Letting Go of Goals: An Invitation

Once upon a time I went to a workshop. 

It was led by a guy who talked about creating the life of your dreams. How? By getting what you want in every area of your life.

This guy passed out stacks of index cards to everyone in the workshop. Then he told us to write one thing we wanted on each card.

You want to get married? Write get married on a card.

You want to end world hunger? Write end world hunger on another card.

You want to change careers? That goes on another card.

You get the idea.

Don’t worry about how grand or ambitious your goals are, the leader said. Just write everything down. Don’t censor yourself.

The leader glowed when he saw those cards piling up beside participants. The more cards, the better.

It’s a lotta work

Next, the leader gave instructions on what to do with our goal-cards. Now it’s time to get real, he said — time for the the rubber to hit the road.

Our next task was to create action plans. The goals we’d written earlier were long-term goals. Now it was time to take a chainsaw to them and carve up our goals into smaller chunks. This meant:

  • Writing a series of mid-term goals that would take us one step closer to achieving each long-term goal.
  • Writing a series of short-term goals that would take us one step closer to achieving each mid-term goal.
  • Finally, writing actions that would lead us to achieving the short-term goals — items to add to our calendar and to-do list.

Wow. I thought I had a lot of cards earlier in the workshop. But after adding all those new goals and actions, my stack could be measured with a ruler.

There was more to do, of course. The leader asked us to assign a level of priority and category to each card. And some other attributes also, which I’ve long forgotten.

What I do remember: There were a lot of cards—in my case, about 200 of them.  

Choosing to let go

I will admit that there was something kind of juicy about filling up all those cards. I got a sense of possibility and a shot of adrenaline.

Those feelings lasted until the workshop ended. And then came the aftermath.

I got back to my office and noticed what was already on my plate: A full email inbox. Calls to return. And reams of additional information coming from the news, the Web, and all the people in my life. 

Great, I thought. All that plus 200 cards to do.

Still I persisted with my goal setting exercises. Surely this works, I said to myself. It sounds so reasonable. I must be doing it wrong.

One day I summoned the courage to admit the truth: 

I hated all those cards. 

I wasn’t creating the life of my dreams. 

I was crushing myself under the weight of obligation—endless lists of outcomes to produce and actions to take. Endless effort, self-discipline, and willpower. 

So, I eventually took all those index cards and hurled them into the recycling bin. 

I remember that moment. 

I tossed those cards and then stood there and felt waves of pleasure. It was a moment to savor.

Goal-less and competent

The moment that I tossed my cards finally realized something: None of the wonderful things in my life emerged from writing long lists of goals and action plans arranged in vast deductive chains.

All those things — such as learning to play guitar, becoming a writer, getting married, having children — happened organically. They emerged from keeping my nose close to the ground, discovering something that delighted me, and following where it led.

And I did those things all with no particular goal in mind.

I notice this about other people as well. I ask them if they have lists of prioritized goals arranged in strict temporal categories and fleshed out into finely-honed action plans.

What I often get in response is a raised eyebrow and a question: Why would you do something like that?

These people are my friends and family. They are competent and compassionate people. They live wonderful lives. They’re not just aimless slackers.

So…how about you?

Are you a goal setter?

And is it working for you?

If so, great.

If not, I invite you to let go of goals.