Once upon a time I went to a workshop. It was led by a guy who wrote books 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 them to write one thing they 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.
Goals, goals, goals; actions, actions, actions
Next, the leader gave instructions for 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 our goals up into smaller chunks:
- Write a series of mid-term goals that will take you one step closer to achieving each long-term goal.
- Then write a series of short-term goals that will take you one step closer to achieving each mid-term goal.
- Finally, write actions that will lead you to achieving the short-term goals — items to add to your 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.
It was a lot of work.
Choosing to let go
I will admit, though, that there was something kind of heady and juicy about filling up all those cards. I got a sense of possibility and a shot of adrenaline.
Both of them lasted until the workshop ended.
And then came the aftermath.
I got back to my office and noticed what was already on my plate:
- 100 new emails
- An overflowing inbox
- Calls to return
- Streams 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 suddenly summoned the courage to throw it all away.
I remember seeing all those index cards hit the recycling bin. I stood there and felt deep waves of pleasure. It was a moment to savor.
This happened when I 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 — emerged inductively. They emerged from keeping my nose close to the ground, discovering something that surprised me and interested me, and following where it led.
And most of the time I had 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 that?
These people are my friends and family. They are competent and compassionate people. They live wonderful lives. They’re not just aimless slackers.
Are you a goal setter?
And is it working for you?
If so, great.
If not, I invite you to let go of goals.
Here’s why. And how.
The complexity of goal-setting sits on top of some sloppy thinking that plagues the self-help genre.
The main problem is starting with: What do you want?
The idea of posing that question as the first step to human happiness dates back to the early twentieth century. It was a meme of the New Thought Movement and the basis of many early best-sellers in the success genre: James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh. Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich.
This lineage continues to the present — Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. The works of Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins, Wayne Dyer, and many more.
Much of this literature boils down to one assertion: Happiness means getting what you want — setting goals and taking action to achieve them.
(If you buy in to the “law of attraction,” you get by with a lot less: Just visualize what you want and watch it “manifest” effortlessly in your life.)
Getting what you want in life is not so easy, however. Nor is it a direct path to happiness. The goal setters and law-of-attractors simply assume that:
- You can know what you want.
- You can get what you want.
- Getting what you want will make you happy.
- What do I want? is the first and most important question to ask.
Poke at these assumptions, however, and each of them crumbles.
Assumption: You can know what you want
But who, exactly, is doing the wanting? Who are you?
This is the question the Buddha started with. He didn’t ask what he wanted. He asked who he was.
After years of meditation, he concluded that all of our inner experience — thoughts, feelings, urges to act — are in constant flux. We have no permanent identity. To say that we have or are a self is ultimately untrue. Our true nature is anatta, which literally means “unselfed.”
Moreover, human beings are desire machines. Desires fuel our goals, and the mind manufactures desires endlessly. They shift from moment to moment, contradicting and warring with each other.
Philosopher Jacob Needleman reminds us of an image for this reality:
In religious literature the desires — physical as well as emotional and mental, the wishes, hopes, fears and so forth — are often symbolized by animals. It is as though within man there were a thousand animals, each seeking its own food and comfort. Some of these animals are, moreover, the very food that the other animals seek…. By identifying himself with these animals, man forfeits the possibility of inner unity and wholeness, a possibility which represents another level of existence for him.
What we gain by asking what we want is not happiness. It’s a direct glimpse of our inner chaos.
Soren Kierkegaard wrote that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” Someone at this level of development can truly want. But most of us are still feeding our animals.
Assumption: You can get what you want
Getting what I want usually translates into I’ve got everything in place. I have the job I want, the lover I want, the friends I want, the home, the car, and all the rest.
This approach to happiness is fundamentally about control. But there’s so much that we don’t control. Friends die. Jobs end. Lovers leave. Health fails. Money is lost. Seeking to get what we want can send us on a fool’s errand — trying to impose permanence on unpredictable events.
Here we benefit from the Buddhist practice of reciting the Five Remembrances, which reminds us of the only thing we can hope to control:
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
Assumption: Getting what you want will make you happy
Human happiness is a hot topic among researchers. And, the research does not support clear links between happiness and getting what you want.
Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, wrote a book about this — Stumbling on Happiness. It is a joy to read — folksy and rigorous at the same time.
- We tend to assume that happiness means getting what we want.
- However, we are notoriously poor predictors of what will actually make us happy in the future.
- We don’t find happiness — we create it based on the existing conditions in our life.
- We can often create happiness even when we don’t get what we want.
His bottom line:
The lesson I want to leave you with from these data is that our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown, because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience.
Assumption: What do I want? is the first and most important question to ask
Actually, there are many other options. For example:
- Who am I?
- Who do I love, and what do I care about?
- What am I committed to creating? (courtesy of TK Coleman)
- How will I contribute? How can I help? How can I make a difference? How will I serve?
- Given the scope of human suffering, how will I respond?
- Given that I will die, how shall I live?
- What is the world asking of me? What’s missing from the world that’s valuable and that I can provide?
- What have I received from others? What have I given to others? What difficulties have I caused others? (courtesy of Naikan reflection)
Those questions nudge us toward self-transcendence — something bigger than becoming a rock star or using the law of attraction to manifest a new Porsche in the driveway.
Focusing on getting what we want is simply one option for a life purpose — and perhaps a superficial and ultimately uninteresting one at that.
As Huston Smith noted in The World’s Religions, “The self is too small an object for perpetual enthusiasm.”
Facing the moral vacuum
At times, I wonder if the authors of success literature have read any other literature.
Do they know Macbeth?
Have they read The Great Gatsby?
Do they understand the concept of tragedy — that sometimes our goals can corrupt us? That getting what we want might hurt other people and even destroy us?
Consider the ethical scandal that resulted when Wells Fargo imposed unrealistic quotas on employees, demanding that they sell high numbers of new accounts to customers. Employees responded by opening up thousands of fake accounts in customers’ names.
Those quotas were goals.
Reading the success literature, we get the impression that human beings live in a moral vacuum — that actions have no consequences.
Self-help writers too often ignore what Stephen Covey calls “the law of the farm”: You sow what you reap. Or: Whatever you do to others, you do to yourself.
Yes, those are clichés. And they are priceless.
It’s not enough to ask what we want. Let’s also ask if it aligns with the greater good, the Tao, and the Dharma.
Spiritual teachers are wise to remind us of moral standards: in Christianity — love, charity, and service. In Buddhism — compassion and the bodhisattva ideal. In Hinduism — ananda and karma yoga.
All of these teachings lift our eyes to the horizon beyond satisfying our isolated individual desires.
Alternatives to goals — systems
Remembering the above points might help you let go of goals. And you can do this without descending into chaos and or just drifting 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 to get the kind of results you want. Instead of setting a goal to write a book, 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.”
Alternatives to goals — habits
- 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 it far more useful than many of the self-help books I bought.
Alternatives to goals — projects
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 reading my library books.
- 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:
- Read 50 pages tonight.
- 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.
Yoga teacher Rama Berch makes this point:
Every goal can be traced to one source — the desire to feel happy….The goal of yoga is to discover the inner source of happiness. The way you feel after a yoga class or after you do yoga at home gives you an immediate taste of this independent happiness. When you feel this way, there is no need for doing a particular thing, and no aversion to doing it — the usual motivation is gone. Now your array of choices becomes limitless.
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 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.