This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Grit" by Angela Duckworth. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do your low goals help you achieve a higher-level goal? Why should you be picky about which goals you pursue?

If you are pursuing a goal that does not directly connect to your high-level goals (e.g. writing a novel or starting a business), you should drop it. Otherwise, you are wasting valuable time that could be spent pursuing your high-level goals.

Here is why you should prioritize which goals you spend time on.

Drop Your Lower Goals

In her book Grit, Duckworth advises that you make sure each lower-level goal directly helps you achieve the goal above it. If you can’t see a direct connection between a low goal and your ultimate goal, then your lower-level goals likely aren’t moving you closer to your top goal, and you should probably stop pursuing them. Low-level goals are not to be held sacred—they can be removed or changed. If you find a new low-level goal that is more effective or feasible, you can swap it for another.

For example, if your goal is to write a novel, but you’re spending a lot of time building a brand on social media, you may realize that the time you spend promoting yourself is time not spent writing, and therefore is not moving you closer to your goal. Instead, you may switch out that low-level goal of self-promotion for a different low-level goal, like getting up at 5 a.m. every day to write 500 words. 

Monitor How You’re Spending Your Time

While your goals should be results that you purposefully aim for and that shape your lower-level activities, life-coach experts warn that sometimes, the process can work in reverse, and your lower-level activities can shape your results. This happens when you’re not purposeful about those lower-level activities. 

For example, if your conscious goal is to switch careers to something more fulfilling, but you spend your days working eight hours at your unfulfilling job and then coming home and watching television for three hours, it might be said that your true goal is to live with your job and watch television. 

Although your lower-level activities aren’t goals per se, when we spend a lot of time on them, they function as goals. Therefore, experts advise that you consciously track how you’re spending your time so that you’re aware of when you are devoting significant effort to something that is not advancing your ultimate goal. When that happens, you should switch out those activities for something that will advance your ultimate goal. This expands on Duckworth’s advice by emphasizing that you should switch out not only your purposeful goals but also your non-goal time spends if they’re also preventing you from reaching your goals. 

Duckworth argues that when you are flexible with your lower-level goals, you’ll have a more resilient high-level goal because it will be able to absorb failures without defeating your ultimate aim. Furthermore, this lowers how defeated you feel after failure. If you fail on a low-level goal, another can take its place. Lots of low-level activities can drive you toward your top-level goal. You have a lot of routes to get there.

She stresses that when a low goal isn’t working, you should substitute it for something that approaches the next level goal a little differently. It’s not enough to follow the advice of “try, try again,” but instead, you should “try, try something else.” This might mean reexamining what you’ve been doing to figure out why it’s not working—for example, if you’ve been submitting a manuscript to publishers and getting nothing but rejections, study that manuscript to see if it has a problem that’s fixable. Then, fix it before submitting it elsewhere. 

Flexibility Leads to Resilience

Many management experts have offered advice on how to set goals that will ensure long-term success, both for individuals and organizations. For example, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras discuss setting visionary goals in their book Built to Last, which helps leaders develop and maintain companies that will stay relevant and overcome years of challenges. (Duckworth might call such companies “gritty companies.”)

Collins and Porras point out that the vision statements of long-lasting companies have two elements: 
A core principle that gives them an overall mission: This corresponds to Duckworth’s “high-level” goals.A more practical principle that directs their actions on a more specific level but can be changeable: This corresponds to Duckworth’s “mid-” and “low-level” goals.

For example, a company might set out to “help students learn,” which would be their overriding, larger mission (their high-level goal). On a more practical level, they might have a mission of “offering tutoring services” (their mid-level goal). As their business evolves, they may change that more practical mission to “offering online video tutorials” or even “making documentaries,” and as long as the new direction fits with their core principle, they’re being true to their vision. The stability of the core principle combined with the flexibility of the practical principle allows the company to stay true to their overall mission and ensure that their smaller missions align with it, just as Duckworth advises. 

Common Goal Problems

Duckworth discusses some common failings of goal choices that can interfere with success, in particular, either having no lower-level goals mapped out to support your higher-level goals, or having multiple higher goals with no unifying theme.

No lower-level goals
[image] grit_goal_graphic1.jpg

You might have a dream goal, like becoming a famous actor or a billionaire but are unable to envision the lower-level goals that will bring you there. Having a lofty goal like this without the lower-level goals supporting it amounts to no more than positive visualization. 

Duckworth cautions that positive visualization may be fun and make you feel good, but if you don’t consider the practical steps needed to achieve your goal, you’re highly unlikely to reach it. Then when you fail, you’ll feel significant disappointment. 

Positive Visualization Can Hinder Your Progress

Duckworth doesn’t explore the mechanics of how positive visualization can negatively affect success, but other researchers have, proving that when you visualize your goals without also visualizing the steps needed to get to that goal, you’re less likely to achieve the goal. 

This seems to be a function of psychological energy. Researchers have found that when subjects used positive visualization techniques, their energy for their goal decreased, and they were more likely to abandon their project. In contrast, subjects who either visualized negative things or thought about the possibility that they might not achieve their goal had higher energy and accomplished more. 

The researchers hypothesize that visualizing a positive outcome has a relaxing effect on the body (which is why psychologists sometimes use positive visualization techniques to help anxious patients relax). However, if your goal is to accomplish something that requires energy and action, such relaxation techniques can be counterproductive. It’s far better to prepare yourself mentally for the challenges you face so that your mind gathers the strength and stamina you’ll need to face those challenges. 
Mid-level goals without a top-level goal
[image] grit_goal_graphic2.jpg

Duckworth warns that a more common problem is having multiple mid-level goals without a unifying, overall goal to bridge them together. When that happens, you might end up with goals that conflict with each other, or you may feel like you’re spinning your wheels—applying a lot of effort without going in any particular direction.

If you feel pulled in too many directions, how do you prune your goal list? Duckworth relates an exercise that Warren Buffett suggests to help you prioritize:

  • Write a list of 25 career goals.
  • Circle the five highest priority goals for you. Choose only five—be strict with this.
  • Examine the 20 goals remaining that you didn’t circle. These are your most tempting distractions. You must actively avoid these to focus on your top five goals.

If you can’t decide on five, then consider quantifying your goals on two scales: interest and importance. Also, consider whether some of them contribute more to your ultimate concern than others.

Focusing Your Efforts Means Making Choices

Many management books have acknowledged the importance of focusing your efforts and discussed how to do so. Greg McKeown, for example, explores the idea in his book Essentialism, arguing that you won’t find success or happiness unless you narrow your focus so that you concentrate only on tasks that will move you toward your overriding, ultimate aim. If you don’t, you’ll stretch yourself thinly, make little progress, and feel overworked with little to show for it. 

Like Duckworth, McKeown advises that you start by defining your overall purpose so that you can eliminate all non-essential tasks. He advises you clearly define a specific and measurable purpose based on questions like, What inspires me? Where do my talents lie? What would make the world a better place?  

He then notes three principles you must internalize when narrowing your focus:

You alone (not your boss, family, or coworkers) need to choose how to use your time and energy.

You need to determine what’s most important. Very few things matter—most things are trivial; only a few are crucial. You have to make trade-offs—you can’t have or do everything. Instead of asking how you can make it all work, ask which problem you want to solve.

In other words, ask which problem is most important to you, and best represents your ultimate goal. Then, ignore all goals that don’t advance it. 
Why You Must Stop Setting Low Goals

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Angela Duckworth's "Grit" at Shortform .

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  • How your grit can predict your success
  • The 4 components that make up grit
  • Why focusing on talent means you overlook true potential

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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