When Goals Make You Crazy

  • December 27, 2011 by Corbett Barr
  • 19 Comments

New Year’s resolutions. End-of-year planning.

Goals. Plans. Hopeful futures.

They say goals are important. They make us happier and help us accomplish more. They’re the cornerstone of a fulfilled and productive life.

But what about when goals make us unhappy? What happens when we get so wrapped up in chasing goals that we can’t be happy in the present anymore?

I tend to set and pursue goals like most people do, but more and more I’m wondering where it all leads. Is life supposed to be a series of goal planning/chasing/accomplishing cycles?

Where does it all lead?

Maybe goals are like cameras. If you spend an entire vacation behind a camera, do you really experience it? Sure, you captured some shots to look at later, but how often will you really look back on them?

If you spend every moment chasing goals and shaping your future, are you ever happy in the moment?

If goals have been making you feel a little crazy lately, here are a four ideas for planning less and living more:

  1. Set goals for the present.
  2. We tend to think of goals as being in the future. What about the present? Why not set goals for the present?

    Try balancing your future goals with present goals as well. Set goals for living in the moment. Set goals for being present during your activities and meetings. Set goals for forgetting about the future for a while.

    Try making a goal to fully engage with your activities today. If you’re with other people, really be there. If you’re relaxing, really relax. If you’re doing something, really do it.

  3. Set goals for inputs, not outputs.
  4. Sometimes goals make us crazy simply because we try to control things that cannot be controlled.

    We usually can’t control outcomes, but people set goals as if they can. For example, let’s say you set a goal to lose 10 pounds over the next month. Can you really control that specific outcome? What if you do everything you possibly can and still don’t achieve your goal?

    Outcome-specific goals often set us up for failure.

    Instead of focusing on the outcome, try setting goals for what you can control. If you want to lose 10 pounds, what actions can you take to make that outcome more likely? You can eat less, eat specific foods and exercise more. Set goals for the specific steps you’ll take, like eating certain things or a certain number of calories, or doing certain exercises for a certain amount of time every day.

    Set goals for the actions you have control over, and then let the outcome happen as it will.

  5. Live without goals for a while.
  6. Most of us accept that goals are a requirement for a happy, productive life. Somehow this has become part of our societal values.

    But what if you could live without goals entirely? What if goals were actually holding you back?

    Leo from Zen Habits has been living without goals for a while and says it’s liberating and that he’s been accomplishing more now without goals than he did before with them.

    Living without goals doesn’t mean you don’t do anything. It simply means that you let your passion guide you and don’t put limits on where you let your days take you.

    Life is a grand experiment. I’m considering living without goals for a while to see what happens. If you try this, please let me know how your life changes as a result.

  7. Take time out for gratitude.
  8. Scientific studies have shown that the simple act of writing down things you’re thankful for can make you happier.

    In a 2003 study, people who wrote down five things they were grateful for that had happened in the last week for 10 weeks felt 25% happier than people in the study who didn’t.

    These people were also more optimistic about the future, they felt better about their lives and they even did almost 1.5 hours more exercise a week than the other people in the study who didn’t do the simple act of writing down what they were grateful for.

Goal setting can be useful, but it can also be taken to extremes that become counter-productive.

If you’ve living according to goals but haven’t been much happier, consider what you’re trying to achieve. Could you change your goal-setting strategy and enjoy your life more? Are you chasing goals for their own sake?

There is always a future, but there is only one present.

Success is not a place at which one arrives but rather the spirit with which one undertakes and continues the journey. -Alex Noble

Written by . Corbett is cofounder of Fizzle, a place for creative entrepreneurs, writers, makers, coders and artists, all working to support themselves doing what they love independently on the Internet. Follow Corbett on on Twitter.


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Sally December 27, 2011 at 3:57 pm

I like this post! I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this subject over the past year. Not having goals does not quite work for me, as I tend to lose focus. On the other hand, having goals makes me crazy if I become attached to outcomes. So I now think of ‘goals’ in a different way. I would like to accomplish certain things, so now I call them ‘personal projects’ or ‘personal explorations’. I might write down, say, 5 professional goals and 5 personal projects I want to do over the next year. They cannot have too well-defined outcomes, and though I will structure time to head in a direction, I will also adjust the goals periodically. That’s the plan. If it doesn’t make me too crazy!

Brett Jarman December 27, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Well said Corbett.

The weight loss example at point 2 is particularly important. Adopting a way of being and allowing the weight to fall off at it’s own pace makes much more sense than setting some arbitrary deadline to aim for.

I heard a nice distinction* recently – rather than setting goals, aim for targets instead. A target has less baggage and if you miss you can always re-aim and try again (or not).

A couple of additional points:

A goal is an idea rather than a contract. Ideas, desires and personal values change so goals should change with them.

The process is as critical, if not more, than the outcome. The outcome is often a fleeting moment in time whereas the process is life itself unfolding. A moment of disappointment is bearable and even irrelevant if the journey itself was fun.

* via Gary Douglas and Dr Dain Heer.

Will December 28, 2011 at 5:06 am

I think my constant level of anxiety comes from a future focus, that some future moment will be better than the present moment. Should I start this or that business, will I have enough money saved, philanthropy, etc. And we tend to have more intense concerns, about world issues or new business ideas whereas people I’ve seen that are happy have ‘simpler’ lives, thinking about gardening or upholstering their furniture, what restaurant they’re going to eat at this weekend, etc.

Zann Carter December 28, 2011 at 9:20 am

I really like the thoughts on goals you’ve shared. And I’m having a bit of fun with it, too. I hope you won’t find this disrespectful to your work, but when I got this via email, I misread the title as When GOATS Make You Crazy.

And then I as I read, I kept thinking about that and…well, I made a Facebook Status about it and started quoting some of your advice only with “adopting goats” as the theme rather than “setting goals” and now I’ve got a whole string of comments and Likes…and at least one share and , I hope, some smiles from my friends.

Quite seriously, I love the idea of thinking of goals as goats — little rambunctious animals that butt you & each other, need a bit of taming…

Thanks for this post – it’s useful & clear in its original state and has provided some playful metaphor exploration for me.

I may try living without goats for awhile.

Corbett December 28, 2011 at 11:09 am

Haha, I don’t have any experience with goats Zann, but I can see how they might make you crazy as well :)

Maria December 28, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Goals often act against us as they trigger the fight or flight response in the brain. Once this response is on, other functions like rational thinking and creativity slow down or even die for a while.

- This is why you forget what you studied just a day ago when you are taking an important exam.

- This is why there is “writer’s block”.

- This is why people decide to lose weight and then they go on and eat cake.

Goals are good when they are manageable and they fill us with excitement. If it’s too big, then fight or flight response will be turned on and failure is guaranteed.

Breaking big goals into pieces (“steps” as Corbett mentioned above) is the best strategy!

Stanley Lee December 28, 2011 at 9:25 pm

Corbett,

Is your first idea equivalent to focusing on the present moment? I’m more concerned about achieving a desired state of mind than the goal itself. I use goals to help me progress to that desired state of mind. What are your thoughts about wanting to live a certain state of mind in the context of goals?

Stanley

Corbett December 29, 2011 at 10:33 am

Hey Stanley, it’s a great question. I’ve been including state-of-mind goals myself in my approach recently. For example, I’ve tried periods where I set aside time each day to practice being present and grateful. I do believe it has helped my state of mind over time and has made me less obsessed with accomplishments and progress.

Tony December 29, 2011 at 6:35 am

I stopped setting goals a while ago when I realized that all “this” isn’t really important at all. What I mean is that jobs, goals, money, “success”, etc. are all just man-made illusions. At the end of my days, when I’m on my death bed, I want to look back and remember what good I’ve done in the world. Not how much money, toys and success I’ve enjoyed.

Now, I just keep a to-do list of things I don’t want to forget. I check the list about a couple of times a week. For urgent matters that need to get done, I simply set a reminder with an alarm.

It’s that simple. And like Leo, I too feel I get more (meaningful) work done by following my heart.

Rodrigo @ The Brave Man Blog December 29, 2011 at 8:37 pm

Hey Corbett Nice timing about this post, 2 days ago I wrote in my blog about “Accomplishing Goals Easier” after I read about having “Burning Desire” in the book Think & Grow Rich from Napoleon Hill, having burning desire for something it’s something that many people told me in the past 2 years, and it helped me a lot to achieve many of my goals and changed my life completely, 2 years ago I didn’t even dreamed about creating a business to be free but now I’m doing it.

When you said “Sometimes goals make us crazy simply because we try to control things that cannot be controlled.” it really resonated in me, because I’ve been there A LOT, well the last one is that I started an exercising program called P90X and got sick by the second week of bronchitis, because of that I had to stop, now I still have bronchitis but it’s almost gone, and I’ve been truly stressed because I want to start again by the next Monday (to start the new year with that).
This is just an example, but there have been many times where I got really mad or crazy because something outside my control happened and that made me stop my goals for a while, has this happened to you? and if it has, do you have something that reminds you to calm down or helps you to calm down?
Any experience in it would be truly appreciated :D

Khandee December 31, 2011 at 2:49 am

I think a crucial factor in goals, is that they need to be both realistic and inspiring at the same time. This can be a difficult balance to achieve.

I can speak with familiarity about weight loss. When someone wants to lose weight, if they set a very large weight goal, they are likely to feel overwhelmed and give up easily. If your goal is to lose 40 pounds, then even if you manage to lose 2 pounds, you will feel like you are too far away from your goal.

On the other hand, if you have an “eventual goal” and a “short term goal”, then it’s much easier. Your eventual goal could be 40 pounds, but your short term goal could be 10 pounds. It’s much easier to stay motivated for 10 pounds than 40 pounds, but the eventual pay-off for losing 40 pounds will be greater and more inspiring.

Jeff @ Digital Nomad Journey January 1, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Some good points here Corbett.

While goals are important overall, one sentence here stuck out at me:

“What happens when we get so wrapped up in chasing goals that we can’t be happy in the present anymore?”

This is perhaps , both an analogy and key to living a happier life. We are always wrapped up in the past and the future. IF we can focus on just the present moment, a lot of stress and anxiety seems to fall away.

“If you’re doing something, really do it.”
Just like several metaphysical and meditation practices outline, focus intently on your present task, and you build awareness overall in life. Easier said than done, in the Internet age.

Have a good 2012!

nwtayeb January 9, 2012 at 12:00 am

Thanks Corbett for this post, I am happy because I find your blog, I like it …I would like to be one of your friend, in my country Algeria, I think the most of us have the biggest goal which is to satisfy Allah,

39. And that there is not for man except that [good] for which he strives
40. And that his effort is going to be seen –
41. Then he will be recompensed for it with the fullest recompense –
42. And that to your Lord is the finality
(Surah 53 – an-Najm – the holy Quran translation)
In general we are not very organized and Muslims didn’t represent the real Islam in those days, and the most of us don’t have specific goals.
I use to live without them until few months ago, my life was like a mess when I didn’t have goals, I start my career as a civil engineer, I wasn’t good, in the beginning I didn’t choose what kind of engineering I will be (building design, road design, geotechnical, construction….) it is very vast field, I was jumping from a job to another, it was like a waste of time….. For know I feel much better because I decided to be a road design engineer, I choose my last job because it is in a road design company, even the salary it isn’t good , I am much happier and organized now.
Yes it is crazy to make too much goals, and try to do everything in the same time, but when you choose the best and appropriate goals for you, considering to my experience it is very basic thing in our life.
Thanks Corbett
Your new friend: Tayeb

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