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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.

I’m done.

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.

 

 

Tags: change, goals, growth, improvement, productivity, reflection,

10 Responses to “Why I quit setting goals and how it helped me get more done (and feel better doing it)”

  1. DJ Park

    Also used to work at Microsoft as a PM and relate with what you’re saying. Applying the goal setting methodology from work to your personal life is useful in helping you understand what those goals are and prioritizing them but can make your life feel like a chore – who wants that?? Important thing is to be aware of what you want and be ready to take advantage of opportunities to make it happen. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thomas

    One thing I know is that theres a difference between end-goals and proces-goals, Setting end-goals is okay, but usally it is better to set process goals. Theyre wat easier to achieve and don’t give you a headache for not getting to there.

    For example, this is an end-goal:
    -> Get a sixpack before summer

    It is not easy to ‘just’ get a sixpack. I could try to do push ups and sit ups for a bit, but wouldn’t see any change. That would make me sad/mad or give me another bad feeling.

    A process-goal:
    -> Sport 5 days a week, for at least 10 minutes during the month of May.

    This is much easier! 10 minutes is very short. I know that there is an end to this. There are rest days. I can achieve it, which gives me a good feeling. After the 30 days, I decide to add another 30 days because it is so nice to do.

    See the difference? Focus on the process :-)

    • Ellen Chisa

      Agreed that they work better for some! But I actually didn’t do well with process-goals either. I could do “play clarinet for 10 minutes per day” and I still found it to be a huge mental drain.

  3. Monique

    I quit setting goals too! It has helped me tremendously. Now I just do whatever the mood calls for, and it’s usually something that’s been on my to-do list forever. But it’s funner that way, to play with the time and see what ends up happening, versus planning for everything and feeling bad if it doesn’t go accordingly. Glad someone else sees this the same way!

  4. Josh Kaneer

    Wow, I really like this article. I’m way too ambitious and have set all these goals. I feel almost bound or imprisoned to them, like they’re just a big pressure. I actually haven’t achieved much towards any of them, because it just stresses me, I don’t feel happy because they haven’t been reached, which almost just puts me in a mood of not acting, due to overwhelm. My goals are kind of over the top, here they are: 5% bf, become top actor, finish my college degree, create a top bodybuilding based blog, learn the guitar, win several powerlifting competitions,model, find a girl. Thing is I’m very good looking, but this list of huge goals and not having accomplished them, wears on my confidence, even talking to females, like I can’t be happy with myself until I reach them. I’m so overwhelmed half the time, I don’t even know how to take action. I have a routine for my bodybuilding, another one I won’t mention, which takes 2 hours out of my day. A lot of it has to be due to growing up obese, I’m not anymore, but it’s gave me a feeling of having to just do all these things to feel right.

    I’m currently 25 year old man. I’ve spent a lot of my life switching paths. First, I was going to college, got my Associate’s degree, then the police academy, then back to college: almost have my B.S. in Biology. Ended up getting burnt out on the college, so I took a contracting job and went overseas for the experience. Most of my goals are all things I want, but just feeling bound to them, since they’re goals, stresses me out bad. I used to be a happy, kind of goofy person, who had a passion to be a bass fisherman and I just did it because I enjoyed it. I made great progress this way, had more friends, socialized more, etc. Now, I’ve just been so stressed I don’t hardly even make an effort to talk to people. It’s because of the whole goal thing, I believe, and just not being there yet. There are some things I’ve done for my goals, but not much. I did start making youtube videos and I’ve been taking acting classes, although due to the goals, it’s kind of stressful. Anyways, I really enjoyed your article. I really think I’ll give this a try and just do what I feel I want to do. Most of these things I enjoy, especially bodybuilding and acting, so I’m sure I’ll achieve a lot just out of passion. Great post!!

  5. Ravi

    Great article.

    I’m a huge fan of goal setting…though I understand why at times it helps to not have goals….or at least it helps to set goals differently than most people do…

    2 ProTips around goal setting:

    1) I like setting goals that are BIG and PERSONAL….sometimes telling the world about a goal takes the precious-ness out of the goal…most of my big goals in life I keep to myself (and my wife!)…until I actually make them happen – then the world can find out!

    2) Another thing I like to do is really get clear on WHY I want a specific goal to happen. I worry less about how it will happen or the specific process (HOW) I expect to take. If I am clear on WHY…the rest usually works out for the best.

    I’ve written a bit about goal setting and the approach I use on my blog:
    http://sethigherstandards.com/smart-goals/

    Live your dream,
    Ravi from sethigherstandards.com.

  6. Paul Owen

    Loved the post, Ellen – thanks! The popular school of thought (led by Zig Ziglar, for one) is that if you don’t have a bunch of goals and a plan to reach them, you won’t go anywhere. That assumes you know exactly what you should accomplish in life, and who knows that, exactly? It seems you can get so focused on the goals you’ve set that you won’t spot the stray opportunities that pop up unexpectedly. I know that I want to do good in the world and be a positive influence on those around me, but beyond that I could be happy with life working out any number of ways.

    I do fairly well with a few process goals, though, reminders on my phone that nudge me to do something like write in my journal for a few minutes or work on some Spanish. Beyond that I just try to stay on the lookout for good things to do, and flex with wherever they lead me.

  7. Susan M Kinchen

    I think that it depends on the person if goals work or not. For me, I never set goals before. To do list drive me insane. However, I still need something to keep me on track. I have a general outline of goals now. I check it on occasion to see how I am doing.