Goal Setting Sucks

No matter how many people say that goals are the key to achievement and the best way to find happiness, I’ve never been able to agree.

For as long as I’ve entertained the concept in my mind, I’ve thought that goal setting sucks.

The closest I’ve been able to come to some sort of reconciliation is with an idea from Bruce Lee, that goal setting isn’t about the actual achievement of the target, but simply as a way to give ourselves direction.

So why am I hating on goals in the first place?

Because they clearly aren’t working.

Goal setting is great if you’re looking to sell motivational tapes, personal development seminars, or enrollment in various cults of personality.

But I see so many individuals setting goals, creating plans, and then failing to follow through.

New Years Resolutions have an abysmal success rate – 8% according to one study by the University of Scranton, and that tends to be when our motivation is at its highest!

The first thing gurus do when they see stats like this is claim we’re a bunch of lazy, unmotivated slugs who need to get inspired, find our true passion blah blah blah.

I, on the other hand, believe that this reflects a deeper truth about human nature: That goal setting isn’t the way to get us to take sustained, positive action. That goals don’t give us either achievement or satisfaction.

I think it’s far more likely that a small group of people have found a way to succeed despite a shitty success model than it is that we’re, on average, a horribly flawed bunch of failures.

The unending and unwavering support for this concept is a perfect illustration of the expert paradox: People who are extremely good and/or successful in a field often can’t explain WHY they succeed, which leads to bullshit rationalizations taking center stage. It’s not their fault, just another important quirk in human nature we need to understand if we want actionable information instead of tired dogma.

Why Goals Fail

Recently I wrote about why we struggle to find our purpose in life, and I think goal setting suffers from the exact same problem: It’s trying to make a static world out of a dynamic one.

What do I mean by this? By setting a goal, we’re taking some combination of thoughts and feelings, projecting them out into the world, and saying, “this is the way it IS.”

Except it’s not. The world changes, and we change with it. The river of life stops for nobody, and it does not permit stillness.

This means that, even if we make our goals with total honesty, they cease to be honest as soon as the world changes.

I used to be really interested in learning French at a high level and I became quite adept at the language. Then, I started dating a Russian woman. All of a sudden I had so much more incentive to learn Russian, that to continue working on my French in light of the new situation simply made no sense. The changing goal doesn’t make me a failure, it means I’m capable of noticing my surroundings and making the best choices I can given its reality.

This is actually a much larger, more obvious example than most. Usually, the shifts are subtle and manyfold. 1000 tiny changes add up to our goals no longer being in line with our current desires, not 1 cataclysmic event.

This is why I think Bucket Lists are a terrible idea: They are intrinsically and inevitably completely out of touch with our current desires. It’s imposing wants upon us (or our future selves) instead of listening to our current needs and desires.

The only way to truly succeed and be happy is to recognize our current impulses and decide how to best realize them in our environments.

Or in other words: We have goals, we don’t set them.

Right now my goal is to share this idea with as many people as possible, which is why I’m writing this article. Assuming this impulse continues, I’ll probably publish it and share it on Facebook and with my email subscribers. But maybe it won’t, in which case I’ll turn off the computer and do something new.

The key point is that I don’t need a paper and pen, a list, or any other mechanism to SET this goal. It doesn’t need a label or a time frame or an action plan. It just has to be recognized and acted upon. It IS there, because I’m a living breathing with experiences and interests. It doesn’t need to be put there as if I need a new kidney.

People have asked me for years how I happen to get so much done, whether that’s write hundreds of thousands of words, get into a university guitar program after playing an instrument for just 2 years, learning languages so quickly, or whatever.

I don’t have a bunch of productivity secrets. Oh wait. I do. And more. And…yup. Whoops, okay…so productivity is one thing, but the real secret to being productive is deciding what to do in the first place.

And the best way to get an extraordinary amount of stuff done is to do things that are in complete alignment with our current desires.

It sounds like the hedonistic pursuit of whatever will be most pleasurable and I should be lining up cakes on my kitchen counter right now. Except it’s not. Those are superficial desires. If you would take 2 minutes (or 20) to sit quietly to feel what you truly want in your life right now, the answer won’t be cake.

Goalless Living

To go without goals and still get amazing things accomplished, there isn’t a sexy, 10 step process that I can put in a free ebook to entice you to subscribe to my blog. This is about NOT creating more structure and regimentation, remember? Goals are OUT, intuitive living is in.

A good place to start is to sit quietly. Unless you don’t feel like it. Then, you are welcome to run, jump, play the piano, gamble, scratch your bottom, eat that cake left on the counter, or whatever else.

See how easy that is, you’re doing it already! Those are the goals you HAVE, not the ones society implanted in your brain or that you picked up from 101 Bucket Lists to Read Before You Die.

The key to achieving lifestyle orgasm is tension and release. Practice is a key element. You won’t be good at it the first time. But you can get better at it by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Where is there tension in my body?
  • Where is there tension in my mind?
  • How does this tension want to be released?

And then try to release it. Without judgment. Eat the cake and keep paying attention. Are you satisfied? In the cases of things that, intellectually, you know aren’t “good” for you, you’ll probably feel that while some desire has been satisfied, it hasn’t had the lasting positive effect you expected. The next time you’re wondering about cake, your mind and body will recall this experience. Eventually, you’ll unconsciously realize that cake isn’t doing it for you, and what was once a burning desire will fade away, leaving raw, virgin soil underneath in which to plant some new, scrumptious ideas.

One of the biggest breakthroughs is when we start to recognize that some ideas are thoughts about what we think we should be doing due to social norms or pressures. Being able to filter these ideas out lets us access our true feelings more freely.

This is how we can start living according to the goals we have instead of the ones we’ve set.

Now if you’ll excuse me, a nice Double-Chocolate Fudge Supreme with vanilla ice cream awaits.

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AJ Walton

AJ Walton will show you how to travel the world on your budget, how to make money on the road, and why you don't have to live the way others expect. Get the free guide: 101 Ways To Make Money While Traveling

Currently in Saint Petersburg , Russia

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