To Achieve a Goal, Turn It Into a Problem
I wanted to talk to Trevor Kashey about goals for my book, The Comfort Crisis, because he seemed so good at achieving them. He had enrolled himself in college at age 14 and gotten his PhD in biochemistry at 23 before becoming a cancer researcher. Now, he runs a successful nutrition consulting company, where he’s helped thousands of people lose hundreds of thousands of pounds.
But Kashey didn’t want to talk about goals. In fact, he said, he hated the concept.
“Goals feel good to set, but they’re just a diversion,” he told me. “People face no consequence if they don’t reach their goal. So they forget it and set another one again and mess that one up, too.”
No, Kashey wanted to talk about problems. Too often, he said, we use goals to gloss over problems, pulling arbitrary benchmarks out of thin air — like losing 10 pounds or reading 30 books in a year — without pausing to consider whether hitting those benchmarks will improve our lives.
When we want to do or change something, a more productive framing, he said, is to ask ourselves, “What problem am I trying to solve?”
I’ve since applied this concept to many areas of life, and it’s saved me a lot of time, effort, and money. For example, it recently rescued me from setting a goal of exercising twice as much (I realized I was already fit enough for a desk-bound writer) and from buying a new car (I saw that my current car goes from point A to B the same as a new one would).
Asking “what problem am I trying to solve?” can help you:
- Decide if this thing you’re trying to accomplish is even worth accomplishing. You’re forced to unpack your answer and determine why you want to do or achieve this new thing in the first place. Our answers can provide clarity and better direction.
Say you want to lose 10 pounds. How has your current weight manifested itself as a problem? You can’t fit into an old pair of pants? Could you just, like… buy the same pants in a larger size?
- Hone your approach. Solving a problem is inherently more tactical and specific than working toward a goal. “Problems are usually associated with some sort of existing behavior,” Trevor said. “You can reverse-engineer the steps required to change that behavior, and it’s obvious and measurable when the behavior and the problem it’s causing have changed.” Like fitting into those new pants.
- Commit. If you’ve identified a real problem, said Trevor, it won’t go away on its own. You can’t just abandon it like you can with a goal; If you do, it will only get worse. Focusing on a problem is better at forcing action — and solving them inherently improves your life.
Another use case: I recently decided I wanted to read more classic literature. My answer to the “what problem” question was this: I knew that my writing was limited by the fact that I only read nonfiction and reading fiction was a way to solve that.
The framework also helped me identify why I didn’t read that much fiction in the first place. My problem was that I read the classics at night, when I was already exhausted after reading boring studies all day. So I implemented a fun trick I learned from a Navy SEAL to help me start reading more: Commit to just five minutes a day. Another problem, another way out of it.
So if you’re struggling with a longtime goal or a new-ish New Year’s resolution—or have already given up on one—try reframing it. Identify the real problem you’re trying to solve.