Something I have struggled with in the past is whether or not to set goals. As Leo from Zen Habits described in this blog post and this one, settings goals can be detrimental. There is a great video with Tim Ferris and Leo Babauta, where they debate this very subject. I would go as far as saying goals can actually be the cause of suffering. So why is goal setting such an integral part of our reality? There is an impression that without goals, we will lack drive and ambition, and also suffer from a lack of motivation.

Issues with goals

The main problem with setting goals is that it makes you adhere to your future very tightly. Your happiness can depend on reaching the goal and this coupling will cause your current state to be affected. The underlying sentence is commonly “I will be happy when I reach Goal A,” without any appreciation of the present. Another common danger is setting goals that are related to something that is beyond your control. A dependency, such as someone else having to complete something for you or for an event to happen.

Side effects of this can include narrow vision. The focus to reach a particular place can close the potential for better opportunities. Like when someone suggests a restaurant and you want to go somewhere else, so you go to the restaurant you did not suggest and it turns out to be amazing. As well as lower expectations, there is an opportunity you would not have experienced if you had followed your goal.

Without goals

The counter argument to this is, without a goal and a vision, how do you know what choices to make? If you cannot relate a decision to a goal you are aiming for, which one do you go for? There is also the concept of planning and milestones to get you to that goal. There are many successful people who talk about having a clear vision and goal to develop that drive and motivation.

The Balance

A balanced view would be one where there is a vision, but also a way of not having your happiness rely on a moment in the future. I achieve this by:

1. Living in the present moment. Along with meditation, I journal twice daily to increase my awareness of what happened today. This lets me reflect on any moments of insight I had during the day, and identify what I am grateful for and appreciate today.

2. Themes. This is not a new concept, but my vision or goals are based around themes. These are broad topics which I can use to make decisions and choices. I have five per year, but I think three is a good number too. Too many goals can be confusing and cause distractions. There is a great story about Warren Buffet asking his pilot to write down his top 25 goals, then identify his top five. Asking about the other 20, Warren Buffet said they are your “avoid at all cost” list. My current ones are better health, loving relationships, a successful company, mindful productivity and meaningful coaching. These are my projects in to do list.

3. Personal mantras. For each of these themes, I have written a sentence that motivates me. I have formulated these so I have an emotional response when I read them. These are not something like “I want to gain 10kg by November.” I would write this same goal as “I would like to be fit and healthy, so I can be present and a model to my friends and family.

4. Let go of tangible and practical goals. This caused me more harm than good and I feel happy with the concept of themes. But I do understand that this may be a bit too drastic for some, so I encourage you to experiment.

This has become my way of finding a sense of direction whilst staying in the present moment. Enjoying the journey whilst getting to the destination. What do you think? Goals, are they a meaningful direction to have, or a distraction that you can do without? Or is my balance a better way to look at it?