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Living Goal-Free

goals promote unhappiness, keep you out of the present moment, and create missed opportunities

❝You have to open your mind to going places you never expected to go. If you live without goals, you'll explore new territory.❞ -Leo Babauta

I pick up a new book and sit down to start reading. I try to read for an hour every day, with a goal of reading 60 books per year.

I read nonfiction and try to verse myself on a diverse set of topics. The more I read and the more topics I read about, the more things start to synthesize, and I learn more about the interconnectedness of various topics.

The book I'm reading is called How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker. Many books I've read have referenced Steven Pinker, so I'm excited to start reading his material. The first thing I noticed is how heavy this book is. It is well over an inch thick and has close to 700 pages!

A couple of days later, I'm barely 80 pages into the book, which is pretty good. Eighty pages is almost halfway through a typical book that I read. Unfortunately, instead of focusing on how much I've read, I focus on the fact that I still have over 500 pages left!

It suddenly occurs to me that if I read a shorter book, I would be almost done with it by now and onto the next book. Instead, I'm reading the 600-page beast. Instead of reading this book, I could be reading far shorter books that would get me closer to my 60-book target faster. So I put it away. I moved on to a shorter book.

My goal of reading 60 books per year is limiting me. It's keeping me from reading How the Mind Works, Thinking Fast and Slow, Meanings of Life, or any other book that goes deep into a topic. I set myself up to read superficial books so that I could feel good about my arbitrary goal.

having goals reminds you that you have not yet reached your goal


A goal is a specific outcome you wish for at some point in the future that is different from how things are today. Setting goals, many say, give you direction and help you focus. Goalsetting is a staple in our culture. Many even argue that a goal needs to be specific, measurable, and set to be achieved at a specific moment in time so that you can measure your progress.

The idea is that you will be happy if you complete your goal on time. At the same time, it sets you up to be unsatisfied if, for whatever reason (even reasons outside of your control), you fail to meet your goal.

goals are specific outcomes you want to achieve in the future

We all want to improve and better ourselves. We have a natural instinct toward growth. This is normal and healthy. However, relying too much on goalsetting causes people to lose gratitude for what they already have. By definition, a goal is something you do not yet have. By focusing on your goals, you continuously remind yourself of what you do not have. This is the opposite of gratitude and contentment.

goals are inconsistent with contentment

The past only exists in your mind. It's memories and lessons. You cannot experience the past because it is already over. This seems intuitive for people. "What's done is done," is a common mantra. Yet the future also does not exist except as a mental construct. We cannot experience the future. We can think about what the future might be, but we cannot directly experience the future. All we have is right now. As you look back on your life, you will realize that your life is a string of nows.

If you recall a moment in your life that was meaningful to you, filled you with joy, and made you smile as you reflect back on it, I'm willing to wager that you were fully present in that moment. Your mind was not thinking about the past or worrying about the future. You were simply experiencing that moment. Yet when we are stuck in the past or future, we are missing the present moment.

Goals, by definition, are in the future. When you think about setting, working towards, and either achieving or achieving your goals, you are not present because you are thinking about a future that may or may not exist.

goals exist in the future

The Three Dimension Meaning in Life Scale assesses three dimensions of meaning in life: coherence, purpose, and significance. Coherence is the feeling that your life makes sense. Purpose is having direction in life. Significance is the belief that your life has value.


Many proponents of goals argue that goalsetting is a way of setting direction and living with purpose. This may be partially true, but the reason humans are so focused on setting goals is that we have a deep fear of uncertainty. The unknown makes us very uncomfortable and causes us to try to control the uncontrollable, namely, the future. Humans (as far as we know) are the only species that recognize our own mortality and that mortality is in the future. Many of the things we do is an attempt to alleviate the fear of death and our discomfort with the unknown.

we set goals because we are afraid of uncertainty

Setting goals, even if we know we will not meet them, is a desperate attempt to control the future. Goals distract us from all the uncertainty in the world and give us hope that we "know" how the future will look.

having a goal eases the fear of the unknown


There are many problems with goals, of course. I already mentioned goals preventing us from living in the present moment and steering us away from gratitude. Another problem with goals that often gets misconstrued as a benefit is that it keeps us hyper-focused on achieving our goal. Suppose I have a goal of getting my boss's job when she gets promoted. In that case, I am probably more likely to get that job when it becomes available versus if I didn't focus so much on that goal. I would be very satisfied with myself.

The problem with achieving this goal is that I may have missed other opportunities because I was too focused on one particular outcome. Focusing heavily on goals leaves you blind to the opportunities you might miss. Similarly, you may have a goal of retiring at 55 from that job you hate, missing an opportunity to find a meaningful job that you would enjoy into your 70s.

The specific outcome you're hoping for when you set a goal is often arbitrary. If, for example, you are a salesperson and have a growth target of 20% for the year, you may be happy with your performance if you grow your sales by 22%. But what 25% or 30% was possible? Should you still be happy even though you achieved your arbitrary goal? Similarly, should you be disappointed in your performance if you only grow your sales by 18% because it's short of your target, even if 18% was all that was possible?

goals cause you to miss opportunities

Another problem with goals is that they are finite. They're something you achieve, and then you are done with it. When you have a goal, you remind yourself every day that you are still short of your goal. Then, if you finally achieve your goal, you will be happy…until you realize you have nothing to strive for anymore. You've lost your sense of direction. To regain your sense of direction, you will have to set a new goal, thus reminding yourself again that you are not living up to your goals.

goals create tension between how things are and how you want them to be

The Value Compass is designed to help you gain insight into your own values and how they guide your thoughts, feelings, and actions. It can be used to explore your personal goals and motivations, as well as to gain a better understanding of others' values and how they may differ from your own.


You may be wondering how you can achieve a sense of direction and purpose without setting goals. This would be a natural response in a culture that is so focused on goals. But living without goals does not mean being lazy and refusing to do anything. Zen Habits author Leo Babauta responds to criticisms that if people have no goals they wouldn't get anywhere by imagining going outside for a walk without having a destination in mind. You didn't plan your walk, but you did end up somewhere. Living without goals means letting go of specific outcomes. The process that leads to your outcomes is still very important and will be guided by your purpose, motivations, and energy levels. Dilbert creator Scott Adams calls the process toward outcomes a system. He defines a system as something you do every day that adds value to your life, whereas a goal is a specific outcome at some point in the future. The trick to implementing a good system is to permit yourself to give up on a specific outcome. It also gives you permission to change your mind if you get new information, your circumstances change, or something more meaningful presents itself.

It's natural to be nervous about setting a path without knowing what the destination will exactly be. However, with practice and time, you learn that it frees you up. It frees you up to do what you want. You take a guess and start making progress toward what is motivating you at the moment.

Once you've got that flag in the ground, you can start making progress using your system. You can pursue meaningful tasks in service of this general direction.

The trick to changing your mindset away from focusing on goals and towards systems is not to let yourself get hung up on whether or not you get to your first guess. New information presents itself. Something unexpected might happen. Your interests might change. You don't know what will happen in the future, and that's okay.

By focusing on your system, you have permission to change your mind.

Being able to change your mind gives you far more possibilities. You can choose another direction you find meaningful and put your energy behind that pursuit.

And you may find that you'll change your mind again. Great!

Your life should be about the journey, not the destination. Have fun and enjoy the ride. Don't get hung up on trying to control the future. The future is uncontrollable.

This might sound scary because it's a different way of thinking than you're probably used to. But if you spend some time upfront designing your life and the systems that support your life, you will be rewarded for the trouble. It's not easy. You have to do the hard work of figuring out what kind of life you actually want. You have to know what's important to you. You want to know what's meaningful to you so that you can set up your life in that way.

This is your one life. Enjoy it!

You get one life; live intentionally.


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Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Burkeman, Oliver: The Antidote

Emmons, Robert: THANKS!

McKay, Matthew, John Forsyth, and Georg Eifert: Your Life on Purpose Mindfulness X

Shapiro, Stephen: Goal-Free Living

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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