Similarly, someone who sets a goal of completing a 5km fun run for the first time in their lives will need a system of regular running to be able to do it, and it’s this process that leads them to success with the goal, not the goal itself.


Take writing – a skill that requires practice. Practice at any skill needs to be regular if it’s to improve, so doing regular practice gives you greater chances of being successful at it than someone who does not practice writing. And even if you’re unsuccessful with a specific writing goal (such as getting published or being awarded research funding), the skill of writing for those genres is yours to keep and to continue to strengthen. Regular writing will lead to a final written product, without the final product having to be the focus. In short, you’re further ahead than you were when you started by having a reliable system in place.


Let’s look at applying for research funding. Instead of winning x grants or x research dollars, think about sharpening your grant writing skills with regularly practicing writing a grant proposal and getting feedback from someone experienced; regularly reviewing others’ grants to identify patterns, strengths and weaknesses; or implementing more methodical approaches to identifying and scheduling funding calls so that important funding opportunities don’t pass you by or become the most stressful events because you’re running late with your application.


Adopting a system focus rather than a goal-focus isn’t going to make you less productive. Instead, it’s a more reliable approach to achievement in that it ensures you habituate the kinds of skills, attitudes, and practices that precede the realization of some outcome, irrespective of whether you achieve that outcome now, at a later date, or stumble upon other, serendipitous outcomes that surprise and delight you.


Want to see what your goals look like as systems? Click here to download a free Goals-to-Systems worksheet to help you identify the skills and relationships you can focus on instead!


If you’re interested in developing systematic habits and practices that help you write and win grants with less stress and less time, join us in the next launch of Granted, where you’ll join a community of other researchers and learn and apply tools, methods, and skills to write more competitive grant proposals without the anxiety, frustration or confusion.


So now I’d love to hear: Have you tried a systems or process approach instead of focusing on goals? Comment below to share your experience.

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