I’m done with goals.
For years, I kept lists of goals for every topic. Goals about my career, my health, my fashion choices, my cultural experiences. Goals on in every sphere of my life. I have notebooks full of them. At one point, it was a list of 101 things to do in 1001 days. At another, I was a member of a Life Goals club.
Sometimes, goals work well. They’re great if you’re committing to someone else. They’re great when you need be accountable.
Honestly, I think they’re really great for work. I was a huge fan the framework Microsoft used for goals. Annual commitments had to be “SMART – Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Result-Oriented, and Timed.” If SMART isn’t your thing, there are lots of other frameworks for work related goals, too. http://smartashell.com/blog/2013/02/25/13-goal-setting-frameworks-that-arent-smart/
But for my personal life? Nope.
Personal goals were miserable. They made everything feel like work. My lists were far from inspirational. They were just another dreaded to do list. When I had some free time, I just felt like I had to tackle another thing on the list of goals. There wasn’t even someone to tell me “hey the list should only have six things for the year.”
I had nightmares of waking up, being 60, and not having accomplished anything else between now and then. I was afraid that if I stopped having a long list of goals, I’d become those nightmares. I’d suddenly stop getting things done. I’d forget all the things I aspired to do.
On top of that, I could never disentangle my goals. Did I really want to run a marathon? Or was it that my friends wanted to run a marathon, so I put it on my list of goals too? Did I care about building my own house from scratch, or was it just another “life experience” to have?
But one day, I just snapped. I needed a break. No more lists of goals. I’d just do the things that seemed interesting to me in the moment.
That was when a funny thing happened – I suddenly started getting more things done.
“Learn to paint.” had been on my goals list for years. I felt like I wasn’t artistic, but should learn. I knew all the steps I could take – starting class, or getting supplies. I never did because making it a goal seemed like a big deal, rather than a casual thing. I was going to Learn To Paint.
After I did away with my lists, I wasn’t prioritizing Learn To Paint. I was focusing on moving to New York and getting my bearings with my new job. That was right when the perfect time appeared.
My start date was in December, but I still got an educational stipend – I just had to decide what to spend it on right then. I immediately signed up for an oil painting class.
The external circumstance was a much better pressure than my list of goals. It was also fun – “oh I’m going to try this for six weeks!” rather than the scary goal of Learn To Paint. Which was good – because I was terrible. It turns out you’re supposed to know something about drawing or painting in another medium before you try oils.
“Blog once/week.” had also been up there. It was always a chore that usually ended up in me posting photos of cupcakes I’d baked, or recapping a talk I’d been to.
Without the goal, there was a period where I didn’t write publicly. Then, I started having things to say. I wanted to write about what newsletters I was reading! So I wrote. I didn’t feel any pressure to write the next day, but a few months later I felt like writing about RocksBox. After that, I wanted to talk about Gender and tech.
Blog once/week made me miserable, but writing when I wanted to was wonderful. The more I wrote things I wanted to write (without the pressure) – the more I wanted to! I’ve been writing more than once/week for months now. The goal never would have gotten me there – but just letting myself write did.
“Teach about Product Management.” had also topped the list of my goals. No one really wanted to hear my opinion when I was fresh out of college.
The goal also – again – didn’t help. It languished because it wasn’t the right time yet.
What helped was waiting until the right time to talk about it. I talked to Christina Wallace about Startup Institute during a friends party. Afterwards, I sent her a follow up email saying I’d be happy to run a session for her class – I was just interested in getting my feet wet with teaching! She let me come in for the class, then another, then I helped write a curriculum module.
Getting my start let me talk about it more with others. On Twitter, Alexandra Chou reached out about running a class for her clients. Then Alex Proba, a designer at Kickstarter, introduced me to the PM course producer at GA.
Since then, other friends have offered to help me find more venues to teach at. Having a “goal” to teach didn’t help me – being brave enough to talk about my desire to teach, did.
Try not having goals
Three things that all sat on my “goals” list for many years, all happened within eighteen months of eliminating goals. Not only that, but I felt better about what I was doing. So I’m moving on from goals, and not looking back.
So I challenge you to do your own experiment. Feeling overwhelmed by your list of goals? Put them aside. Give yourself a time limit – “I’ll put these aside for one month, and if it’s not working, I can have them back.”
What can you do instead of having goals?
Ellen Chisa is presently an MBA Candidate at the Harvard Business School.
Before entering the program, she was a Product Manager at Kickstarter and a trustee of the New York City Awesome Foundation.
Previously she spent time at Microsoft as a Program Manager. She frequently writes about Product Management and Gender.