Why You Should Try Setting Unrealistic Goals

One of the first rules of goal-setting is making sure your new idea is actually achievable – right? But if you’re choosing to set aside $5 a week on foregone takeaway coffees or newly forcing yourself through a few morning push-ups, there’s a good chance you’ve got something in mind you’re working toward – and it’s probably bigger than five minutes of staring at the floor.

Sure, realistic goals may move you fractionally closer to where you want to be, and the validating hit of ticking them off is unbeatable. But without trying to sound like a hyped-up Facebook cliché from your personal trainer friend, if you really want to make a change, is small stuff really enough?

Here’s an argument for setting stupidly high goals you may not reach – because you may succeed instead.

Why you should set an impossible target

A few months ago I read on the blog of writer Mridu Reller Kelp that after a 15-year-long writing career, in which she’d written one book and thousands of articles, she’d decided to dedicate the next three months of her work to writing 90 books.

“A huge or unrealistic goal can provide the fuel required to overcome the inevitable challenges.”

Ninety. Nine-zero. She had 90 ideas for non-fiction writing guides and wanted to make them happen, so she set an unrealistic goal to achieve this.

She explained that writing books is her passion, so the fact that she’s written just one doesn’t properly reflect the time and energy she wants to spend on them. So, she set a ludicrous goal, and of course failed to meet it – writing just eight of the 90 books in the first three months of her plan.

Just eight.

In three months she wrote eight times as many books as she’d written in her entire career.

“I’ve [aimed for] 90 books, not for success, not because I don’t want failure, but because I wanted to,” she wrote. “I want to DO. I’ve set a target so high that even if I fail, I’ve already succeeded. I’ve succeeded because there is work I want to do and I’m doing it.”

unrealistic goals

It doesn’t have to be like this

It’s a shared sentiment. The 2007 book, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, by Tim Ferriss, contains dubious advice about outsourcing work in a short-cut pursuit of a capitalist dream. But it’s sold over a million copies because it tapped into a suspicion that thousand of people share: that life doesn’t have to be like this. It doesn’t have to be mundane, miserable, repetitive or in servitude to someone else’s rules.

Success doesn’t necessarily mean hitting your target.

Ferriss explains in the book that a huge or unrealistic goal can provide the fuel required to overcome the inevitable challenges that come with working towards something.

“Realistic goals, restricted to the average ambition level, are uninspiring and will only fuel you through the first or second problem, at which point you throw in the towel,” he writes. “If the potential payoff is mediocre or average, so is your effort.”

Of course, you can’t goal-set your way out of structural inequalities, and SMART goals dictated by an Ivy League graduate are not a solution to capitalism’s perils. But unrealistic goals can change your thinking and open up your appetite for risk and endurance.


How to manage when you miss the mark

Of course, there are good arguments to counter this idea of unrealistic goals. It’s daunting and demoralising to set yourself up for failure, and if you know from the beginning that you’re not going to hit your target, how motivating can your goal really be?

But for me, this actually isn’t all that persuasive. I’ve found the idea of setting ludicrous goals to be quite freeing, as it transforms my thinking about what success and achievement mean. It has helped me liberate myself from the perfectionist mindset that tells me I need to start over if I don’t hit every note perfectly.

Success doesn’t necessarily mean hitting your target.

Success can be the decision to push yourself out of your comfort zone, or to admit that there’s something you really want to do, but have been too scared, lazy or overwhelmed to try.

Unrealistic goals in application

At the beginning of this year I applied Mridu’s strategy to a personal goal to read 52 books in 2018. I was a voracious reader as a kid, but my bookshelves now are lined with unread tomes and my Goodreads to-read list is twice as populous as the 16 books my account lamely tells me I read last year.

I’ve picked up my old, pre-Instagram habit of reading before bed instead of scrolling.

Fifty-two books is clearly an unrealistic number for my reading pace. And in mid-April, when I’d read eight books in twice as many weeks, I wanted to throw the whole project in, because I clearly wasn’t going to hit 52. Maybe I’ll start again in 2019?

But that’s the whole point of it. Chasing 52, instead of a more achievable 20, has forced me to dramatically change my habits, and draw on new untested abilities within myself to reach for what I want.

I’ve picked up my old, pre-Instagram habit of reading before bed instead of scrolling. I double-check my bag every time I leave the house to make sure my book is inside. My goal makes me constantly think about it in a way last year’s limp thinking definitely didn’t. I wanted to make a definite, dramatic change to my behaviour, and setting an unrealistic goal will see me better last year’s 16 books by September.

If there’s work you want to do: a year-long backpacking adventure, a first-time financial investment, a new relationship or a brand-new routine, setting an unrealistic goal could be the thing that gets you started.

Sophie Raynor is a writer and list-maker from Perth living in tropical Timor-Leste. She loves ethical development communications and taking about sweating, and tweets at @raynorsophie.