I don’t set many goals. This may be surprising to people who see me as a highly motivated person. Because I don’t struggle to be effective with my time, some people might assume I’m a goal setter. But I’m quite the opposite. While it is true that many successful people set goals, I am not convinced that I therefore should follow. Historically, many successful people also smoked.
It was about eight years ago as I began college that I first noticed that I didn’t like setting goals. As a track runner in High School, I had ran the 400M and the 800M. I was very successful and pushed myself so hard that I puked after every 800M. I would spend much of the meet with my eyes closed trying to sleep, hoping to accelerate the time between now and my next event. I was miserable until at last the meet was over. After winning my race, I felt euphoria for having accomplished my goal. It was heavenly.
I am still proud of my track career, but I did not continue running in college. It was not healthy for me. The only things that kept me running were my own goals. Ever since quitting, I have never competed in the 400M or the 800M because why would I. I never enjoyed it. I only enjoyed completing it.
On the other hand, while I enjoyed much less success on my high school soccer team, I still play soccer as often as I can. The difference is that playing soccer is enjoyable to me. There is no goal or outside reason that motivates me to play. I simply love to play and so I play. I look for opportunities and I regret missed chances.
The problem with goal setting is that it is almost entirely achievement-oriented. It turns life into a checklist and turns our lived experience into a streamlined, task-directed narrative. Success is measured by the number of check marks you put on a page. The enjoyment of this sort of goal setting is goal completing. The reward comes after the work. And once the goal is complete either a new goal must be chosen or the activity ends. At its worst it leads to self-doubt and at its best it’s self-affirming.
Now, I am not saying you ought to throw out your to-do list. To-do lists are helpful for staying organized and tackling large tasks. I also do not mean that we should not be self-reflective or consider the future implications of current decisions.
But I am suggesting you avoid getting stuck in goal setting and forward looking. Goals look forward to the end of the meet, they push you into what is next rather than allowing you to appreciate what is now and not later. It is my opinion that there is much more time and joy to be had in the experience itself than after its completion.
New Years is a time where many people set goals about working out and losing weight and so I offer my own anecdotal advice. I can say honestly that I work out virtually every day and I remain physically fit even though I never set a goal. Instead, my exercise has become habitual. I want to work out because I enjoy it. I don’t go crazy, normally twenty to forty minutes. Sometimes I push myself and sometimes I take it easy. Sometimes I run, sometimes I play soccer, sometimes I do push-ups and sit-ups.
I don’t have to force myself into it. On days that I am unable to work out, I don’t hate myself. Instead I feel an absence in my day—not because I didn’t complete a goal, it’s not a personal failure, but because my body and my mind are used to feeling rejuvenation. Perhaps the easiest way to describe the difference between what I experience now and past goals is that habitual behavior feels more natural. I’m working with my body not against it. I find fulfillment in the task itself, not the completion.
In a way, goal setting is backwards. It feels unnatural in the way it seeks to assert mind over matter. While sometimes this may be necessary to break bad habits and create new ones, we should seek to establish habits rather than permanently and endlessly erect new goals. There is danger in clinging too vigorously to goals. We can all easily recall people who have created a false religion out of fitness. They set higher and higher goals and push their bodies far beyond what is good and healthy. Eventually their arms look like overstuffed bags of produce.
So this year consider setting no goals; the odds are you’ll fail anyways and if you don’t, success might be even worse. Imagine an alternative. What if instead of focusing on goals you spend time considering what aspects of life you’d enjoy amplifying. Instead of amping yourself up mentally in a battle against your body, sign up for the soccer league you haven’t had time for, or set up a weekly date with your wife, or plan a cycling vacation. Instead of thinking of all the things you do poorly, think of the things you have always wanted more time to do. Instead of setting goals, think of skills and habits that would make your life more enjoyable and meaningful. Then build a habit.