Most Goals are Useless. Do This Instead.
Most Goals are useless.
Do This Instead.
I teach people how to reach into their shadow and pull out their freedom, find goals with soul, and bake vegan brownies. Founder of Love and Profit.
8 January 2018 | 14 minute read
This is a long-form post designed to challenge our thinking around goals, because many people really struggle with goals. It goes through my problems with goal setting, what I want to keep about goals, what's missing from goals that will make them better, and a process that puts this all together. Grab a hot drink and settle in because this is a whole framework and I would love your thoughts on this. If you're not interested in the thinking part and just want the concluding process, that's cool, skip to here.
"The Tao is always at ease. It overcomes without competing, answers without speaking a word, arrives without being summoned, accomplishes without a plan." - Lao Tzu
I’ve always had an adversarial relationship with goals.
I’m supposed to have goals. Supposedly without goals I am going nowhere and nothing good can happen to me ever. I will die alone and penniless in a gutter bemoaning my worthless life. But goals will save me. With goals alone I can build my dreams! Right?
That's a nice story. But I've never liked having goals. Every time I've tried to have them I have felt worse and nothing extra got done. They have always felt constricting in some way. I've never enjoyed creating goals or mapping them out or planning them or thinking about them in any way. They always feel like unnecessary pressure leading no where. I'm already doing plenty of work that I "need" or want to do and things are moving just fine. What do goals add to this whole equation? I never got it.
Now, before you throw all kinds of quotes at me, like, "if you don't know where you want to go, you could end up anywhere", or "someone else will decide for you", let me tell you something. I have worked for myself successfully for 4.5 years without having any traditional goals.
I am constantly checking in with what feels right for me in the moment. I am constantly evaluating what I want to work on next and asking myself if the next task or project is aligned with my values and my energy and who I want to become. So I always feel like I am working on the right thing based on the best information I have.
You could maybe make the argument that I would be "farther along" if I had some goals that I was always working and striving and struggling toward. But guess what, I don't believe in "farther along." There is no where to get to. We don't take any of this with us when we die. We have no idea if our legacy is going to mean anything. The point of life is to have fun and find love in our experiences. We can do that no matter what our experiences are. I'm not sure how traditional goals add to that.
"Patience is a form of wisdom. It demonstrates that we understand and accept the fact that sometimes things must unfold in their own time." - Jon Kabat-Zinn
Here's the other thing: the future is entirely unpredictable and the world is changing faster than ever before. Why the hell would I create goals that will be outdated in a month?
What if I die? Or someone close to me does? At any second, any unforeseen event could change our lives in an instant, forever. We can't predict our future. It will look so different than we think. What the hell is the point of having goals that are dependent on a future that doesn't even exist?
In the face of these thoughts, all goals seem like useless mental projections that have nothing to do with reality. I love this saying:
"No business plan survives first contact with customers." Same with goals.
We can easily see this play out in ourselves and the people around us. Sometimes we are 100% wrong about our goals. We set a goal for ourselves and then we get there and it feels nothing like we thought. We get there and feel nothing, or unfulfilled, or even totally miserable.
Think about that new job you were so excited to get only to find it sucks just as much as your old one. Think about all the millionaires who are "totally crushing it" yet are completely stressed, taking pills just to sleep, and feel like they never have enough. They achieved their goals. Ooops.
Are you done with goals yet?
Are there good things about goals that help us?
There are so many people that claim to love goals. Including one of my most influential mentors, who recently released a series of posts about why goals are so useful. He specifically mentions how he hates the anti-goals philosophy. Ooops. I'm willing to consider there might be something good in goals.
You could make the argument, like my mentor does, that achieving goals is not the point of goals. The point is to make a vision and to have focus and direction and work toward something and make progress. Even "falling short" of a goal is a victory because of how far you've gone forward in reaching for it.
Okay, that sounds alright. But how can we know this progress is "right" for our life? How do we avoid the trap of making progress down a road we later realize we desperately don't want to be on?
Like people who spend 20 years in a career because it's their "goal" and they want to be "successful", then they suddenly wake up to a void of emptiness in their "accomplishments", and they have a life breakdown. I meet these people. I want to find a better system.
Traditional goal setting, and "SMART" goals have no answer. There is no letter in the SMART acronym that speaks to the spiritual expansion, purpose, and fulfillment that we all seek.
However, as my mentor points out, goals do provide some benefits, and any new system we create needs to include those.
As far as I can tell, here are the positives of goals [with caveats]:
- They provide direction and that's nice. We feel like we are on a path. [But we are still pretending to know an unknowable future.]
- Moving toward something feels like progress. [But by having only a "looking ahead" orientation we are constantly noticing how far we still have to go. This brings in the energy of lack which weakens us.]
- They provide focus, a channel for our energy, so we can feel less scattered and more directive. [No caveat. I like this.]
- With direction and focus we end up creating something new over time. [I like this aspect. But that thing we build might not be what we really want, or it might end up completely differently than our plan, and this means we did not achieve our physical goal. Even if we love what we created we "failed" in traditional goals terms.]
- They can build self-efficacy, which is an extremely important skill. Achieving a goal feels good and shows us our capability. This builds belief in ourselves, which leads to more accomplishment. [But the reverse is also true. When we set a big goal that we don't achieve our self-efficacy takes a hit and reduces our belief in all our other endeavors. This is a subconscious process that is very difficult to consciously halt.].
Even the positive aspects of goals come with all kinds of caveats in traditional goal setting. But I think we can all agree that if these positives can be accessed, that adds great power to our lives.
So here's my big question, can we take the powerful parts of these positive aspects, and get them without the caveats?
I think we can.
The missing piece of powerful goal-driven work.
"It’s very difficult to focus on what is important with one’s rational mind alone, because what your conscious mind thinks is important may not be what your subconscious mind thinks is important." - Mark Forster
This post has been a long time coming. I've been digging into this idea and experimenting with this for a few years. Here is what traditional goal setting completely misses, and what we need to bring back in to make them work:
Everything we do in life we are trying to get is because of how we think we will feel when we get it.
Think about it. Why do you want a better job? You think it will feel better than your current job. And you come up with all kinds of rational reasons for what this might look like. Better salary, better boss, whatever. All those are justifications for you just wanting to feel better in your life.
Why do we want a big house? Comfort and status. Those are feelings. Why do we want a fast car? Fun and coolness. Those are feelings.
Why do we argue with people? Because what they say causes discomfort in us and we think it will feel better if we express it or if they change.
Why do we want a relationship? Or why do we want to get our of our current one? Because we imagine a different situation will feel better than right now.
Truth: feelings are why we do anything. Some part of us wants to feel happier or safer, or some extension of one of those feelings. And that part of us is deep inside tells our brain what to do. Our brain then has thoughts that match this impulse. 95% percent of our thinking is subconscious and directed by our internal impulses just like I describe. This is science. Look it up. Here's a video where I explain this mechanism more.
We are not really chasing physical items or circumstances in our lives. We are chasing feelings that we think are better than our current feelings. That is the internal motivation for everything.
If you don't believe me, try this. Think of some physical goal you have, something you are working toward. Like "a successful business." Whatever it is, get it in your mind. Now answer this question - how will it feel when you get that goal? Let the feelings come. Example: "Accomplishment or Fun or Freedom.' Okay, cool. Now imagine that your life was full of that feeling all the time. Imagine these feelings were just your default state right now and flowing out of you and nothing could change that. Everything you do is just imbued with that great feeling and you just go through life feeling that way. Let the feelings flood your body because this is how you feel all the time. Now ask yourself, if you felt that way, do you still need your physical goal?
Once we get honest and mindful enough to notice these mechanisms inside ourselves, traditional goals are revealed for what they truly are - mental approximations of what we think our desired feelings will look like in the physical world.
We really want the feelings, but our brain so quickly translates this into a specific physical image, we think the physical image is what we want.
That's not true. Underneath the image is a feeling. That's what we want. We want to feel good. That is our only motivation. That's were we get our energy and our movement, and that's how we actually live a happy life. We don't feel good by getting stuff. That never lasts. We feel good by accessing the good feelings inside us. The physical circumstances that we think we need are just props.
Here's the key to using this and making goals better - cut out all the unnecessary mental projection that happens when you start with physical goals. Instead, stay with the feelings, that is the energetic source material that creates in our lives.
Let's see if we can use feelings to get what we want in our lives.
How to best use feeling states.
Let's review. Why are we chasing a goal? Because we want to feel better than now. We think that getting a goal will bring us this better feeling in the future.
Even in accepting this we face another "problem" - we only feel things in the present moment. If we always think now sucks and I need to get a thing to feel better, I can never feel good right now. Do you see the trap I have created for myself?
Even we get the thing we were chasing to feel better, we notice it only feels better for about 5 minutes, until we are already chasing a new thing. This pattern exists because our brains operate on the false assumption that we can never feel good enough right now.
So when can we feel happy? There is only one answer. We can only feel happiness in the present moment. The only place we can feel anything is in the present moment.
This is not just some trick of words. There is a huge meaning to this: the only way to have a happy life is to have a series of happy present moments.
You don't get a happy life by doing a bunch of crappy stuff that feels horrible and somehow, pop!, you are happy at the end. No, you will look back and think, why the eff did I choose to be so unhappy for so long?
We are trained from birth to believe that everything we want is in the future, and that is why so few of us ever get what we want.
Happiness only happens in the present. If we want to experience happiness we need to make choices that make us happy right now.
If I applied this truth to goal setting, what would happen?
Putting feelings and goals together in a usable, practical, productive system.
In summary, we need our new process to do several things:
- Focus on the feeling states we are really looking for and that are truly motivating us
- Focus on the present moment where our actually feelings happen and our control and power to do something really is
- At the same time, allow us to work toward the future we really want to create because even though we can't control it, we do expect to be alive in it
- Preserve the good stuff of goals: direction, focus, building something over time, self-efficacy
- Bonus: This process needs to be easy to use and fun. So that we actually do it and it helps us live awesomely!
These items may seem contradictory, but they are not.
We just need to add in one important idea for all this criteria to come together: the process is more important than the outcome.
When we use traditional goal setting we acknowledge that there is a process and set of steps to getting our goal. We call this our plan. Most of just see the plan as the way to get from A to B. We'd be willing to take virtually any plan that gets us to B, because we worship the goal. This is a giant mistake.
Why? Because the process is actually what you experience!
99% of what you experience trying to get somewhere is the process of getting there. The goal is like being at the top of the mountain, and the process is the packing, the planning, getting the team, going on the hike, journeying together. The process is everything. The goals is just an end result of a process that happened.
We look back and we say, "We did it!" And what did we do? We spent a couple hours at the top of a mountain and six months in the process to get there.
We have a goal to write a book. Okay! You are going to spend thousands of hours researching and writing. Your experience of creating a book is 99% the process of researching and writing. You better enjoy that, or writing your book is going to suck.
And then you write your book and what happened? You are happy for the rest of your life? No. You might celebrate for a bit and then immediately you are thinking about what is next. Already onto the next thing you "need" to do.
We experience our goals for a blip in time compared to the hours, days, weeks, and months we spend in our process. The process is where we need to focus.
If we want to enjoy our lives and have great feeling states, they need to happen in our processes, the things we are doing right now.
If you want to build a business that feels happy, you have to adopt a process for building it that feels happy along the way. If you want to experience financial freedom then you have to do it with a process that makes you feel free along the way. If you don't do this you will be like those rich people who never feel like they have enough, and are in a permanent state of anxiety despite their physical circumstances.
Here's the other great thing about process. Unlike some distant goal in the unpredictable future that I can't control, the process is completely controllable right now.
The processes is the habits and the daily, weekly, or monthly step by step elements that build up over time. I can choose exactly how I want to interact with the process in my life right now, from where I am, with what I have. That is so much more empowering and gives me so much more agency compared to working with a traditional future-oriented goal.
Here we go. Let's put this all together. Here is what I propose for a new system of conscious working and life creation:
Purposeful Progress Mastery in 4 Steps:
- Feeling states. Define your ideal feeling states. This is what you are really after. There are whole books on this process, but you can start by just picking 3 - 5 feeling words that describe your ideal personal experience. [Feeling states, check.]
- Feeling Process. Now we need a daily process that incorporates these feeling states. This could be a morning routine. A set of mini-commitments, or daily or weekly habits.
In the beginning, these habits don't need to be related to any project or goal. You are just playing with life and feeling states and building the circumstances that match those feelings with daily progress.
Let's say one of your desired feeling states is joy. Then the next step is adding daily joy to your life, in the form of experiences that resonate with that pure joy feeling. Whatever brings you joy, do them. These don't even have to be attached to anything "productive" in a traditional sense just yet. These activities don't have to be attached to any physical thing you are building. If they add joy to your life they are fulfilling their most important purpose.
And then, very often, after following joy for some time, all of a sudden an idea appears that lets you use your joy for a traditionally "productive" project. And because you are good at following your joy you have all you need to dive into that opportunity.
You don't need to know where these habits are going to take you when you start them. Let's say you want peace. A daily process that feels truly peaceful will build more peace in your life, even if you don't know what that will look like at some point in the future. You will start to feel like you have what you really want in your life, right now.
Do you see why most goals are backward? We think we need to see and latch onto an exact path to take to get somewhere in the future. But really we want feelings and if we follow those, we get much more of what we really want in the short term and in the long term, even if we don't know in advance what it will look like.
So you can stop here, at step two. But if you want to get more of your envisioning and mental power involved, add step 3.
[Feeling states, the present moment, and focus using a daily process. Check]
- Feeling Vision. If all this following the actions of your feelings is too unstructured, then bring in that mental picture of something in the future you are working toward, sort of like a goal, that's cool. But we are not going to create this picture from our thoughts and fall into the traps we outlined at the beginning of this piece. We are going to paint our vision based on what we really want - our feelings.
Start with one feeling state and ask, what would it look like for this feeling state to be fully activated in my life? Draw or write out that picture.
This gives us the direction we wanted from goals. It gives us an idea of something that we want to build over time. As far as you know in this moment. But because you started with feeling states, this vision is actually something you want in your heart and have the energy to create. You can access that energy any time you want by bringing in this feeling. This is a soul goal.
Don't let your thinking about what you "should" do or what things "should" look like control this exercise. In fact, think as little as possible. Our thinking is rooted in the past (another problem with traditional goals), but the future has all kinds of possibilities that did not exist in the past. To access this, we let our feelings paint the picture.
The picture doesn't need to look like anything we have seen before.
You will know if you are imagining a real vision that you want to work toward because you will actually start to feel the feeling state you want in your body right now. That's how you know it's right.
Once you have a great feeling vision, just take a look at your process, and choose the process that matches those feelings that you believe best walks you into your feel good vision. Now we have created a true-heart centered path for ourselves.
[Direction and the idea of something we are working toward, check. All while being anchored in the present moment, check.]
- Feeling Check-in / Progress. This is the last step. Change is the only constant in life. This includes our feeling states. So every week, you want to check in to see if you are on track, but unlike traditional goal work, we don't check how far we are from the goal, and we don't even need to see how much progress we made, we check to see that our feeling-based process is working how we want.
Here is how we check in:
Part I: Did we do what we set out to do?
"Did I complete my process?" Yes! Self-efficacy!
"Did my process create the feeling states I wanted in my life?" Yes! You have actually more of what you want already.
"Did my process take me steps toward my vision?" Yes! It's still a match for your bigger feeling picture.
PART II: Double-check our course or correct course:
"What are my key core ideal feeling states? Would I describe them differently than in the past?"
"Does my process still match my ideal feeling states?"
"Does my vision still match my ideal feeling states?"
"Is there a way to modify this process to bring in even more of my ideal feeling states?"
"Is there a way to modify this process so that it even better moves me toward my ideal vision each time I do it?"
This check in is about celebrating and focusing on the part of your experience you actually have control over - the process. You have chosen a process that feels good and builds your vision. You don't need to think about the vision much after that. The vision is a result of the process. The process is what you can do now.
Make the process a match for you and you will be able to do it easily. When you feel stagnant in your process feel free to change it. One day, after focusing on your feeling state process for some time, you will look back and see how much closer your life looks to what you actually want.
[Focus, check. Self-efficacy, check.]
There it is. That's a system that satisfies all our criteria. Except one: fun and easy.
You'll have to decide that for yourself. I happen to think this process is far more fun and easy than traditional goal setting. Because this is not about mentally crunching out goals and plans.
This is about feeling from the heart how we would love to experience life, imagining what that could be in our future and our present, and then running a process experiment to see what happens. This system bakes in energy management, manifesting potential, and constant learning.
That sounds way more fun! You're welcome.
What does this look like in practice?
I use this process every day.
This blogazine you are reading right now is a result.
Some time ago I wiped my blog because I was not enjoying it. Then one day I saw this idea for a magazine-like blog. This idea immediately felt playful. Play is one of my core ideal feeling states. So I knew I was onto something. One of my key processes around Play is to always have a collaborator whenever I start a new project. So I immediately started sharing the idea.
This article you are reading right now is in the first issue of this blogazine, next to amazing articles from other great people. I don't have a goal for this. Yet doing this is a match for what I want to feel and who I want to be. Very satisfying no matter what happens. And who knows what positivity will come that I can't even anticipate?
All my current projects are like this. Even personal ones.
By focusing on the feelings and process that creates those feelings right now I've made such incredible progress that my life looks and feels completely different than it did even a couple of years ago. What happens in my projects is everything I could have wanted from a traditional goal using a much more direct, aligned, efficient, and empowering route.
But I'll keep evaluating because the only constant is change.
Now it's your turn.
If you read this far, you deserve a medal. I commend you, however, you're only 20% done.
80% of everything we learn comes from actually doing things in the world.
Take this system or a piece of it, and try it out. No huge commitments needed. Just experiment. See what happens. That's how you will actually see something new happen and learn something new.
If you don't like it, fine, you've also learned that you don't like it, which brings you closer to something you do like. You can't lose.
If you want some further reading or an outside resource on this, I highly recommend Danielle LaPorte. She has a book called the Desire Map, and an associated day planner that helps you build "goals with soul." I love her work and it is the most similar thing out there I have seen to what I am talking about here.
What do you think about all this?
Maybe you can think of a better way to say all this in just a few sentences. Brevity has never been my strong suit.
What's your relationship with goals like?
Do you have a better system than this?
How do you use feeling states to empower you?
Share your thoughts in the comments below so we can all learn.
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