How Setting a Goal Makes It Harder To Reach

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Have you ever had the experience of having a deadline — a paper to finish for school or a project on a deadline at work, and you suddenly feel inspired to clean out your fridge, do your laundry, go to the dentist, maybe? You know the feeling. Where what is in front of you to do feels like a huge hill to climb and activities you normally don’t care for suddenly feel appealing.

You’ve got a goal getting in your way. And if you’ve had this thing you are struggling with as something you need to do for a long time, you’ve had a goal getting in your way for just as long.

The google dictionary defines work as

“any activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.”

The same dictionary tells us

“To play is to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.”

If you have to do dishes so the kitchen is clean, that’s work. If a three year old helps you, that’s play. The dishes still get finished, but the quality of the experience is entirely different. When we’re playing, we aren’t concerned with the past or the future or results, time seems less relevant, our imagination flows. That sudden desire to clean the fridge when we’re under a deadline is our brain’s way of shifting from work mode to play.

Setting a goal is like lighting a pilot light. It constantly consumes energy. In the back of our minds is the knowledge that something needs doing. And there’s going to be a test. When there is a goal, we could fail. Vigilance is required. Even if it’s subtle, having a goal in mind takes up a piece of our available awareness, diminishes our ability to play, restricts our choices. Our focus shifts from the current moment to a desired future.

Have you ever tried to put a straw through a potato? It’s one of those exercises they offer in one day development workshops. Most people can’t make the straw go through the potato until the facilitator instructs them to aim for a point beyond the potato. Now everyone can get the straw through. The point being made is supposed to be to dream big. I think the real point is that when you stop focusing on the goal, achieving it becomes easier.

I’m not suggesting we never set goals. Setting and achieving a goal may be the only way to complete activities we don’t care for, like how we may not like to take out the garbage but we like that’s it’s gone out. And setting goals can help us narrow down choices, as in which of the available choices supports my goal? But ideally we use this strategy sparingly, opting, whenever possible, for finding a way to immerse in the process and let go of the outcome.

When we can do this, whatever we are attempting shifts from the realm of work to the realm of play. And when we’re in play mode our stress level is lower, we have more productive energy and the results are superior. We move towards or beyond our goals without noticing we’re doing it.


Written by

Kate believes growth lies in what we tell ourselves is true. Find more posts at kathleendoran.com and insideoutdecluttering.com. Check out auntyanxiety podcast

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