The Power of Upper Limits: How to Set Goals That Actually Work

In the book, Great by choice: uncertainty, chaos and luck—why some thrive despite them all, strategy researcher, Jim Collins, reveals Putman’s final decision to:

“Do the same thing that you are already doing well…and do it over and over again.”

Unlike their competitors, Southwest Airlines set upper limits on their business growth and had the discipline to turn down opportunities.

For example, in 1996 alone, over 100 cities begged for Southwest airline services, but they only chose to work with four.

Despite being a publicly traded company, Southwest was willing to sacrifice growth for the sake of maintaining a high level of performance and customer service.

In addition, Southwest set upper limits on how the business operated.

These included, flying only 737 planes, providing no food services and no interlining.

These upper limits were specific, actionable, and most importantly, sustainable over decades.

Now, compare this to how we typically set goals and plan to achieve them.

We often begin by setting goals with lower limits, but no upper limits of what we can sustain i.e I plan to read at least 5 books each month, write 1,000 words a day, workout four times a week and generate 100,000 dollars in revenue.

But then, once we’ve hit the goal—even though we couldn’t sustain it—we set a bigger goal, which eventually leads to complexity, overwhelm and failure.

If instead, we set goals with upper limits, it becomes much easier to figure out what’s truly important to focus on and stick to our goals over the long run.

For example:

If your goal is to build a profitable business that lasts, your upper limit could be a maximum of 10 clients each year and 50 employees.

If your goal is to improve and maintain a high level of performance at work, your upper limit could be a maximum of 7 working hours each weekday and none during the weekends.

If your goal is to get and stay in shape, your upper limit could be a maximum of 3 workout sessions each week.

By setting upper limits to your goals, you’ll not only solve complex problems quickly and make better decisions, but you’ll also maintain high levels of performance and achieve long-term success, no matter the level of chaos and uncertainty around you.

Do Only What You Can Sustain

We live in a world obsessed with “stretch goals,” quick results and fast growth.

We want more. We want it faster. And we want it now.

But the Southwest Airlines story is one of many examples to remind us that in the long run, bigger and faster isn’t always better.

And more often than not, slow and steady wins the race: it pays to stick to doing only what you can sustain and nothing more.

It is only those who can resist the temptation to add more to their plate when times are good, that will ultimately survive and thrive when times are bad.

When in doubt about how to set your goals, ask yourself this question: can I sustain this for the next 10 years?

If the answer is no, create an upper limit that will turn your answer into an emphatic yes.




This article was written by Mayo Oshin who writes at, where he shares well-researched ideas based on science, philosophy and art, for better productivity, creativity and decision-making.

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