Why I Gave Up Goal Setting to Achieve my Goals
I love goals and resolutions. I would even decline invitations to New Year’s Eve parties to spend a quiet evening alone with a cup of tea and my journal to reflect upon the prior year, engage in deep soul searching and dream for the upcoming year. Maybe even light a candle. And because this kind of reflection wasn’t enough for me just once a year, I would do it on my birthday, on the Lunar New Year, the summer solstice, the winter solstice, on Ash Wednesday, the anniversary of every notable event and basically, any special day that gave me an excuse to do what I love to do, which is to reflect on the past and dream for the future.
Over the years, I’ve picked up some advice from a myriad of self-help sages on different methods of engaging in this kind of self-reflection. I have tried most of these ideas, from dream boards to daily to-do lists to sketching out 1 year, 5 year and 10 year plans. One of the most fun of these experiments was my “Thirty Before 30” list where, in my late 20’s, I came up with a list of thirty things I wanted to accomplish by the time I turned 30. On my 30th birthday, it was exhilarating to see how most of those hopes became a reality, like becoming a minister and traveling to certain countries. Although, I never did reach that 117 pound goal. Alas.
But as 2018 begins, I find myself approaching this reflection process in a completely different way. Part of this shift is due to the fact that I’m a new mom with less energy to set goals for myself, much less actually reach them. Just accomplishing a day’s tasks seem like a herculean feat that requires more patience, drive and tolerance for feeling that I'm falling shorter than before. Connected with this day-to-day fatigue is feeling like I’m constantly chasing something just beyond my reach instead of being content with my life as it is. In short, I began to feel goal-fatigue. I wondered if there was another way to manifest the dream life that seemed to be washing away in a tide of fatigue and uncertainty.
Most recently, my goal obsession was to buy a home in a particularly quaint and lovely neighborhood in southern California. Real estate prices being what they are here, this seems nearly impossible for millennials without an uncharacteristically high income or some sort of inheritance or family assistance. No matter how much I crunch the numbers and save as much as possible, it doesn’t seem feasible. Maybe it would be possible in ten or twenty years if everything goes the way I plan. Maybe.
In a particularly despondent moment, I came face to face with this reality and with the fact that I simply don’t want to be chasing after this dream for that long, experiencing the continual discontent that accompanies such chasing. I asked myself, ”What does the house represent for you? Why do you want to own your own home?” To which I responded, “I want to live in a beautiful neighborhood and have my children go to a good school and have a home that is designed exactly to my liking.” And I then shot back with another “why?” This process of drilling down past the ephemeral yearnings of life eventually led me to my core desire: I want to be happy. For me, this means being in a certain cultural and aesthetic environment. This makes me feel happy.
Well, that’s something I can work with. So then I started working back up by asking myself: what are practical and relatively easily achievable ways that make me feel happy now? And if particular cultural and aesthetic environments bring me happiness, how can I access those in my current life? Numerous answers came to mind, for example: writing at cute coffee shops, reading good books, rich friendships, fun date nights with my husband, quality family time, folk music, thought provoking plays, hiking and decorating my house in that rustic French style that I love. So then I started doing those things. And I noticed an interesting phenomenon take place. My desire for that house didn’t magically disappear, but it slowly moved to the background of my thoughts instead of resting at the forefront, right at that border between imminent plans and far-away dreams. The house is no longer a precondition to my happiness as I realized I have everything I need to be completely happy in this moment, to be content with what life has offered to me in the present.
Another way this idea was expressed to me recently was in philosophical terms as form versus content. We all have these longings and we associate these longings with concrete content (e.g., a certain clothing size, a house, a specific profession). The pursuit and even the attainment of these arbitrarily chosen content does not bring us happiness however, because it was never about the content to begin with it. It was about the form behind the content. And it’s only by chasing the why behind the goals, that is, the form, that we break out of the vicious cycle.
This method of exploring and parsing out the true goals behind the goals, of getting at the core desires behind the superficial markers and then going straight after the core desires, is, I believe, central to finding contentment in our current lives. Contentment, which seems like the scarcest resource in our society, which continually brews discontentment within us by selling things to us all the time. Every single day, I see some ad, read some article or have some conversation that makes me feel like I need to buy this or that to be happier. But that is simply not true. In fact, the opposite is most often true. The more we buy and the more we chase, the more discontent we feel as we realize there is so much more we need to buy and chase. Some people like the thrill of the chase. But I’d rather enjoy this short and precious life instead of spending it pursuing the things I don’t have.
I do want to note that I don’t think there’s anything wrong or immoral with goal setting. It can be intensely satisfying to reach certain milestones and, honestly, it can be fun. At least it is for me. I even recently did a “18 for 2018” list inspired by Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft’s recent episode on the Happier podcast. But we mustn’t be deceived to believe the myth of “if I have this, then I’ll finally be happy.” It was never about the “this.” It was about the happiness that lies beyond its horizon.
So if you’re sick of goal setting and ready to try something new because you want to remove yourself from this vicious cycle of chasing/getting/chasing or just chasing/chasing/discontentment, I’d recommend this different method of achieving your “goals.” Write down your dreams and afterwards, ask yourself, “Why do I want these things? What do these markers represent for me? What are my true goals behind these superficial goals?” And then, try going straight for those true goals right now. It worked for me and I hope it works for you.
This essay was also published on Medium here.