The Major Danger of Confusing Projects and Goals

3 Ways to Tell the Difference and Stay Motivated with What Matters Most

When it comes to setting personal or professional goals, how do you determine what makes your list? We’re often tempted to commit to important or urgent tasks that have been nagging us for a while. But that’s a mistake.

A woman in our 5 Days to Your Best Year Ever private Facebook group faced this problem. One of the goals she set this year was getting her accounting caught up. She knew it had to be done, but she struggled to stay motivated.

The problem is that she had confused a project for a goal. While every goal is a project, not every project is a goal. If we confuse these two, we’ll end up with bloated task lists and make little progress on what matters most.

How do we mix them up?

The Source of the Confusion

When setting goals, we often look at a big or pressing task and say, “That seems important. I should make it a goal to finish that this year.” That’s doubly true if we’ve been putting it off for a while.

We fool ourselves into thinking if we set it as a goal, we’ll be more likely to finish it. That tactic might work for some, but it doesn’t work for most people I know or have coached over the years. Why? There’s something critical missing from the equation.

One analogy people can use remember the distinction involves feathers: All crows (goals) are birds (projects), but not all birds (projects) are crows (goals). All birds have feathers. But, as a subset of all birds, crows have additional defining characteristics. All projects have importance. But, as a subset of all projects, goals have additional defining characteristics.

3 Criteria for True Goals

I can think of at least three criteria a project must meet to gain the distinction of a true goal.

  1. Challenge. Goals live in your Discomfort Zone. Projects live in your Comfort Zone. If it’s not a bit risky, if it doesn’t demand your full engagement and breakthrough creativity, then it’s not a goal. It’s a project.

    Updating your accounting is a project—probably a very important one. But it’s also business as usual. There’s nothing uncertain or unknown about it. That makes it more of a hassle than a challenge. Similarly, for most entrepreneurs or executives,

    • Updating the company personnel manual is a project, probably not a goal
    • Cleaning out your file cabinet is a project, probably not a goal.
    • Doing expense reports is a project, definitely not a goal

    The list can go on practically forever. And that leads to the second criteria.

  2. Excitement. You’ll have scores, even hundreds, of projects over the year. But you’ll have fewer than a dozen true goals, preferably less than ten.

    If you can find nothing intrinsically motivating about a certain project, you should probably strike it from your goal list and find a way to automate or delegate it.

  3. Transformation. It’s not a true goal unless it has a transformative effect on your life or business in some way. Projects are about maintenance, or at best incremental improvement. By contrast, goals are about leapfrog innovation and dramatic improvements that require us to step outside our day-to-day tasks.

    Compare it to swimming. Projects are composed of daily tasks we do to stay afloat. If the alternative to treading water is drowning, I’m all for treading water! But goals are all about swimming to new and desirable destinations.

Just because something is important, doesn’t mean you should make it a goal. If it leaves you feeling drained or demotivated just thinking about it, you should definitely not make it a goal. Instead, you should look for a way to automate or delegate it.

You want to dedicate as much of your energy as you can to the tasks only you can do to move your work and life in a new and better direction.

Question: What project do you need to strike off your goal list today?

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