Goal Setting is overrated: an alternative

I’m not big on New Year resolutions, but the start of a new year is a good time to do some thinking. I like to reflect on the previous year and think about where I want to focus for the year ahead.

I’ve drifted away from goal-setting over the last few years. I was super hardcore for a long time, but eventually admitted that I found it more harmful than useful. I found myself frustratingly re-writing my goals each month as my motivations changed.

I felt like a failure each month, even though I was actually getting good stuff done.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” Steve Jobs.

I couldn’t agree with this more. Most of the best things I have done in my life didn’t have a very specific plan in advance. Some of them were the result of me having general intentions, and in fact some of them were entirely random.

I now settle on a few principles which guide how I choose to spend my time each week, and day.

I keep these things in a document, which I look at each morning.

So what’s in the document? There are 3 sections:

  1. Focuses for the year
  2. A current monthly challenge
  3. Areas of my life

Focuses for the year

I try to stick to a handful of focuses that guide my overall actions for the year. I intentionally make them as non-specific as I can, because I want them to serve only as direction. They give me nudge on a weekly and daily basis, so I can think about what action I might want to take.

Here are mine for 2016:

  • be adventurous — set monthly adventure challenges; make friends with adventurous people
  • move forward financially — earn, be frugal, stick to budgets and save
  • find work I enjoy, is meaningful and will challenge me
  • spend lovely time with ella and fearne
  • be active — do crossfit classes and some light stuff around it
  • improve mobility — stick to a basic routine in mornings and evenings
  • eat paleo — start 50/50, eventually work up to 80/20

When I used to goal set, I would be very specific. I.e have 2 nice evenings out a month with friends. Deadlift x weight, for y reps. Grow net worth by x amount etc.

I now just have focuses for the year, leaving a lot of room for what I will actually do. Maybe the ‘adventure’ focus will see me doing more interesting stuff on the weekend. Maybe I will commit to a big event. Maybe our holiday for this year will have an adventure theme. Who knows.

Whats more important is that I continually think about being adventurous and make friends with adventurous people throughout the year. Whatever action I take will be what feels right at the time. I’ll have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in my future.

Monthly challenges

I started doing monthly challenges in 2015 and enjoyed it. I pick something to start doing, or give up each month.

For January I’ve decided not to check email or social networks until midday. It’s a habit that’s intrigued me for ages and I want to finally give it a try.

I like monthly challenges because 30 days is a good period of time to create or destroy a habit. Sure, not every challenge will stick afterwards, but even if only a couple do a year — that’s pretty good going.

Even when they don’t stick for good, they tend to influence my future behaviour in some way. For example, when I gave up alcohol for a month, I decided to have a wine on the very first day of the next month!

But, giving it up for 30 days changed my relationship with alcohol for good. I drink less wine in the evenings now. I also control my drinking way better on nights out. All because of what I learnt in the 30 days I gave up alcohol. I liked sleeping better and waking up fresher on weekday mornings. Not having a hangover from a big night out for a whole 30 days felt awesome too.

Areas of my life

I have picked a handful of areas which my life tends to get divided up into — family, friends, health, work, learning etc. I actually have seven of them.

Under each one I have a few notes which help remind me where my heads at with that particular area at the moment.

Heres how my ‘learning’ area looks at the moment:


  • read
  • write
  • listen to podcasts
  • seek out and speak to smart and interesting people
  • take time away to switch off, be quiet and think

As I review my areas, I will often delete, edit or add some stuff, depending on how my thinking is changing. It’s basically an up-to-date set of notes on what’s important to me right now for that area.

So, when I read through it, it helps guide what I may decide to do that day.

When I skimmed my document earlier this morning, I decided that today I would push forward with my current book for half an hour or so, and also spent some time writing (this article). Tomorrow and the next day it might be nothing. The following day I might make a note to take the afternoon off to just go for a long walk and switch off.

As you can see, it’s not a set list. I edit, delete and add to it regularly depending on how what’s important to me changes. I don’t have to do all, or any of it. It’s just there as a nudge.

So to re-cap.

  • I have a handful of focuses for the year, which will mostly stay the same throughout (they are big and vague enough, that I doubt I will change my mind on them).
  • I set myself a challenge of some type each month — something to start doing or give up
  • I have a handful of areas which are important to my life (again, they rarely change through the years). Within each is a set of notes which represent what’s important to me right now.

Weekly and daily planning

This is what brings it together.

Weekly — On a Sunday evening, I try to block out half an hour to think about the week ahead. Roughly, where do I want to spend my energy?

Some weeks I might decide I want to almost exclusively focus on my health. Other weeks I might tread water on my health and decide to put more focus on work stuff.

Daily — Every morning, I review the document and plan out my day in detail. The document guides that planning. It influences what I spend my day doing.

In a nutshell, the big document allows me to get my big thoughts down on paper. I guess the yearly focuses are similiar to a strategy. The rest is the plans and execution part (notes within the areas of focus and the weekly / daily planning).

I find that this gives a good balance between having some things to focus on, yet remaining flexible.

Here are some other good reads on this subject that have helped shaped my thinking over the years. All three writers have similiar views on goal setting.

Achieving Without Goals by Leo Babauta

Living with no goals by The Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus

Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead by James Clear.

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