The Worst Way to Choose a Strategy

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“If you want to be mediocre and be happy about it, get this book.” 

~Excerpt from a two-star review of How to Be an Imperfectionist

When I first read this review a year ago, I was more confused by it than upset. I’m one of the most ambitious people I know, and I thought the book reflected that mindset quite well, and yet, this person thought the book promoted the opposite! Today, I’m thankful for this review, because it helped me understand a widespread problem: confusing goals with strategies.

How Tim Ferriss Networked His Book to Success

Tim Ferriss is the author of the extremely popular “Four Hour” series of books. I am a fan of Tim and his work, and I “like” him on Facebook. One day, Facebook notified me of a live Q&A with Tim, and I tuned in. He was answering a question about how he started out networking before his first book took off, and at the end of the discussion, he said something that really caught my attention. This is not an exact quote.

“If I was in a group and I detected someone had interest in my book, I’d offer them a review copy. I’d use post it notes to mark about 20 pages in my book and told them, ‘I don’t expect you to like or read the whole book, but I’ve marked about 20 pages that I thought you might like.'”

~ Tim Ferriss (paraphrased)

This played a key role in making his first book, The Four Hour Workweek, the runaway success that it’s been (1.3 million copies sold is pretty decent). The strategy is brilliant. I’m offered books by other authors and bloggers all the time, but I don’t typically have time to read them when I’m in the process of reading so many other books that I’ve hand-selected for my situation and research needs. By only suggesting someone read “the best 20 pages,” you immediately and significantly increase the chance that they’ll read some and possibly all of your book (if they get hooked on the content).

This is especially interesting, however, because Tim Ferriss recommends in his books that people set extremely ambitious goals. I remember in the Four Hour Workweek, he talked about how there’s less competition for extreme goals because most people aim for average, and thus, there’s more competition at the average level. 

Tim used lower expectations to get a significantly higher percentage of people to read some or all of his book, and yet, he recommends setting your sights high. Why didn’t he give his book away to everyone he saw and ask them to read the whole thing? Because one is a goal, and the other is a strategy.

Goals and Strategies

A goal is a specific target for the future. It’s a tangible, singular status that you would like to achieve at some point in time. While timing may or may not be defined, the goal itself is specific by nature because you can’t aim for nothing. Even a vague goal like “get into shape” will be tied to a particular image in the person’s mind about what that entails, but it can lose clarity if the person has multiple images in mind without choosing one. Specific, clear, focused goals are better in the same way that a sharp and clear target is better than a blurry one. 

A strategy is a process or approach toward a goal. It’s not a specific status or event, but rather a combination of calculated perspective, action, thought, and approach that combine to (hopefully) achieve the desired goal. Unlike a goal, which is singular, simple, and obvious, there can exist several different strategies and even multiple layers of strategies to accomplish that goal.

“All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.”

~ Sun Tzu

You can’t set a big goal and “go get it.” Imagine if the CEO of a company walked into a meeting and said, “Alright everyone, I’ve thought it through, and we’re going to set a goal to increase revenue by $14 million next quarter. Let’s do it!” What would everyone expect him to say next? They’d expect something about how he intends to accomplish that. They’d expect a strategy. This type of clarity is fully expected in business, but we often neglect it in our own lives. 

Every publicly traded company has the same basic goal of increasing revenue and profits. That’s their duty to shareholders. Their strategies for accomplishing that are very different. Old Navy is constantly running huge promotions and price cuts to increase sales and revenue. While Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz has the same goal, his strategy is different.

“Cutting prices or putting things on sale is not sustainable business strategy.”

~ Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks

This is a classic example of strategy versus a goal. Schultz knows that price cuts can improve sales in the short term, which would be the most obvious way to achieve the goal of increasing revenue, but he has a longer-term strategy that considers the perceived value of his product, which may be decreased if he ran frequent sales. The effectiveness of his strategy may vary by industry, but it’s very clearly a strategy that many others with the same goal do not employ. Give the success of Starbucks, many of his strategies have been effective.

A Common Goal-Killing Mistake

The more alike your strategy is to your goal, the more likely it is to be a poor strategy. If you have no strategy and someone asks you your strategy, you’ll probably just repeat the goal: “As I said, I’m going to double my clients and my income this year.” Okay, but how?

In writing my upcoming book, Mini Habits for Weight Loss, most of my time has been spent analyzing studies, considering variables in psychology and behavior change, and developing smart strategies based on that information. Other authors in this genre spend most (or all) of their time developing their special list of foods to eat and not eat (a diet), and then they adopt the default strategy for weight loss, dieting, which is so ineffective that studies show it often makes people gain weight. I know my book has a strong chance to succeed commercially and in readers’ lives because it’s rooted in strategy. Most weight loss books give people goals and sub-goals, not strategies. 

“Just Eat Less Junk Food!”

The goal is weight loss. We already know that. A sub-goal example is to eat less junk food. Anyone who does research on weight loss, regardless of their particular angle, will come to the conclusion that “junk food” is a major contributor to weight gain. I’m purposefully keeping “junk food” vague because I want to keep this article from becoming a book.

Eating less “junk food” will promote weight loss. Great. This is the goal.

Aaaannnnd action! Right? Nope!  

Once you’ve set a goal, you are not finished. How will you achieve the goal? 

Never assume the obvious choice is the only or best answer. When the goal is to eliminate or reduce consumption of junk food, what’s the first thing that 97.43% of people think to do?

Ban junk food.

This seems like such a “no brainer.” Ban yourself from junk food in order to avoid it. Duh. But hold on a second here. This is one of many possible strategies for accomplishing the goal of eating less junk food. This is, case in point, one of the worst strategies for this particular goal. Take soda for instance. In my book, I’ve listed eight different strategies you can employ to stop drinking soda. Eight. And there are many, many more than eight strategies, but what’s the one strategy people always choose for the goal of “stop drinking soda?” The brilliant strategy of “I’ll stop drinking soda.”

Sometimes, the obvious strategy can work. For example, maybe you can quit drinking soda easily overnight. Not all people can do that, however, and for some, such an ultimatum may even make their soda addiction worse.  

Big Goals, Small Strategies

Broadly speaking, the ideal setup is big, ambitious dreams combined with “small strategies.” That is, you can set out to become a rock star, but don’t try to do it all at once because that’s a poor strategy. That’s getting up on stage without practicing. It won’t work. Instead, practice daily with doable goals. Huge dreams. Small Steps. 

The beauty of this combination is that it’s self-balancing. Small, doable actions help to bring your overwhelming dreams into real world application, and your ambitious vision creates a powerful draw and reminds you that you’re fighting for something amazing while you’re in the daily grind. 

The biggest downside to massive dreams is overwhelm: small steps fix that. The biggest downside to small steps is that they don’t seem important enough: seeing them in context of your dreams fixes that.

It’s ironic that small steps and big dreams are often seen as mutually exclusive when they’re practically soulmates. The dreams I’ve reached, like my career success, have been entirely due to practicing mini habits every day; they are complementary and conducive to the biggest dreams a person can imagine. So to the reviewer who said How to Be an Imperfectionist (a spiritual successor to Mini Habits) was a book on achieving mediocrity, I present the following evidence:

  • One push-up per day became the best shape of my life
  • 50 words written per day became an international bestselling book in 14 languages
  • Two pages read in a book per day became 10x more books read per year

I have gotten mediocrity in life before. It was when I set goals like “get the best shape of your life, achieve the career success you’ve always dreamed of, and read ten times more books per year.” Setting goals is fine, but without strategy, they will die young. 

This is why I focus on strategies that can make big dreams happen, both in my personal life and in my writing. It’s the side of the coin that most people ignore (or else they use strategies that don’t work). If you want to get in the best shape of your life, that’s great and you should aim for that, but how you approach that goal will determine your success or failure with it.

If you merge goals and strategies, it’s a lose lose situation—small steps look like small dreams and big dreams look impossible to achieve. So don’t merge them.

Set the goals that excite you. Have dreams that might be out of reach. Be reckless with your dreams. But when it comes to how you go about them, be careful. Think it through. Experiment mindfully.

Remember this article. Even if you don’t like my strategies, it’s vital to understand the difference between a goal and a strategy.

A goal is a target to hit. Your strategy is how you plan to hit it. Put another way, dreams are the road and strategy is the car.

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