lifestyle

A very convincing case against setting goals.

I’m calling it: our society’s obsession with setting goals has gone too far.

I’m a goal-setter. A stubborn three-year-planner. A hardened list-maker.

Yep, in true Type A personality style, I’m into day-by-day planners, I’ve mastered annotated flow charts, and I’m practically an expert in vision boards.

But I’ve recently had a bit of an epiphany and it boiled down to this one simple realisation: as a society, our obsession with setting goals has gone too far.

“As a society, our obsession with setting goals has gone too far.”

Here’s how this revelation came to me…

During a long layover at an international airport, stuck in a bookstore with some seriously limited reading options (what is it with airports and self-help books?), I ended up picking up a title called something like How To Reach Your Goals.

The book’s author — one of those American motivational speaker-types with a mega-watt grin — seemed obsessed with writing down his life goals on tiny cards, then reading these goals back to himself.

This guy would tape said goals on his fridge, above his bed, and on the back of the toilet door, as a constant reminder of where he envisioned him future self. It required at least an active committment of an hour per day, he said, but this constant reading and rereading and re-rereading of goal, he swore, could be credited with his considerable success (ie. selling a self-help book that appeared in airport lounges around the world.)

Well, after reading this book for seven hours straight en route to Sydney from New York (it was that or watching Bride Wars for the third time, alright?), I decided to try his recipe for goal-setting. So right there, on the plane, I amped up my goal-hitting regimen by determining my own set of 30 ‘bucket list items’ in the very specific, descriptive terms suggested by the book.

I even followed its suggestion of breaking down each one of those goals into an expected timeline, which in turn required a whole lot of “mini goals” that required attention every day (want to visit Italy? Better learn Italian and pick up more work, so you can start saving a hundred bucks a week towards that airfare. You get the idea.)

Before long, I had written down a bunch of measurable things I would begin to ‘achieve’ in my life: these included What my Ideal Relationship Would Look Like, The Words my Job Title Should Include, The Date by Which I Should Have my First Child, and The Cities I Had to Visit (By Which Exact Deadline).

I even listed The Specific Type of House I Wanted to Live In — and the Type of Couch that Would Form the Centrepiece of its Living Room. (Just so you know, I’ve never been the sort of person to give a single f**k about the brand or colour of my couch but, the author insisted, my goals must be specific and mention some material goals. So, a tan leather L-shaped couch from West Elm went on that list.)

A hipster couch from West Elm: it was all part of the dream.

I popped these little goals onto small white cards in my wallet as suggested and, whenever I opened up that zipper to grab a coffee, there they were, admonishing me: Renovate that house. Get this promotion. Book another adventure holiday. Learn this language.  Start taking spin class again instead of hanging out on the elliptical machine all the time at the gym. Buy that goddamn hipster couch.

ADVERTISEMENT

And do it all RIGHT NOW so you can get THIS payrise to afford THIS amount of children by THIS age.

Free tip: Making holidays into goals can make them a whole lot less fun.

Within a couple of months, I actually started to tick off my goals. Focused as I was on my daily mini-goals, I got a promotion; I enrolled in an Italian language course; and my partner and I went couch-shopping. If my life had been a checklist, a big red pen would be scrawling “SUCCESS” over many areas of my existence.

But here’s the thing: my goal-setting came at a cost.

Because this particular type of obsessive goal-making, I learned, starts to eat away at those easy, thoughtful pockets of your week that make life feel light and playful.

Once I started my goal-setting regimen, I’d be sitting in a cafe, waiting for my morning coffee on a quiet, sunny day, when (according to the book’s instructions) I’d review at my little white goal cards. And all of a sudden, that gorgeous sunny day because a Day Where I Had Not Yet Met All My Goals.

“I’d be sitting in a cafe, waiting for my morning coffee on a quiet, sunny day, when (according to the book’s instructions) I’d review at my little white goal cards. And all of a sudden, that gorgeous sunny day because a Day Where I Had Not Yet Met All My Goals.

Or I’d be at a party, and I’d be spontaneously struck with the realisation that my energy levels the next day would sabotage one of my daily mini-goals — so I’d leave a couple of hours early, and miss that hilarious spot of late-night lounge-room dancing.

By becoming fixated on achieving my checklist, I had started micromanaging my own life. I went from a person who planned the vague outlines of my life so that I could make the most of my time her on this earth, to a person who became hung up on Self-Improvement in that slightly neurotic way “self-improvement” types always are.

Grace after achieving one of her goals: admission to legal practice.

And at the risk of getting all Eckhart Tolle on you, I learned something important:  the more we plan where we want to be in a year (or three, or ten), the more dissatisfied we feel about living in the present.

Now, I’m not a ‘mindful’ type. I don’t meditate, I have always had little niggles of doubt about what the future might hold; I think that’s pretty much what makes me human.

But I do believe in generally enjoying life, in not feeling guilty during every minute of downtime, and in once in a while throwing caution to the wind to do something that feels joyful and right in the moment.

I do believe that holidays should feel like holidays — not items on a checklist — and weekends should be for sleeping in, not running a marathon.

“if you’re a planning-prone personality like me, I couldn’t recommend giving up your goal-setting more.”

I pulled back from reviewing those tiny white cards, and I stopped micro-planning — and therefore worrying — nearly so much.

And, if you’re a planning-prone personality like me, I couldn’t recommend it more.

If you do, you’ll see this constant self-improvement culture that we live in for what it is — a bit of a neuroses of the (mostly) West, fed by an onslaught of people who profit from telling people they can be better and do more and make more money — and then promising to show them how.

It’s inward-looking, and worry-inducing, and fun-stifling and frankly rather boring.

And if your goal is to ultimately look back and reflect on how much you’ve enjoyed your life? I’m pretty sure making daily mini-goals written on tiny, aggressively detailed white cards, is not the answer.

“If your goal is to ultimately look back and reflect on how much you’ve enjoyed your life? I’m pretty sure making daily mini-goals written on tiny, aggressively detailed white cards, is not the answer.”
00:00 / ???