I’m shooting for at least 20 (sacks). I always shoot high. … Shoot high, you might hit low, but at least you shoot high. Don’t bowl; you’ve got to shoot a basket. Shoot high, don’t bowl.
– John Abraham
Quotes like the one above tend to hit us as inspiring and sound like good advice. But reader beware!
There are two possible scenarios for John Abraham above: he gets 20+ sacks or he gets less than 20 sacks. I want to dissect this “real world” example to show why I think John Abraham would be better off without a sack target this season.
The first thing we notice is the good part. In the early stages, the 20 sack super goal fuels his motivation. When you have such a lofty goal, you’ll be motivated to “rise to the challenge.” This is the benefit of shooting high—it can provide increased motivation, but…
Aiming High Can Decrease Motivation
What if John Abraham starts off slowly? What if he has a string of bad luck? He could have two sacks wiped out by penalty, trip unexpectedly on a sure sack, and play Peyton Manning, who avoids sacks masterfully.
Imagine through eight games—half of the season—that Abraham has only three sacks. Now that he’s on pace for six sacks for the season, what does his goal of 20 sacks do for him? Will he be motivated to work extra hard to meet his goal, or do you think he’ll realize that he’s 36 years old and 17 sacks in eight games just isn’t going to happen?
This is how big goals hurt us. If you slip up and fall behind, the pressure of catching up and meeting the goal is going to crush you. When a goal seems out of reach, it’s only natural to give up completely.
Big goals can be motivating when you’re in the race, but the second that victory looks doubtful, you’re more likely to be discouraged than encouraged.
Aiming High Decreases Your Focus
It is impossible to get more than one sack per play. Given that plays happen one at a time, this means there is no tangible benefit in aiming for a total sack count. John Abraham doesn’t want 20 sacks, more accurately, he always wants one more sack. Think about this in terms of healthy living: what we really want from ourselves is one more sit-up or one more healthy food choice.
I’ve had a massive amount of personal growth in the past 1.5 years, and it’s because I took a hammer to my grandiose dreams and broke them down into the small, specific actions that form them. I realized that as long as my mind was thinking of “big” things, I was distracted from doing the small things that could make those big dreams happen.
Writing a book used to be a big dream. I shattered that down into a mini habit of writing just 50 words a day toward a book, which guaranteed that I made progress every day (because it’s too small to fail). It worked very well! (The book I wrote, Mini Habits, has been a bestseller for more than 6 months straight! It still sells about 50 copies every single day.)
Focusing (the verb) can only be done with specific, actionable tasks. You can’t focus on “getting 20 sacks,” because that means so many different things: training well in the offseason, studying schemes and tactics, practicing your spin move, and on gameday, executing the called play called to the best of your ability. That leads into the next issue…
Aiming High Causes “Brain Conversion Fatigue”
With the “20 sacks” mindset, you force your brain to translate that into things you can actually do. The brain fatigues from having to convert everything, and when it gets too tired, you’ll feel overwhelmed and look for a distraction to ease the uncomfortable feeling.
These problems are hidden behind the intoxicating allure of achieving the big goal. It’s more fun to think about the prestige and reward of getting 20 sacks in a season than trying to get one on the next play. And don’t get be wrong… it’s not that you can’t aim high and use actionable steps to get there, it’s that in almost all cases, it’s not beneficial (and sometimes harmful) to even have a big picture goal.
If you know 30 minutes of daily exercise will bring you ripped abs, then all you have to worry about is that action each day. Of course, I think 30 minutes a day is too big for most people’s current willpower, but it can be built up.
Why Big Goals Are Misguided Confidence
John Abraham isn’t completely wrong to have a big goal. I think that what he’s communicating is confidence in himself, which is very important. By saying he’s aiming for 20 sacks, he’s directly implying he thinks he is capable of doing it. If he didn’t think he was capable, he would never say that.
But you don’t need to aim for a big goal to pursue a big goal. And you don’t need existing confidence to do something amazing.
When I wrote my 50 words a day, little did I know that I was actually pursuing the goal of becoming a best-selling author with my first (for-sale) book. That’s an achievement that I’m continually smiling about. But—and I can say this honestly—it probably wouldn’t have happened if I had tried to do it. That’s too much pressure and too much to ask of a first book. With my 50 words a day goal, I wrote a book that was outselling all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books combined… for a few days, anyway!
Aiming for a big goal and meaning it shows existing confidence, but aiming for small goals and meeting or beating them consistently generates confidence. Unless you’re already a superstar with tremendous confidence and world-class willpower, it’s smarter to generate as much confidence and willpower strength as you can with frequent, small, attainable goals.
Now that I’m currently a best-selling author and have beat the book sales of a legendary author (for a few days), I am confident enough to believe I can write a New York Times best-selling book (I think Mini Habits was very close to making the USA Today Bestseller list, and might make it yet!). Before something like this happens, though, aiming for it is likely to discourage instead of encourage us for the reasons listed above.
The built-in proof-of-concept of the Mini Habits book highlights what I’m talking about. I wrote Mini Habits using the humble mini habits method, which is based on aiming ridiculously low and being consistent. There was nothing impressive about the creation process of Mini Habits. It was a methodical, consistent, and nearly-embarrassing 50 words or more of writing per day.
From these unimpressive beginnings, the book has been wildly successful and well-liked (there is still not a single one star review on Amazon, which I’ve never seen before for a book with 160+ reviews). During a big sale, it was even the #15 (and #1 nonfiction) best-selling kindle book in the United States!
But I don’t want the sales success of Mini Habits to detract from the real goal: to write a book! Some
people superhumans write several books per year, but for the rest of us, writing and publishing even one book is a huge accomplishment. Some might give my Mini Habits example more weight because the book is selling well, but that’s only partially in my control (marketing). The real success was writing and publishing it to have the chance for it to be a successful book that can change lives.
And my book is ONE example of this in my life. I have three more powerful examples in which I aimed high and got little, and then switched to aiming small and got a lot. They are:
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