Keep Moving the Goalposts
Will Bamberg | Updated
To enact change in our lives, we set goalposts.
Goalposts—expectations, goals, and standards—are mental tools that help you make sense of life. They orient you, establishing what's important to you and where you're trying to go. They give you metrics to evaluate yourself: are you on track? Are you making progress? Your goalposts map out the life you're trying to live.
It’s important to engage with goalposts directly because we give them great power. Evaluate the same day against two different sets of expectations—one feels like a slam dunk, the other a total failure. As the standards by which you judge yourself, goalposts greatly influence your psychology.
Part 1: How to Think About Goalposts
Goalposts are only useful when reasonable. Reasonable goalposts push you to meet them, but are ultimately attainable. Ask too little and you won’t make meaningful progress. Ask too much and you won’t succeed. There’s a goldilocks zone of expectations: juuust right.
Unreasonable goalposts are a psychological burden that place you in a constant state of failure. They aren’t just emotionally taxing; they warp your sense of reality. Impossible expectations create dissonance between who you think you should be and who you actually are. They separate you from life instead of connecting you to it.
Many goalposts are recurring, such as daily habits, weekly goals, and continuous standards you hold yourself to. These goalposts need to be sustainable. Can you hit the target not just once, but again and again through the ups and downs of life? Recurring goalposts must stand the test of time.
Goalposts in Context
Setting reasonable goalposts isn’t a complete strategy on its own, because goalposts have a finite lifespan. They’re dependent on you, and you’re always changing. Even the most reasonable, sustainable goalpost will eventually lose relevance to you. Obsolete goalposts also burden you, by attaching you to a version of yourself you’ve outgrown. We need to be ready to update our goalposts.
Another wrinkle is that individual goalposts can’t be viewed in isolation. Whether a goalpost is “reasonable” depends on the rest of your goalposts. How much is on your plate right now? Do you have enough bandwidth for this new commitment you’re asking of yourself? We have to put goalposts in the context of real life.
While time and energy are finite, in practice the real bottlenecks are psychological. A seemingly well-thought-out routine on paper may crash and burn when it meets unsteady motivation, scattered attention, or even just a bad week. How can we maintain some semblance of structure through the chaos of life? An important layer of this puzzle is momentum.
Conservation of Momentum
Momentum, the sense of making progress, is a mental resource that impacts motivation, self-discipline, and agency. It acts as a psychological battery, helping you cut through resistance and jump-start action.
Momentum exemplifies the fact that we are not rational beings. Logically, it shouldn’t matter—each day you can do anything, regardless of what happened yesterday. And yet, momentum often makes the palpable difference between giving up and pushing forward.
Goalposts and momentum have a cyclical relationship. Reaching your goalposts creates momentum, and momentum helps you to reach your goalposts. However, this is a two-way street. Failing to reach your goalposts drains momentum, which in turn makes it harder to reach your goalposts. Momentum has both positive and negative feedback loops.
These feedback loops are not limited to individual goalposts, because momentum is a shared resource. Momentum gained from one habit helps you get moving on another. The opposite is also true: losing momentum in one area drains your overall momentum, which eventually threatens other goalposts. This is the failure mode of taking on too much too fast: you fall off of one thing and before you know it, everything comes crashing down. Conserving momentum is crucial.
Raft of Expectations
Understanding momentum puts goalposts in a new light. Your expectations, goals, and standards are interconnected, built on the same foundations, drawing from the same mental reserves. The game is not just engineering success with a specific goalpost. It’s adding to your overall goalpost superstructure safely. You want to carefully stack a Jenga block without toppling over the whole tower.
Let’s take this structural metaphor out to sea. Life is an ocean: vast, powerful, chaotic. Your goalposts form a Raft of Expectations that keeps you afloat. Your raft must be sturdy, composed of reasonable goalposts. But a sturdy raft is not enough—you still have to respect the ocean. You respond to it, not the other way around. You must steer carefully, lest rogue waves capsize your vessel.
Goalposts aren’t something you can set and forget. They must evolve alongside you, or they’ll fall to pieces beneath your feet.
Part 2: Keep Moving the Goalposts
When it comes to making progress in life, goalposts are only the tip of the iceberg. You need a strategy for protecting your momentum, for defending your psychology against wayward expectations and outdated standards. I offer you: Keep Moving the Goalposts.
Frame of Mind
The foundation of Keep Moving the Goalposts is understanding that your goalposts will always be changing. You’ll change, your life will change, or you’ll realize your goalposts simply weren’t as useful as you thought they’d be. Expect this up front—don’t be too attached to any particular goalpost. Think strong expectations, loosely held.
Keep Moving the Goalposts is about cultivating mental agility and resilience. Obstacles, mistakes, and failure are inevitable in life. Can you pick yourself up, choose a new direction, and start moving forward again? Or will you cling to your missed expectations as they drag you to a standstill?
Moving the goalposts is resetting your expectations back to reality. Goalposts don’t have absolute significance. They’re just mental constructs, remember, arbitrary structures you’ve created to guide yourself. They only have relative meaning, in how they connect to your life. If your goalposts are no longer calibrated to reality, they serve no purpose. Zero the scale and start afresh.
Think of yourself as Tarzan, swinging on vines through the jungle. When a vine has taken you as far as it can, release it and swing out on another.
Ways of Moving the Goalposts
Moving the goalposts can take many different forms. If you just need to tweak your completion threshold (e.g. once-a-week vs. twice-a-week), you can adjust your goalposts. If you need to go in a different direction (say, a process goal instead of an outcome goal), you can change your goalposts. If the goalpost is no longer relevant to you, you can release it.
There are two more subtle ways to move goalposts. First is the reset: keep the goalpost, but wipe the slate clean. Cancel your expectation debt—fixating on past misses only sets you up for failure in the present. Reset your goalposts when you’re in a state of perpetual catch-up, when you’re in a mental hole you can’t climb out of.
Second is the snooze. Snoozing your goalposts is a temporary buffer, a pressure relief valve for your expectations. You have to accept that sometimes life gets in the way. If you fall ill, don’t beat yourself up over missing a workout. If a dear friend is visiting, prioritize your limited time with them. You don’t need to change your goalposts, you just need to be flexible. Bend, so you don’t break.
When to Move the Goalposts
Even more important than setting and moving goalposts is the skill of evaluating them. The challenge here lies in distinguishing in-the-moment resistance or friction (natural parts of life) from truly unhealthy goalposts.
The clearest signal to pay attention to is faltering momentum. Feeling like you’re stagnating, constantly failing, or struggling to stay afloat should trigger alarm bells. What are you currently expecting from yourself? Which goalposts are healthy, and which are leaking momentum?
If one goalpost in particular is out of whack, pull the psychological plug and reassess. Does it just need to be adjusted or reset? Can a change of direction make it useful once more? Or is it the legacy of a past version of you that needs to be released? For best results, figure out why the goalpost became unhealthy, and iterate accordingly.
If you’re exhausted but can’t diagnose a specific problem goalpost, you may be burnt out. You can only operate at capacity for so long before you use up your energetic buffer. Take an inventory of everything on your plate, and choose some goalposts to release or snooze for the time being. You can always return to them later.
Break Your Chains
The bottom line is, goalposts should help you in your life. Whether by giving you targets to strive for, bars to clear, or guidelines for your behavior, goalposts should spur you to action. Useless goalposts are psychological chains, weighing you down and causing you pain.
You can break these chains! You put them on, you can take them off. Somewhere along the way, actively or passively, you decided you needed to be a certain way. You can just as simply decide not to believe that anymore. Free yourself from your own expectations.
Goalposts are only a tool, they’re not an end in and of themselves. How do you want to live? Who do you want to be? You get to answer these questions. Make your own rules. Decide for yourself what hoops you’re going to jump through. Set goalposts rooted in today, knowing you might leave them behind tomorrow.