Stop Setting Goals
And what to do instead.
For a great many years — seven to be exact — I would do the same thing on my birthday. I would wake up in the morning and write down a set number of things corresponding to my age that I wanted to accomplish in the coming year. I was not militant about achieving these things, but I used them as a sort of guidepost to define how I wanted to live my life. I generally did a little more than half of them. The annual exercise inspired a few other people — and for that I am thankful — but I can’t say for certain whether or not I became more successful and happy because of it. Last year I turned 35, so I wrote down 35 things I wanted to check off.
This past January 8, I conquered one of the big dragons on the list, which was to “Run A Marathon.” My history with running is checkered, as I am not an athlete and my lungs work like a late-model Yugo. But I did do it, and it was awesome, but not for the reasons you would think.
I anticipated the fever dream of reaching the finish line, falling down exasperated, with my loved ones there to congratulate me, and I thought I would feel this extraordinary euphoria of having done something magnificent, something I never thought possible, and something most people never do. That moment never materialized. In fact, after I’d finished, I was mostly just done. Another check-mark in a box next to a goal. Another 100-like Instagram post. More fodder for a future column.
What I did take mental inventory of, though, was the feeling I got along the course. I loaded my Spotify with a 6-hour playlist of my favorite songs, and just vibed. Bright sunshine lit my face. I texted my dad along the way. I was completely at peace. There was nothing to think of except the road in front of me. Concern over money, my future, my relationships, my hashtag-legacy all vanished. And I was the most “me” I’d ever been.
At the halfway point, I stopped and high-fived other runners behind me. The bliss of being one with the road, of just doing something I loved to do in a way I never dreamed of, was overwhelming. I enjoyed every step, and when I saw that finish line, I perked up and ended strong. I smiled with my medals on. Those medals are now tucked away in a closet.
I tell you that story as a setup to tell you this: At that exact moment, I decided to stop setting goals.
Goals are largely determined by culture and driven by ego, and they’re usually unexceptional, even if they take a lot of work: buy a house, get married, have some kids, make money, lose weight. Other goals are merely vain exercises in achieving some kind of social validation: buy a bigger house, have the best wedding, make the most money, gain a fuck-ton of Instagram followers. I say this to highlight two reasons why goals are inherently flawed:
- The goals you set may not really be your own.
- Once you achieve them, they may not satisfy you.
Goals are often things we do to be a little bit more like other people in our society. In the United States, traditionally, some of these goals are things like “marriage,” “children” and “money,” or achieving the things that make all those a bit more likely. Ask yourself — really, deeply ask yourself — if these are, in fact, your goals.
Goals are also things driven by ego, things we aim to do to derive some kind of satisfaction or validation from. They are part of a performance or some kind of personal “brand.” Taken to its extreme, achievements are a productive off-shoot of peacocking. Evolutionary biologists have even observed that, in males, there is a significant uptick in goal-directed and risk-taking behavior around the presence of an attractive mate.
When you affix your self-worth to metrics and results, you are postponing your own happiness and placing it outside the realm of your control, all while — even worse — you’re convincing yourself that you’re “on your way” to being happier and more successful than ever, and that you’re this close to “making it,” without realizing that once you reach where you thought was the horizon, the goalposts keep moving back and now you’ve got somewhere new to go to be happy and searching for meaning.
Instead of goals, try this instead: Focus on Process. (Philadelphia 76ers fans may have varied reactions to that trigger word, but hear me out.) What is process? In it’s simplest form, it’s how you spend your time, capital and energy. It’s the answer to these questions:
- What do you like to learn?
- What do you like to make?
- What do you like to experience?
- Who would you like to share all that with?
When you know the answers to those questions, you have a better understanding of how to spend your time, capital and energy. You have developed a process. For me, that process includes running. I run because it is part of — nowhere near all of — what gives me joy and meaning.
Let’s say that you say to yourself, “I want to lose 20 pounds” and then you begin to run. If you hate running, you are more likely to fail at both things … the running and the weight loss. When you do something you do not desire to achieve a result you desire, you end up making yourself miserable in the short-term (“I hate this”) and the long-term (“I quit running and now I’m still an out-of-shape fuck-up” / “I lost all this weight but now I need to focus on gaining muscle or losing 10 more pounds”).
When you set goals, all accomplishments are treated as a result. When you set processes, all accomplishments are treated as side-effects. What is the difference?
Results are fixed. They are checkpoints. You anticipate them, then you observe them, then you reflect on them. They’re only briefly existing in the present tense, meaning they only provide happiness in that instant. Finishing the marathon did not give me any great sense of joy or pride beyond the moment in which it occurred. It was a result.
Side-effects are always in flux. You can only observe them, and only if you care to. Finishing the marathon was an intriguing byproduct of running for six hours. (Okay, okay — six and a half.)
When you spend your time, energy and capital learning, making and experiencing what you love, you can live more authentically, more meaningfully and more happily. The money will come. The love will come. The validation will come. The (*grits teeth*) social media followers will come. These things are of no concern to someone who focus on process. To those who hone in on goals, they are everything — yet they are hollow victories when they arrive.
[As an aside: I would be foolish not to point out that this is not realistic life advice for everyone; I am specifically talking to are those who have already achieved a certain level of creature comfort in their lives, but find themselves unfulfilled. So of course, if life is leaving you beset by heartbreak and hardship, survival and well-being exceeds the urgency of living freely. Also, if you have a little one or three in tow, keeping them alive, happy and well-adjusted will never not be of paramount concern.]
I spend eight hours every day doing something I love to do at a place I enjoy doing it at. I sleep for eight more hours. That’s two-thirds of my life spent doing things that kick ass. Plus, I have various side-hustles that also overlap very nicely with things that give me joy and meaning. I spend my free time, energy and capital leaning things like Spanish and rock climbing, making things like music and more writings like this at Medium, and experiencing things like laughter with friends and music festivals. I don’t spend 100% of my life doing these things, and it certainly isn’t possible based on a litany of factors — many of which are beyond my control — but it is fairly close.
I no longer have goals. I no longer have dreams. I only have processes, activities and experiences: things I learn, things I make, and things I do. Any sort of achievement or shallow culturally-defined institutional box I can check? They will be side-effects of the life I want to live.
There is a saying “run your race,” which essentially means don’t push yourself to run faster than you can on race day, don’t deviate from what’s worked for you before, and don’t try and mirror what the people around you are doing. I think that applies quite a bit to life in general. You could, if you wanted to, look around and see a lot of other people on the course, some running faster than you, some slower, some looking like they’re having more fun than you. Pay them no mind, for they are not running your race — they are running theirs. They don’t have your lungs, your legs or your life. They have theirs.
Though, every now and again, remember to turn around and give them high-five. I’ve learned from experience that they like that sort of thing.