Goals are Like Self-Inflicted Wounds

by | Jan 1, 2013 | Science of Happiness | 33 comments

I felt terrible.

I wanted to get fit.  After suffering some debilitating injuries years ago, I didn’t take my health for granted.  But I couldn’t evade the truth: whenever my trainer assigned additional workouts, I failed to complete them.

I just didn’t have enough discipline or time, I told myself.

I vowed to do better.

Like many who set such goals for themselves, either at the start of a new year or any time, it didn’t work.  I maybe got one additional workout in, but that’s as far as my resolve took me.

I was pretty dejected about it.  What was wrong with me?

Then my trainer came up with an amazingly simple fix: boxes.

Next to her list of additional exercises each week, she added a little box I was supposed to check off when that exercise was complete.

Not only did it work, but I would faithfully check off those boxes even when my trainer stopped looking at the sheet.

Apparently, the act of checking boxes was, all by itself, enough to get me to work out when all the proclaimed discipline couldn’t.

Effective, but was it healthy?

I first heard about the idea of living without goals a couple of years ago through my friend Leo Babauta.  But the above story always echoed in my head, convincing me such a strategy couldn’t work for over-achievers like me.

I told myself I needed goals to get things done.  As I’ve detailed before, setting goals works well for me.  Maybe too well.

Because at the end of 2012, I found myself very, very tired.

To my surprise, I found I wasn’t the only one suffering from severe burnout.  So was Niall Doherty and Jon Morrow, two writers/entrepreneurs I admire a lot.

However, malaise wasn’t the only thing bothering me.  I suffered from a vague sense of inadequacy all through 2012, even though things were going really well.  Other than feeling run-down, I couldn’t think of a single bad thing that happened.  So why was I feeling so lousy?

I considered going to a therapist.  I considered quitting everything and starting my career design process from scratch, from first principles.

I considered that my goals might be hurting more than they helped.

In an interview in The Sun Magazine, Parker J. Palmer says

When individuals don’t know what to do with their suffering, they do violence to others or themselves — through substance abuse and extreme overwork, for example.

I thought: that’s me.  So many of my goals are driven by suffering, from fear that

  • I’m not good enough
  • I need to make people like me
  • I need to impress people so they respect me

Classic over-achiever stuff, and logically, I know it isn’t true.  But simply resolving to “feel better” didn’t work either.  I needed a new approach.

What’s left when you leave your goals behind?

I recently read Leo’s 52 Changes, a book I highly recommend on the subject of creating new habits.   What really struck me though was Leo’s philosophy that we’re already perfect.

“If we’re already perfect,” I asked him, “why do we need a book that helps us to change?”  Here’s what he said:

You can still make changes if you’re perfect. Part of your perfection is a curiosity about doing new things, trying new things — not because you’re dissatisfied with who you are, but because you like to learn about the world, and about yourself.

The scientist in me nearly yelled “Eureka!”

Instead of goals, I’ll follow my curiosity.  Instead of slogging through tasks associated with goals, I’ll experiment with joy.

I’m obviously new to this, so I don’t want to imply I have this “no goals” philosophy figured out.  In fact, I plan to provide regular updates throughout the year on how this is working.  But here are a few questions I had to answer for myself:

Q:  Doing challenging, worthwhile projects aren’t always filled with joy.  In fact, they’re often fraught with fear.  How will you stick with the things that matter while just following your joy?

A: First, when you disassociate the challenge from a goal, it can be joyful.  I think a lot of my angst has been fear/worry that I won’t achieve a goal (or worse, won’t keep up with others’ achievements of their goals).  When the goal goes away, it’s easier to enjoy the challenge itself, regardless of the outcome.

Second, a recent article in Harvard Business Review suggests using “areas of focus” instead of goals, an idea that appeals to me.  For now, I think a focus on courage will keep me from avoiding situations I’m afraid of, though I wonder how many of my fears also stem from exaggerated expectations.

Q: Without goals to motivate you, won’t you spend a lot more time doing frivolous things?

A: Gosh I hope so.  Not only do I think I’ll have more fun, but I think I need to realize my self-worth even in moments of frivolity.  I’ve already scheduled a number of adventures with family and friends this year, including dog-sledding in the Arctic.  I’m looking forward to them.

Q: Didn’t you say on Facebook that 2013 was going to be the year of the book?  When you give up goals, are you giving up your goal of writing a book too?

A: If I really want to write a book, then I’ll write one. I think a big reason I haven’t done this yet is that I’m over-thinking it, trying to make my first effort “perfect.”  I shouldn’t need a goal in order to realize a dream.  I’m hoping this philosophy will help me do fewer things this year, which will free up time and energy for writing a book.

Q: When you say you’re going to do fewer things, how does eliminating goals help you do that?  Given your natural curiosity, aren’t you actually in danger of doing more activities without the structure and prioritization goals provide?

A: This is probably my biggest concern.  I get easily excited by projects, especially collaborations, and tend to overcommit until I’m miserable.  I’m tackling this in a few ways.

  1. I’m taking a project mentality: In this interview, Seth Godin talks about ending successful endeavors in order to start new ones.  I like this idea a lot, so as much as possible, I’m going to assign completion dates to current commitments, even if they’re successful and interesting.  This was the hardest commitment of all, and may turn out to be a bad idea, but I felt it was necessary.  I’ll explain the full implication of this decision in an upcoming post.
  2. I’m returning to my core dream: There are lots of things I’d like to do, but really, there’s only a couple of things I feel are essential–writing and speaking.  In 2012 I arranged an extremely lucrative and interesting writing job and still felt something was missing.  The insight that I need to be writing and cultivating my own audience was an important one I plan to test this year.
  3. I want to give more than I get: I suspect many of the commitments I later regret derive from the fear of losing out on cool or envy-inducing opportunities.  Ultimately, I felt this was selfish.  Perhaps fulfillment comes more from filling others up instead of ourselves.  I don’t know exactly how I’m going to manifest this yet, but I know I’ll have fun finding the right balance.

So what about you?  Are you making New Year’s resolutions this year, or have I talked you into experimenting with a year without goals?