Unsolicited Advice: Get Rid of Your Goals

There’s a lot out there in the self-help literature telling us how to set goals, why we should set goals, how to write goals down and how to achieve goals. Goal-setting and achievement is offered as the solution to living in a state of constant distraction, or the soul-crushing victimhood many of us take on. I’ve always seen myself as “goal-oriented,” and in my work I do help others achieve the “big goals” of being successful in their businesses. But I actually think that a lot of my own big goals screwed me up, royally. 

The Secret Sauce

Think of the thing you want more than anything else in the world. The corner office. To be a published author. To be a yoga-master. To solve the problems of the world. To be a ga-zillionaire. To have your own TV show. To have a wonderful family or a kick-ass herb garden. Now know this:

Someone out there has exactly what you want … and they are still miserable.

It’s true. We hear about them all the time. This was made very concrete to me as a kid growing up in an upper-middle-class New Jersey suburb of New York City, where my peers lived in beautiful Victorian homes, had television anchors as parents, BMWs for sixteenth birthday presents and modeling portfolios. Despite their dreamy-seeming lives, many had less-than-enviable lives. Money, beauty, success and happiness are not synonymous. Rich people have poor people problems like drug and alcohol addiction, not spending enough time with their kids or being house poor, they’re just able to cover them up more effectively, send the kid to rehab or boarding school. We are all human. So what are we supposed to do?

Remember this: Happiness is an inside job.

What makes you happy? What makes you feel most alive? Why not create more of that, instead of pretending you can’t have it or that you don’t deserve it? You’re not greedy for wanting more than you already have, and you don’t have to listen to what your sister, parents or friends say you should be doing.

Your Goals Can Be At Odds With Your Long-Term Progress

Last summer, I decided to join a friend who had trained for a yoga certification. I hadn’t really put in a ton of practice. I was just shy of a year practicing yoga maybe twice a week after coming back to it after a 17-year hiatus. But I joined my friend, a yoga instructor with over 15 years experience teaching for a weekend event aimed at helping us get certified on the spot. When it was my turn to certify, my performance wasn’t up to par. I missed some poses, and forgot the names of some of the most common yoga asanas. The Master Trainer working with us actually pulled me aside and asked me if I’d maybe had an out-of-body experience. That’s how bad my demo was! I was disappointed, because my incredibly huge ego wanted to succeed in the face of all odds and despite my lack of preparation, but the experience turned out to be incredibly enlightening. (As I always tell my kids: you learn more from failure than you do from success!)

My failure allowed me to uncover a pattern: I’d work hard for months training to compete in an event like a running race or a triathlon. As soon as the race or event was over though, I’d stop training. My only goal had been to cross the finish line in a certain amount of time. So once I completed the race, my goal was no longer there to motivate me. I’d stop training altogether, or go on a frantic search for the next competition “high.”

Maybe you can relate. It was an endless cycle of fits and starts. A pendulum, if you will. I ended up injuring myself as a result, when I developed a pretty severe case of plantar fasciitis on a super-serious build-up-to-race phase. (This injury ended up being the reason I decided to take a break from running and rediscovered yoga though, so it ended up being a blessing in disguise.)

After my yoga demo for the group of experts, I was taken into a private room, told I hadn’t passed, given some constructive feedback, asked if I’d had an out-of-body experience, and encouraged to try again another time. In that moment, I began understand my impatience and anxiety around my goals. If I were to continue on and pursue this yoga certification, then all of my hard work would be focused on this specific goal, being certified. What would then be left to help me move forward after I achieved it?

I decided then and there to work on breaking these fits and starts, where I went back and forth between working on a goal and not working on one. The feast-and-famine cycle I’d been in made it difficult to build upon my progress for the long-term, or think big picture. I decided yoga would be different. This was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life, not burn out on or get injured doing. Instead of focusing on my failures, this perspective has begun to allow me to see that my yoga journey has only just begun. The certification weekend gave me some valuable feedback, and a benchmark for how far I’d come in just 10 months of practice. The mantra, “sometimes you win, sometimes you learn” is very applicable here. Yoga is just my own personal example, and has become a touchstone in my life, but perhaps you can think of yours right now. 

So many of my entrepreneur and creator clients have big goals. These are driven, ambitious people who want success in their:

  • careers
  • relationships
  • health
  • physical fitness
  • family life

Many of my clients feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the goals they’ve set out for themselves. They feel stuck. They’re overwhelmed with either a lack of options, or too many options. They’ve plateaued. Or maybe they’re having trouble even getting started.

My clients’ “big goals” may be things many people dream about, but few have ever actually accomplished. For big goals like these, unless you spell out that goal in detail and work every day towards getting there, doing the work can be an uphill battle. Unless you see yourself slowly making progress, your dreams and aspirations are merely vague notions floating around in your imagination. So don’t we need some type of goals?

Perhaps you have heard of the Harvard Business School study of goals in which only 3% of the graduating class had specific written goals for their futures. Twenty years later that 3% was found to be earning an astounding 10 times that of the group that had no clear goals.

I’ve actually cited this Harvard study several times … only to find out that it doesn’t exist. It is actually an urban myth. Even though it’s widely cited in literature and business circles about how to properly set goals, investigative reporting by Fast Company magazine revealed that no such study had ever been done!

Once this myth was debunked, Gail Matthews, Ph.D. at Dominican University, undertook a study of her own. It focused on how goal achievement is influenced by writing goals, committing to goal-directed actions and being accountable for those actions.

  • Matthews’s study supported the positive effect of accountability: those who sent weekly progress reports to a friend accomplished significantly more than those who had unwritten goals.
  • She also showed that those who wrote down their goals accomplished significantly more than those who did not write down their goals.

Goals in Corporate America

“If we go to the average company in America, just the very idea that the goals are all transparent and public, that’s revolutionary,” John Doerr, chairman of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, a tech and business news podcast.

Doerr’s new book, “Measure What Matters,” is a guidebook to using a leadership strategy called Objectives and Key Results (OKR). Doerr believes that our leaders and great institutions are failing us, in many cases because they have picked the wrong objectives. His bottom line: OKRs fail when CEOs build their businesses to be cults of personality.

“It’s hard a run a company well if you don’t have clear goals, measure your progress against them, share them among your team members and get the team aligned and working on them,” Doerr said when asked about management struggles at Facebook and Uber. “That’s potentially the power of this system. But if you’re in a founder-worshipping culture where you have a narcissistic CEO who’s never run anything before and is out of his depth, disaster will unfold.

“There’s nothing special about the latitude and longitude of Silicon Valley that says leaders there are going to be effective, if they’re not clear and using goals to empower their team,” he added.

The Problem With Goals

Beware, though. When you’re working toward a goal, you are essentially saying, “I’m not good enough yet, but I will be when I reach my goal.” The problem with this mindset is that you’re teaching yourself to always put happiness and success off until the next milestone is achieved. “Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy. Once I achieve my goal, then I’ll be successful.” In spelling out or writing down a goal, we inevitably try to plan out where we will be and when we will make it there. That’s the whole point, right? We try to predict how quickly we can make progress, even though we have no idea what circumstances or situations will arise along the way. But how can we know when to step up and when to step back? How can we tell when we need to do more and when we need to trust the process more? What’s the difference between shaping the future and trying to control it?

When we place unnecessary stress on ourselves to lose weight, succeed in business, get that next certification or to write a best-selling novel, we are focusing on outcomes. To keep things simple and reduce stress, I have found that focusing on, even falling in love with the daily process – the things you need to do to accomplish your goals, not the goals themselves – is better. Rather than seeing it as a grind, really start to cultivate it as a gift. If you can stick to a schedule for this process, you’re off to a good start. This helps minimize anxiety about those big, life-changing goals and helps you start to just create the damned thing already.

Rather than letting how far you still have to go in your weight loss journey, in your business or in your relationships overwhelm you, take a step back and find gratitude that you are on the journey at all. 

If you’re trying to lose weight, take a deep breath. Marinade in the miracle of your life-sustaining breath. Release timeframes, weight goals and dress sizes and realize you are more than any of these numbers. Refuse to be defined by them. Stop trying to fit into those jeans from High School, and slip into the beautiful dress that fits the amazing woman you’ve become. Then, give a big “thank you” to your body and what it already does for you each day. Learn not to punish and deprive it. Enjoy the process of feeding it nourishing, healthy foods; breathing deeply; giving it life-sustaining movement.

If you’re struggling to have more than a paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle, express gratitude for what you’re already doing well with your paycheck and that you have these amazing ideas to create something more for yourself. Care for, cultivate, even thank the money you already have. Create a positive relationship with your money instead of hating or resenting that there’s not enough of it. Enjoy the thrill of eliminating debt and creating a budget that works for you and reflects your values.

If you’re wishing for that love of your life to happen or have lost a romantic spark with your partner, take a moment to look around you. What can you fall back in love with? What is happening now in your life that you can celebrate? A woman in love behaves a certain way because she’s chosen to do so. Even if you don’t have a partner, you can choose to live a life full of love. There is always something to love: a beautiful sunset, a child’s laughter, the light from a flickering candle. Instead of focusing on the lonely feelings, begin to “court” yourself. Buy yourself flowers. Create a tried-and-true process of expressing love to yourself, celebrating your life and the world around you … like a lover would. See how when you express love, love starts to flow through you. Be a conduit for love.

The above examples start to scratch the surface of focusing on the practice instead of the performance. This is another metaphor from yoga: you can enjoy and exist in the present moment, or the “practice” of yoga, yet improve at the same time. This way, even if things don’t work out exactly as you’d planned, you become a better person, stronger in the process. And isn’t that what life’s about, anyway? 

Just like in corporate America, running a family or small business requires you to learn how to make choices about priorities while keeping your team on track. You have to know when to pull the plug on losing propositions, to fail fast. And you need timely, relevant information to track your progress and measure what matters.

For more alternatives to setting goals and being productive without killing yourself to achieve them, see my post on the practice of Gratitude. This practice literally changed my life … and allowed me to create more of what I wanted … without pushing myself so hard all of the time!

What big goals have you had for years and years … that you’re ready to let go of? What can you replace them with?