Letting Go of Goals: Consider These Alternatives

In previous posts I present some of the flawed assumptions behind goal setting and invite you to give up goals as a means to success and happiness.

In fact, you can do this without descending into chaos or drifting aimlessly through life.  


One option is to experiment with systems.

This is what cartoonist and entrepreneur Scott Adams recommends in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. His main points:

  • A system is something that you do every day, like exercising or writing.
  • Instead of setting a goal, put a system in place. Instead of setting a goal to write a book, for example, make it a daily habit to write 250 words every day. Instead of setting a goal to lose 20 pounds, make it a daily habit to end meals with fruit instead of dessert.
  • Systems are more rewarding than goals. “Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out,” Adams notes. “Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do.”


I’m also a fan of the Tiny Habits program developed by BJ Fogg, a Stanford University psychologist. He defines a Tiny Habit as a behavior:

  • You do at least once a day
  • That takes you less than 30 seconds
  • That requires little effort

Tiny Habits also include a trigger that reminds you to do the behavior. For example:

  • After I brush, I will floss one tooth.
  • After I pour my morning coffee, I will text my mom.
  • After I start the dishwasher, I will read one sentence from a book.

Looks simple, right? Actually, I struggled at first to choose habits that were tiny enough. If they’re too hard or time-consuming, I just avoid them.

On the other hand, I often find my tiny behaviors expand without effort. It’s easier to floss more than one tooth once you get started, for instance.

This method works. Fogg has supporting data from over 40,000 people who’ve done his Tiny Habits program. You can easily test it for yourself. And it’s free. I find Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything far more useful than most self-help books.


Setting goals can get you bogged down in a lot of fuzzy terminology. I still don’t understand the differences between long-term, mid-term, and short-term goals. Every writer offers a different set of timelines.

I also got frustrated while trying to “prioritize” goals. So many time management authors tell us to rank each one according to some complicated system of urgency and importance — A-level priority, B-level priority, and so on.

Are you kidding me?

From David Allen’s Getting Things Done system, I got something much simpler and more useful — the distinction between projects and next actions.

A project is any outcome that requires you to take more than one action. Examples of projects include:

  • Finish my book manuscript.
  • Clean out the garage.
  • Hire a new employee.

There’s no need for long to-do lists. For every project, just write down the very next action — a physical, observable behavior — that you will take to eventually complete the project. For instance:

  • Write a chapter heading for my book.
  • Toss one item from the garage.
  • Ask a coworker to recommend someone to hire.

Today I don’t think about goals and priorities. I just think about projects and next actions. It’s so much simpler.

Starting from fulfillment

The great teachings of the East also raise another possibility — unconditional fulfillment. A serenity that does not depend on external circumstances. An emotional stability that does not depend on achieving or failing to achieve any goal.

Dean Ornish, M.D., describes this in his program for reversing heart disease, which includes yoga and meditation:

At the end of a meditation, when you are feeling more peaceful, stronger, and happier, remind yourself that these feelings came about not because you got something you thought you needed, or because you fooled somebody into thinking that you are worthy of his or her love and affection, but rather because you simply quieted down your mind enough to experience what we all have, all of the time, if we just remember.

If you ever experience something like that on a consistent basis, you have a new possibility.

You don’t have to set and achieve goals in order to become happy.

Instead, you can already be fulfilled and then set goals or list projects — not to get happy, but just to get organized.

In other words, you can take the conventional goal-setting process and put it in reverse. You might even conclude — as I did — that the giddy goal setters just got it all backwards in the first place.

Setting goals can feel so much lighter when you do it without attachment. There’s less greediness and grasping associated with it. There’s no demand that achieving any goal will shimmer you with eternal bliss.

When you ask what you want, on what ground do you stand? In the place that the yoga teachers describe — the state of prior fulfillment with the whole cosmos supporting you? Or do you see yourself as fundamentally incomplete and needing stacks of goals and action plans in order to get happy?

These two stances generate entirely different answers to the question, What do I want?


In The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment, Thaddeus Golas said it well: “There is a good attitude to take towards any goal: It’s nice if it happens, nice if it doesn’t.”

That guy knew how to let go of goals.