I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of achievement. There’s an undeniable satisfaction that comes from knowing you’ve put in the work to accomplish something, no matter how small it is. Hell, even as I write this, I feel damn good for get getting these words on paper.
I suppose the simplest way of experiencing the satisfaction of achievement is through goals. They are straight forward. Black and white. You always know when and how you accomplished them.
Yet despite how much I enjoy achievement, I’ve always been terrible at following through with goals. For as long as I can remember I’ve been setting goals and subsequently failing to achieve them. Everything from getting a six-pack to writing every day. Nothing ever seems to stick.
This isn’t a new story of course. Goals are something most people struggle with. I read a statistic that out of the 45% of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions, only 8% successfully achieve them. I’m not sure how accurate this is, but it doesn’t sound too far from the truth. I don’t think this is an American phenomenon either.
For a long time I attributed my inability to follow through on goals to my own laziness or lack of will power. This translated into me telling myself things like, “I can’t achieve my goals because I’m a lazy person” and “I don’t have enough will power to accomplish anything significant.” With this kind of negative self-talk, setting and working towards goals became less and less about the goals themselves and more about vindicating myself from those negative labels (which, ironically, I had self-applied). As you can imagine, this didn’t make sticking to my goals any easier. All it did was make the pain of failing so much greater. My failures to achieve my goals became indicators of my own inadequacies.
About a month ago, after years of dealing with this internal conflict, I decided to take a step back from goals all together. I didn’t really have a plan or even a time frame (it took a lot of effort to not make not setting goals a goal). I just knew that my current method of setting goals and working meticulously to achieve them wasn’t bringing me many positive results.
Upon making this decision, it felt as if a weight had been lifted off of me. What I had essentially done was give myself permission to not accomplish anything. No goals. No mission statements. No super-important tasks to get to outside of going to work. It was liberating.
Unfortunately, along with this feeling of liberation came a huge feeling of guilt, at least in the beginning. For the past three years all I had done was focus on improving myself, usually by way of setting goals and working towards them. While letting go of those goals felt good, I also felt as though I was letting myself down in some way. If I wasn’t working towards something, then how could I possibly be happy?
This internal conflict was, at its core, a symptom of my underlying belief structure, mainly in regards to how life is supposed to be lived. For simplicity’s sake I would characterize my normal way of thinking as “achievement-oriented.” I’ve always based my self-worth on what I could achieve, or at the very least what I was working towards. Going even deeper than that, I’ve always assumed that true happiness required struggling to overcome challenges, that I didn’t deserve to be happy unless I was working towards a bigger purpose in life and challenging myself every day.
Still, it was obvious that setting goals is not an effective strategy for me, regardless of the reason why. Yet my own happiness is still in many ways tied to achievement and the idea of working towards a purpose. It’s a paradox that I don’t see changing any time soon. So I came up with sort of a mental compromise.
What’s interesting is that in the month since I abandoned goal setting, I haven’t been any less productive. In fact, I’ve made more progress towards the life I want than I had in the several months prior to this change. I began meditating consistently. My diet improved notably. I’ve read more. I started this blog. Overall, I’m feeling a lot happier, which is most likely the result of constantly feeling as though I’m achieving something.
So how have I been able to be productive without any clear goals to work towards?
Simply put, instead of setting goals I just started focusing on what I wanted out of life. Not what I thought I should want, or what I thought I should accomplish. What I really WANTED. I started getting in touch with my core desires.
Waking up in the morning I didn’t think of my normal checklist for that day. I just paused and considered what I wanted my life to look like. To give you an example, some of the things I thought of included being more present to the moment, being more positive, filling my days with things I love doing, and creating an amazing blog.
I found that, by simply having what I wanted at the forefront of my mind throughout the day, I naturally started taking the actions that would bring me closer to those things. I began to live intentionally instead of in reaction to my environment.
Up and Down Cycle
For most of my life I repeated the same cycle of rapid progress and equally rapid burnout. I would be super consistent when it came to my goals, using every ounce of willpower I had in order to reach them…for a couple of weeks. Then, one day when the willpower just seemed to escape me, I would end up on the couch, binge-watching Netflix and hating myself. A few weeks later I would start the process over again, vowing that this time would be different, this time I would stick to my goals. On and on the cycle went.
While it’s only been about a month, I haven’t experienced any of those drastic motivational ups and downs. I might spend an hour or two watching Game of Thrones or catching up on some NBA highlights, but I don’t find myself binging on entertainment the way I used to. After a couple of hours of doing anything that doesn’t bring me closer to the life I want, I just get antsy and want to start taking action again.
I think what this really comes down to is allowing myself room to be imperfect. What I’ve found with goals is that they box me in to a specific result and a specific course of action. Maybe it’s just the rebellious kid in me, but being told I have to do something, even by myself, makes me really not want to do it. I think meditation is the most relevant example in this case. If you were to come up to me right now and ask me how I feel about meditation, you would only hear good things come out of my mouth. I freaking love meditation! Yet whenever I’ve set a goal for myself to do it every day, meditation and I stop being such close friends.
However, when I simply start my day by thinking about how much I want presence and positivity in my life, it seems only natural that I would meditate at some point. I go from begrudging it to looking forward to it. Now, after about 30 days of doing it, mediation just feels like a normal part of my life.
A lot of people would probably argue that the point of goals isn’t to have a rigid structure, but to give you a direction to head. That may be true but for whatever reason I have a hard time viewing goals in a healthy way. That’s just me though.
If I really analyze the past month, all I’ve done is simply make my goals a little less strict, a little less absolute. Either way I’m glad it’s working.