Let’s say you want to become a published author. You have this clear objective you want to achieve, and decide on a game plan to get there. You read about the stories of other authors, you make a list of publishers to reach out to, you think about ways you could get an agent.
You know the exact number of words a novel should have to be considered publishable, and decide to go for a novella because it sounds much more achievable. This is what is called a push goal: when you have an objective and design a structured plan to achieve it. You push yourself to achieve this goal.
Now, let’s say that instead of going through all the previous steps, you just decide to write every day. You put it in your calendar, and you commit to write. You don’t have a perfect plan or a defined objective, you just enjoy writing and want to become better at it. Eventually, you start noticing patterns in your prose, and you think of something that would make a good topic for a book.
So you write a book proposal, reach out to a couple of agents, and keep you fingers crossed. While you’re waiting, you keep on writing—because that’s the initial commitment you made. This is a pull goal: when you have a structured action plan, but no defined end goal.
Another example would be the one of a student. If you want to become a marketer and—in order to achieve that objective—you decide to go to business school, this is a push goal. If you go to business school out of personal interest, commit to study hard, but don’t know yet exactly what will come out of it, this is a pull goal.
Push vs pull goals
Here is a table to better understand what makes push and pull goals different.
As you can see, the end result may be the same, but the journey is very different. In one case, you need to rely on your willpower and external pressure to achieve your goal, whereas in the other case you feel a natural pull towards the activity—even though you’re not quite sure what the end goal exactly looks like. You’re just pulled towards that goal.
The second approach is exactly how I went about learning how to code. I didn’t have a specific end goal—because it would be impossible anyway to define what it means to be a developer—and just committed to practice every day.
It’s the essence of the mindful productivity method I designed for myself. Design a consistent practice, commit to it, share what you learn, and work your way up to a more impactful and rewarding project. Don’t decide exactly what the end result will look like before getting started. You just don’t know enough at this point.
How to go from push to pull
Society pressures us to choose push goals. We’re taught to pick an ambitious objective, to design a foolproof plan to achieve it, and to keep pushing. As such, it’s not easy to turn push goals into pull goals, but there are a few steps you can take.
- Take a step back. Ask yourself what you enjoy doing, regardless of the end goal. What are some of the activities that bring you joy? What’s your own art for art’s sake? What would you keep doing whether it made sense from a business standpoint or not?
- Connect the dots. Once you’ve listed all your pull activities, try to find a common pattern to identify an overarching direction. Is there any way to connect these to create a super-activity that would fulfil the same needs?
- Make a pact. Commit to dedicating time to this super-activity on a consistent basis. Whether writing, coding, drawing—book it in your calendar and build a habit out of it. Don’t worry about the end goal. If you picked the right activity, it should be enjoyable in and for itself.
After a while, you will start seeing emerging patterns. Maybe you enjoy writing about certain topics, coding in certain languages or working on certain aspects of a product, such as front-end or back end, or maybe you will discover yourself a particular interest in a type of illustrations. Then, and only then, ask yourself what would be the best next step. You’ll have accumulated enough knowledge—both about the craft and yourself—to make an educated guess.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff
I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, learning, and designing engaging products.
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