A note to readers:
Paco de Leon is the founder of The Hell Yeah Group, which offers financial education and bookkeeping services for creative small business owners and entrepreneurs. I recently read Ms. de Leon’s book, Finance For the People, and it’s a real page-turner. I’ve never referred to a finance book as a “page turner” before—but for those navigating their relationship to money, you won’t want to put it down. Below, Ms. de Leon has adapted a chapter of her book on deconstructing goals for Talk Shop. Enjoy!
Senior Editor for Talk Shop
One day in early January, I found myself taking a walk around my neighborhood with a good friend and fellow small business owner. As we trotted along, enjoying an uncharacteristically crisp day in Los Angeles, my friend asked me what my goals were for the year.
I responded by saying, “This year, my goal is to have no goals.” It’s not that I didn’t have a desire to achieve things or to self-direct my life. On the contrary, what I had observed over the last few years of actually having had success was that achieving a goal seemed to require a paradoxical approach. An approach where the goal is not an outcome with a distinct finish line. Instead, a goal could inform the process or system I’d need to commit to that would typically precede reaching my goal. So, instead of having the goal to save $10,000, I’d commit to saving 20 percent of every inflow… indefinitely. And when I did this, I tended to exceed whatever my previous goal had been. I realized that instead of a goal being the ultimate endpoint, it should actually be the starting point. I feel like a cliché saying this, but I realized my approach had become less about arriving at a destination and more about falling in love with the journey. And it’s made making progress more fulfilling and sustainable.
I’m not discouraging the act of setting financial goals. I do discourage using this way of setting and trying to achieve goals as the only way to think about our businesses and our financial futures. Goals in general are crude, blunt instruments that don’t take into account the finer details of a dynamic life in a constantly changing modern world. Goals can be elusive and challenging for many reasons. At the core of achievement, goals require us to change our behavior, to act in the face of our fears and navigate circumstances outside of our control. Even if we succeed in changing the thing within our control—ourselves—we are still subject to outside circumstances, like a global pandemic, unexpected supply-chain issues, and the slow and steady increase of inflation and interest rates.
It’s easy to see why goals get all the glory. They’re aspirational. Goals can give us hope, the feeling of progress, and they can provide a sense of direction. Reaching a goal is social media worthy. It’s an opportunity for attention and recognition. In our current vernacular, it’s widely acceptable to compliment people by applauding their goals.
But being too focused on an outcome in every situation is limiting and rigid. It’s a one-dimensional perspective. It’s inflexible; it kills the possibility of a different result. Deviating from the path or the goal might be considered a failure. And this is a big flaw in the goal-setting system. When you don’t arrive at your intended destination, you’ve failed—a common experience we all have. Failure starts to feel like a feature of goals and not a bug. When thinking about goals like this, it forces us to ask if this is a good way to facilitate meaningful achievement in our lives.
I’ve fallen victim to the majority of the goals I’ve set. I stayed at a job that made me miserable and didn’t pay me enough because I thought I needed to reach a goal in title and salary. I couldn’t see another path. The goals I’ve had for my business have paralyzed me. When I held them in my mind, I couldn’t take any action for months or sometimes years because I didn’t want to head in the wrong direction of my goal. Now I see any direction would have been the right direction because I just needed to start. Sometimes you can’t even know the eventual destination unless you start moving towards something, even if it’s the wrong thing.
Goals are a good starting point
Even if we choose to use a different framework for trying to influence an outcome, it doesn’t mean the traditional way of setting goals is entirely useless. If you were building a bookcase and needed to remove a screw from a piece of the wood, but all you had was a hammer, you wouldn’t throw out your hammer because it wasn’t the right tool at that moment in the building process. You would just get a screwdriver and keep both tools because they’re useful for different situations. The hammer will be useful at another time.
The same goes for financial goals. Financial goals are a hammer that can be useful. They’re good to have in your toolbox, but they aren’t going to be the only thing that helps you build your business. If you allow yourself to question your goals, you can discover the reason why your goal is important.
The irony is the only way to actually stay on track with trying to reach our goals is to let go of our attachment to them and learn how to appreciate and fall in love with the process of reaching them. And that piece is actually the only part of the equation we can control.
I’ve failed at achieving a lot of my financial goals. The first couple of years into my business, I had nebulous income goals. And I didn’t reach them. I didn’t save as much as I wanted to year after year. And for a while, I was really ambitious about how quickly I could get out of credit card debt.
The way that I was finally able to reach my goals was by letting go of the outcome and implementing processes and systems. In my business, I committed to using an accounting process described in the book Profit First by Mike Michalowicz, and after twelve months of using this system, I was able to increase my revenue by 136 percent. I decided to just save a portion of everything I earned, and I saved the most I’ve ever saved by leaps and bounds. I separated my spending, and suddenly I was able to spend a lot less than I thought possible.
Deconstruct the goal you are trying to achieve into a behavior that would precede reaching it
Now, with nearly all things in my life, instead of having tunnel vision towards a singular goal, I use the goal to help me deconstruct the behaviors that precede a goal. And then I shift my focus to those behaviors and find ways to turn the behaviors into a systematic process. When I do this, I get more out of the process, regardless of whether or not I achieve my goal. When I focus on my behaviors, there are fewer rules about the outcome. The fewer rules there are, the more ways there are to win. And when there are more ways to win, I can feel peace and joy in the present moment and avoid disappointment when I’m inevitably impacted by things outside of my control.
When the system fails, find where the system breaks down
Creating a system makes not reaching your goals feel so much less like a personal failure. Systems should do exactly what they are intended to do, but when they don’t, it’s important to take that as a sign that something within the system needs to be re-examined.
Let’s say you’re running a production company and the system you estimate for quoting and pricing is to predict the number of hours a project will take and bill half at the start of the project and then a final bill upon completion. But, what you notice is that the business constantly feels like there is never enough cash on hand, so you can’t build up a buffer for an emergency fund. And the final bill always gives the clients sticker shock because it’s to balance due plus any additions.
Instead of automatically feeling crappy for not reaching your goal, you can simply take a closer look at your system and start to ask some questions about what’s going on. What things are impacting the outcome? Do you need to increase your rate? Or perhaps try a different billing method that has more consistent cash flow, like breaking up the pricing over months instead of two payments? Do you need to do both? Or maybe you need to keep a separate checking account for client funds so you can manage them better and understand your cash position better. If you decide increasing your rates would have the greatest impact on the process, what’s a systematic way to approach this?
Reaching goals by way of managing failures
Another way to think differently about goals is to focus on how you can fail instead of how you can achieve. Aiming for success is a way to play offense in business. While this is necessary, managing failure is a way to play defense. It’s a different strategy, but when you think about ways you can fail, you can reverse-engineer solving for those failures.
For example, for businesses with employees, a potential failure could be mismanaging payroll tax filings and remitting payments to the proper tax authorities. You can manage this potential failure in a couple of ways. Gusto is a platform that can handle this on your behalf; once you’ve onboarded a new employee, they handle everything from filing tax forms to collecting and remitting the taxes for you, so you don’t have to worry about managing it.
Managing failures can also look like pivoting your business or understanding when it’s time to discontinue a product or service that might be losing your company money. Failures are simply part of business, so understanding how to use them to inform your next actions will ultimately lead to success.
The power of a process comes from consistently running it
Consistency is a really powerful force, but it’s also underrated. We see its impact all around us all the time. A cliff by the sea is a cliff by the sea because waves consistently erode the rock. Dental health can be attributed to brushing and flossing consistently, not intensely. For example, if I didn’t brush or floss for years, I don’t think brushing and flossing the entire day before going to the dentist could make up for the lack of consistency. And I can’t even wrap my head around how many companies I patronized solely because I was consistently exposed to their marketing messages. Consistent behaviors impact our financial lives. Consistently underearning can result in debt, while consistently investing in the stock market is a reliable way to grow your money over time. Consistency is boring, but it often separates good from great.
Consistency creates momentum and over time the results compound. It can make up for a lack of skill. And processes that become habitual change how you self-identify. You’re much more likely to identify as a saver if you consistently save, even if you only save a little. Compare that to saving a lot at one point in your life. You’re less likely to identify as a saver. Identity further enforces your desire to remain consistent to keep your idea of yourself intact.
Despite whether or not you reach your goal, if you can create a process and run it consistently enough to turn it into a habit, you may find that the progress you’re able to sustain is much more fulfilling than simply reaching a goal.
Credit: This adaptation is from the book FINANCE FOR THE PEOPLE by Paco de Leon, published by Penguin Life, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by One Jelly Bean, Co.