Thursday, September 8, 2011

Goal-Free Living

While I was searching for personal goal-management books for my previous post, I found an interesting book called “Goal-Free Living” by Stephen Shapiro. To tell you the truth, I haven’t read the book yet as my order still has to arrive, but the way the book’s topic was stated intrigued me a lot. I just couldn’t resist making a comment on it.

Surely, the title was chosen for a purpose--to interest and attract the attention of its target audience. The book’s author is a very active and fruitful person. I tracked him down on the Internet to see how many books he’s published, it looked very impressive, and I can’t imagine that he was trying to convince people to drop everything and start spending their lifetime for nothing, going with the flow. But, I can understand why he chose such a title.. Having goals is hard.

The thing is that many people live today in a constant rush, working very hard to achieve something. However, they don’t enjoy the process or the achieved results. At the same time, many gurus of goal-management today put too much emphasis on the mechanical side of things. They assume people already have decent goals, and that they just need effective tools to reach them. However, that appears to be false. By doing this, they set people up for failure and discredit the whole idea.

The concept of goals refers to a future state that you may desire, or a current state that you are trying to keep. Just living without any perspective is wrong. Intuitively, everyone understands that, but no one likes pushing themself all the time for an elusive success.

From my point of view, the issue here is not a problem in the goal-oriented approach, but is a problem with missing a few important details by many people. Specifically:

  • The focus on short-term, immediate tasks, which may look like decent goals. In reality short-term tasks have to lead to long-term goals. Otherwise, it’s just busy work without much sense.
  • False goals. This is also a common problem. Too many people take alien, imposed goals for themselves. “Every man has to build a house, grow a farm, plant a tree,” or “every woman has to be married by the age of 25,” or “a person with less than a $100K annual income is a loser.” These are examples of externally imposed goals, which in most cases lead to failure.
  • A lack of individuality in goals. Even if we have a decent personal goal, there may be a problem with our individual particularities. For example, I’d like to have my own business. At the same time, I don’t like marketing, I hate to deal with officials, I’m not good with money, and I don’t like to talk to clients. If I choose to go towards such goal, the process and the achieved goal will be torturous for me. It is important to examine all personal particularities and formulate a goal that avoids stepping on our own pressure-points. For instance: business can be done jointly with another person or family member, who would like to take care of management formalities. That way I could concentrate on work that I find to be more creative. On the other side, I could come to the conclusion that the business itself is not important for me, but instead a sense of decision-making freedom, financial independence, and the desire to do the work I like. The goal could then be reformulated in a totally different manner.
  • Overall disbalance in goals. Sometimes, when we start doing something, we may forget about other important things. If it’s only for a short time, that’s fine. But, if we are lost at work for years, if we forget about family, friends, or our own emotional and physical state, then, sooner or later, reality will catch us, and we’ll be in trouble. Through a long period of time we should be mindful and balance our goals with the other important aspects of our life. And yes, I’m guilty myself here...
  • Overworking. Some people try to take too much of a bite and take too much on. But there are a limits that exist: a day has only 24 hours which include breaks for sleep and meals, the physical strength of one human is limited, and one’s productive life lasts for only 60 to 70 years at best. By setting too many overly aggressive goals for ourselves, we may die on a run like a beaten horse. Does it mean we should never set aggressive goals? Not at all! But we shouldn’t overwork ourselves to the point of failure. Actually, I do believe that there are no goals that are too aggressive. They can be reached, but it is smart and healthy to use help. Try to find companions willing to share the workload, or create a company, hire people, a put a good manager in place. Then you can reach far more aggressive goals, and you’ll have enough time to rest and spend with your family.
  • Unhappy process. It is also crucial to enjoy the process of reaching your goals--perhaps, even more than enjoying the final outcome. It is very likely that we will have to take unpleasant work. When this happens, as responsible adults we usually clench our teeth, suck it up, and tell ourselves, “I have to do that! When I do this and that, it will become easier. Even though I don’t like it, I just have to get it done.” That’s wrong! We don’t have to be so negative about the hard processes. Yes, there will be difficult moments when we have to push ourselves. But, if our approach is right, even in such situations, we should at least feel proud of ourselves. (On a side note, if you keep pushing without any positive emotional outcomes, it may be an indication of either false goals, or the ignorance of individual particularities, of which I wrote above.)

So, I do believe that goals are not the problem, but that bad goals and poor approaches are the reason for people’s unhappiness. Personally true goals and correct individual approaches are the key factors to living a happy life. That could happen even at strictly intuitive level, without any formalities at all. Be happy, whatever it means for you! :)


  1. Recently I was reading a psychology magazine, and an interesting topic came up related to personal goals. They classified goals as approach and avoidance-oriented. Approach-oriented goals represent achieving desired outcomes, and avoidance-oriented goals represent avoiding undesired outcomes. For example, I could wash dishes every day to "make my wife happy and have a clean, sparkling kitchen" vs. "avoid nasty smell of old food, don't get criticized by wife", etc.

    People would often state goals as a avoidance goals as a result of frustration and lack of satisfaction with life, and by doing so trigger procrastination due to a negative connotation...

    So the conclusion here is this: defining goals as approach-goals in a positive manner, will make you happier and more likely to achieve what you want.

  2. After reading a few books on achieving goals, it seems to be a fairly common belief amoung authors that the way you perceive a goal is a significant factor in whether or not you will reach your goal. As Mark said, viewing a goal in a positive way and saying "If I achieve this I will get X" instead of "If I don't achieve this I will get Y" is important. Another common technique used is to visualize what your life will be like when you achieve your goal. Imagine your surroundings, circumstances, relationships, ect often to try and maintain motivation as to why you set the goal in the first place.