Why I stopped setting big goals

The bigger your goal, the less likely you are to achieve it. I think this is some kind of law of thermodynamics or immutable force of nature. Okay, maybe not. But it does feel true doesn’t it? Big, audacious goals just don’t seem to get done.

Life happens. Plans change. You don’t find the time. It’s not what you thought it would be. Something else becomes more important.

Can you make big changes in your life without big goals? You bet. In fact, big changes are likely to show up even if you don’t set any goals. But how can you make sure that at least some of the changes are ones you actually want?

Rather than setting goals for what you want to achieve, set intentions for how you want to live.

Big goals are…too big

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One of the reasons you never write that novel, or make that movie, or renovate that basement is that the project is just too overwhelming. There are too many steps and too many variables. Too many things can go wrong. And sometimes, it’s unclear where to start.

The usual prescription for this is to break the big goal down into tiny, achievable goals, then breaks those into even smaller tasks. This is effective in terms of chipping away at a big, longterm project, but it’s not a very flexible approach. If something pushes the project off course or the desired outcome is not actually achievable for any reason, it can feel like a failure.

I’ve had a memoir in progress for about fifteen years, and until 2021 I had never managed to write more than a few thousand words and a bunch of random memories with nothing to glue them together. In 2021, I chose to focus on my memoir almost every day, and I ended up with a book-length manuscript by the end of the year.

I had changed my mindset from an overwhelming goal (write a book), to a daily intention (write every day). The longterm goal became less about one published work, and more about who I am: a writer. It turns out all you need is ten minutes per day to write a whole book in a year. It’s not published yet, but I have a big fat draft sitting on my coffee table.

Big goals are too inflexible

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Once you set your sights on a particular outcome, anything that looks a little different might feel like a failure. Maybe you thought you wanted to be a lawyer but ended up dropping out of law school. Maybe you wanted to travel to every continent but ran out of money. Maybe you thought you were on one career path and ended up on another.

The fact is, despite all of our planning, we have very little control over outcomes, including internal outcomes like being good at lawyering. Unexpected expenses throw financial plans out of whack. Sometimes you just don’t like doing something as much as you thought you would. If you’ve set a big goal it can feel treacherous to throw it out, but sometimes “nah” is the best path forward.

What if a goal was more like a direction on a compass? You know the place you want to be is somewhere northwest of where you are, but the paths and roads are unclear and there are obstacles you can’t see. If you set an intention to keep moving in a particular direction, there’s less risk of ending up on the wrong path, headed for the misery zone (we’ve all been there, right?).

If you looked at my “career path” it would seem to be the work of a drunk squirrel. When I graduated high school my goal was to become a graphic designer, so I went to art school where I learned how to wield an airbrush and cut rubylith while working nights at a video store.

By the time I finished art school, I no longer wanted to do graphic design. I wanted to create moody illustrations for magazine articles, so I built a portfolio of moody paintings, got a job at Kinko’s where I could make promotional materials on the color copier, and then landed a job doing data entry in the basement of an indie publisher.

Big life goal #1 = Fail. I spent the next half a decade or so in a series of office, admin, and bookkeeping jobs until I landed at a small digital agency doing office, admin, and bookkeeping work. Until they let me start writing web copy for clients.

To cut the drunk squirrel’s story short, twenty years later I am a Senior Content Strategist at a software company. About fifty goals were abandoned on my way to a good job that I enjoy doing. This career path was never my big goal, but through a series swerves and mishaps and opportunities and choices, here I am anyway.

I kept moving toward and idea of something better for myself, and each step on the squirrelly path put me a little bit closer to something that makes sense for me. It’s just not what I thought it was going to be.

Big goals are too limited

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It is impossible to predict all of opportunities and surprises that life is going to spring on you. It’s impossible to even predict what kinds of jobs might exist in ten years, so deciding to go to school for graphic design one year before desktop publishing on computers becomes a thing might not be the wisest choice. But who knew? Not me.

If you are too stuck on one goal, you may not even consider other types of opportunities that come up. What if there are different outcomes that you can’t even imagine? What if there’s something for you that’s even bigger or better than your big goal? Would you say no to it?

There’s something to be said for going with the flow. Some of the happiest people I know just sort of fell into things that fit them. They were not necessarily interested in big goals, but by moving toward their values they have interesting and fulfilling lives.

I, on the other hand, have always felt like I needed to set goals for my career, my creative work, and my fitness. The process of identifying those goals has been enlightening, but the outcomes have never happened in the way I tried to force them to.

Then, in 2020, I stopped trying to set goals and focused my energy on developing healthy habits. I discovered that daily habits can do something magical. They can be more effective than any of my previous planning and striving.

Habits are the best goals

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In two years, I have lost over 50 pounds, got through cancer treatments, finished a draft manuscript of my memoir, paid off my student loans entirely, landed a new job that cut my stress in half while increasing my income, completed a certificate program at the University of Washington, and started getting up at 5:30 on weekdays to meditate and do yoga.

These “goals” would have seemed impossible from where I was starting in early 2020, and if I had laid out a plan to achieve them I probably would have given up on most fronts. Not because they are too hard, or I’m not capable, but because they are too big.

When I started focusing on healthy habits, everything else just started falling into place. For one thing, adding healthy habits every day means my time for other types of work is more limited. Now I have to focus on what’s really important, rather than mindlessly filling my schedule with tasks and distractions. Exercise and meal planning and preparation now take up so much of my day that I have to be very intentional about where the rest of my time goes.

I also feel better and have more energy to put toward things. It’s hard to finish a book when you are feeling mentally and physically unwell.

So, developing healthy habits has had the added benefit of prioritization and focus, and I have inadvertently made progress toward big goals I thought I may never accomplish.

Much like the downward spiral triggered by some habits (say, drinking or junk food), there’s an even more powerful “virtuous cycle,” or upward spiral, that can evolve from healthy habits. Just one small thing can have a domino effect when done daily. So don’t set a big goal, just start flossing regularly.

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