What’s The Problem With Goals?

smart goal setting conceptFor those of you who may not know him, Leo Babauta of Zen Habits is one of, if not the, most respected personal development bloggers on the planet.  What he’s done over the past couple of years at zenhabits.net, writetodone.com, and mnmlist.com is nothing short of amazing.  All three are in my RSS reader, and a lot of the things I’ve read on those sites have made me think.

That being said, I’ve got some issues with a post he put up last week on mnmlist.com.  It was entitled Minimalism’s logical extension: Break free from goals.  You should read it (I wouldn’t link it if I didn’t think you should) and make your own decision.

I’d like to excerpt a passage:

More recently I’ve moved away from goals, broken free of the shackles of goals. I’ve liberated myself because goals are not ideal, in my way of thinking:

  • They are artificial — you aren’t working because you love it, you’re working because you’ve set goals.
  • They’re constraining — what if you want to work on something not in line with your goals? Shouldn’t we have that freedom?
  • They put pressure on us to achieve, to get certain things done. Pressure is stressful, and not always in a good way.
  • When we fail (and we always do), it’s discouraging.
  • We’re always thinking about the future (goals) instead of the present. I prefer to live in the present.

But most of all, here’s the thing with goals: you’re never satisfied. Goals are a way of saying, “When I’ve accomplished this goal (or all these goals), I will be happy then. I’m not happy now, because I haven’t achieved my goals.” This is never said out loud, but it’s what goals really mean. The problem is, when we achieve the goals, we don’t achieve happiness. We set new goals, strive for something new.

For each point that Leo raises here, I disagree with either the actual statement, or the thought process behind it.

  • They are artificial — you aren’t working because you love it, you’re working because you’ve set goals. As I’ve written previously, your goals need to stem from your most deeply-held values.  Being a person of integrity demands this.  If your goals feel artificial to you, then you need to set more meaningful goals.
  • They’re constraining — what if you want to work on something not in line with your goals?  Shouldn’t we have that freedom? Again, your goals need to flow from your values.  Why would you ever want to work on something that contradicts your values?
  • They put pressure on us to achieve, to get certain things done. Pressure is stressful, and not always in a good way. This, friends, is a slippery slope.  We need to manage stress, certainly.  Prolonged or repeated intense stress is definitely not good.  BUT, a certain amount of stress and pressure is necessary in order for us to realize the potential that we have inside.  Drifting aimlessly, with no goals, is not a way to live a fulfilling life.
  • When we fail (and we always do), it’s discouraging. My answer to this statement is “So?”.  I’m not sure I understand what’s inherently wrong with being discouraged.  Granted, those who allow themselves to wallow in discouragement, or who don’t make an effort to move on from discouraging circumstances aren’t living a full life.  However, most people, when faced with circumstances that are less than perfect, will utilize the lessons learned from that failure to make adjustments and try again.  Taking your ball and going home, simply because you don’t like the way the game turned out, is what we try to discourage in our kids, right?
  • We’re always thinking about the future (goals), instead of the present. A goal is a desired end state that you wish to reach.  By definition, it occurs sometime in the future.  However, in order to reach that goal, actions must be taken in the present to move ahead.  I’ve always heard this saying: “Yesterday’s history, tomorrow’s a mystery.  Today is all we have.  It’s a gift, which is why we call it the present“.  I think I understand what Leo’s saying here:  don’t get so focused on making tomorrow that you forget or neglect what’s happening today.  But, if you’re setting meaningful goals and doing something every day to work toward them, you will be content with your present circumstances.
  • Finally, Leo’s last paragraph about goals not leading to happiness. He says that goals are an implicit indication that you’re not happy where you’re at.  That you’re looking for something else, some other circumstance, to make it all better.  Look, accepting yourself for who you are is fine, but there’s an important caveat that needs to accompany that acceptance.  You have to realize that, though you may be happy with who you are at this time, you certainly shouldn’t be happy if this is all you’re ever going to be.  Goals propel us forward to become greater than what we are currently.  None of us is perfect, none of us has it all together, and none of us will ever reach that place where we are.  If you think you have, you’re fooling yourself.  Be happy with who you are, but don’t be happy to remain where you are.

I hope this hasn’t come off as bitter or anything; that certainly wasn’t my intent.  As I mentioned, I enjoy reading Leo’s stuff because it always makes me think.  It just happens that this particular post made me think a lot, and I found I didn’t like what I read.

So, did I miss the point?  Let me know if you think I mis-represented what Leo had to say, or took something the wrong way, or whatever.  Conversely, did anything I said really resonate with you?  Let us know everything in the comments…

7 thoughts on “What’s The Problem With Goals?”

  1. I certainly don't think you missed the point and I really appreciate your observation on this. Possibly he was offering up a particular perspective view on goal setting. I think you clearly have your eyes wide open here in that we don't want to let ourselves be too wrapped up in our goals, but we certainly want to keep growing and moving forward.

    Great positive post…

  2. Once again Jason, you make some good points. Maybe Leo wasn't getting his point across in a way that resonated with you so I'll attempt to phrase it differently. I may be wrong too, but I think what he was trying to get across is this: While we need to be aware of the direction we want our lives to lead, if we become too focused on completing all the steps required to reach our goals, we cheat ourselves of the enjoyment that comes from experiencing our now. It isn't easy to juggle our wants, needs and hopes, especially when we fill our lives with too many "I have to do's". Be aware of your goals, just not obsessed with them. Hope this helps you come back to the post with a slightly altered perception. After all, the more angles we view something from, the better we are able to grasp the concept.

  3. Jason, I agree. It really bothered me because I had recently purchased and read Leo's book , Living with Less, in which a large part of the book was devoted to setting goals. I respect Steve's post, and like what he expressed, but considering that Leo is an accomplished writer, he is very capable of writing exactly what he meant. Leo also recently posted on the blog "The True Cost of Stuff" which was insightful, but much too extreme to suit me. While there is nothing wrong with changing your position and your choices, I would have liked transitional comments from Leo. That said, I will continue to read his blogs and take what works for me and leave the rest.

    1. Joyce, I agree with you whole-heartedly. I understand what Steve is saying, but as you point out, this is a bit of a departure for Leo.

      My main concern is that some folks may not "get it". It's entirely possible that Leo views this process as a bit of a "shades of grey" type of thing, not taking goals so seriously that you lose sight of the more important things, etc. However, that didn't come across in his post.

      Perhaps there are some people who have it so together that they can function the way Leo describes without getting sidetracked, but I don't think there are that many.

  4. I've worked with Leo a little bit through his A-list Blogging bootcamp, and that topic actually came up in a web-conference. What was determined was not that he had thrown away a direction to move in, but rather the idea that we have to achieve one specific thing or we fail. There are many ways to succeed and limiting yourself to one very small niche can cut your potential short. At the same time, he does still set goals, just not traditional ones. Kind of like how Tim Ferris "works". He chooses a direction he wants to move in, and starts building habits to take him that way.

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