mnmlist: break free from goals

“By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try. The world is beyond the winning.” - Lao Tzu

One of the unshakable tenets of success and productivity literature is that you need to have goals in order to be successful (see Seth Godin on this – he’s someone I respect, btw).

And from this tenet comes all sorts of other beliefs:

  • You need to set goals the right way (such as the SMART method).
  • You need to break goals down into actionable tasks.
  • You need to have deadlines and timeframes.
  • You need to make goals the focus of your day.

I know this, because I’ve believed it and lived it and written about it, for a long time.

Until recently.

Until recently, I’d always set goals for myself — short-term and long-term ones, with action lists. I’ve made progress on each one, and accomplished a lot of goals (read My Story for more). And from this traditional viewpoint, I’ve been successful. So no argument there: goals work, and you can be successful using goals.

But are they the only way?

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.

And while many people will say that striving for something new is a good thing, that we should always be striving, unfortunately it means we’re never satisfied. We never find contentment. I think that’s sad — we should learn how to be content now, with what we have. It’s what minimalism is all about, really.

And if minimalism is being happy now, with enough, with the present, then how are goals consistent with this? It’s something I’ve tried to reconcile over the last few years, with limited success.

So what would a true minimalist do instead? If we are content now, and we abandon goals, does that mean we do nothing? Sit around or sleep all day?

Not at all. I certainly don’t do that. We should do what makes us happy, follow our passions, do things that make us excited. For me and many people, that’s creating, building new things, expressing ourselves, making something useful or new or beautiful or inspiring.

So here’s what I do, instead of setting and achieving goals:

I do what excites me. Each day. I wake up, and work on things that I’m passionate about, create things that I love creating.

I don’t worry about where I’ll be (professionally) in a year or even six months, but where I am right now.

I don’t make plans, because they’re an illusion — you never know what will happen in a year or even six months. You can try to control what happens, but you’ll lose. Things always come up, sometimes good and sometimes bad, that will disrupt plans. Instead, I’ve learned to go with the flow, to not worry about things that disrupt plans but worry about what to do right now. This allows me to take advantage of opportunities to come up that I could never have planned for, to work on things I couldn’t have known about, to make decisions about what’s best right now, not what I planned a few months ago.

I don’t force things, but do what comes naturally.

And I focus on the present, on being happy now.

This has taken me time — letting go of goals is a scary and uncomfortable thing, but if you let them go gradually, it’s not that hard. I’ve slowly adapted the way I work, and learned to work in the moment, and go with the flow of the world that surrounds me (online and off).

It’s a beautiful way of working. And not incidentally, I’ve accomplished even more this way, without making that a goal. It’s a natural byproduct of doing what you love.

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” - Lao Tzu