Why I Don’t Set Goals

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5 min read

Growing up, I thought setting goals was necessary to achieve success.

My cross country coaches in high school told me to “set a goal” for my ideal 5k race time.

My teachers recommended that I set a goal for the GPA I would like to achieve by graduation.

My friends and I all set goals in the weight room for how much we wanted to bench press by the end of each summer.

Setting goals seemed to be a universally accepted method for achieving success in any area. But this past year I read three articles that have caused me to rethink my attitude towards setting goals.

Growth Without Goals

The first article was Growth Without Goals by Patrick O’Shaughnessy, the CEO of O’Shaughnessy Asset Management. He explains,

“Inventing the future is another way of saying “setting goals.” Success, especially in the West, then becomes about achieving those goals. We accumulate accomplishments and call it success. Success means something very different to me, and I think being a great father will be about effectively communicating this different definition of success to my kids. Success is about building a set of daily practices, it is about growth without goals.  Continuous, habitual practice(s) trumps achievement-based success.”

Patrick argues that in our culture it’s baked into our heads from an early age that “success” is synonymous with “achievement”, which means to be successful we need to be able to point towards something we have achieved. He chooses to redefine “success” as building a set of daily practices that simply lead to continuous growth over time.

He shares this wonderful chart to illustrate his point:

continuous-success.png

He goes on to share a list of his own daily practices:

-No complaining
-100 push ups
-Run
-No sugar
-Write 500 words
-Read
-Don’t eat until noon (intermittent fasting)
-Floss
-Spend time in the woods (running or hiking)
-Family Time
-Level Up

In reference to these practices, he says:

“These things are their own reward. I did not back into these things from some other goal. They are continuous goals themselves. They make daily life quite wonderful, and I bet they will continue to lead to things that look like achievements from the outside.”

I’ve Never Had a Goal

The second article was I’ve never had a goal by Jason Fried, the Founder and CEO of Basecamp. The way he thinks about growth is similar to Patrick O’Shaughnessy. He shares:

“I do things, I try things, I build things, I want to make progress, I want to make things better for me, my company, my family, my neighborhood, etc. But I’ve never set a goal. It’s just not how I approach things.

A goal is something that goes away when you hit it. Once you’ve reached it, it’s gone. You could always set another one, but I just don’t function in steps like that.

When you shift from 1st to 2nd, 1st is behind you. Then from 2nd to 3rd, 2nd is behind you. I approach things continuously, not in stops. I just want to keep going — whatever happens along the way is just what happens.”

He goes on to share a quote by Jim Coudal that “pretty much sums up” why he doesn’t think goals are effective:

“The reason that most of us are unhappy most of the time is that we set our goals not for the person we’re going to be when we reach them, but we set our goals for the person we are when we set them.”

“Goals are for losers”

The third article was a guest post that Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, wrote for the Wall Street Journal. I can’t find the original article but I did manage to dig up a couple quotes from it that sum up Adams’ thoughts towards goals:

“To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal if you reach it at all feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.”

He goes on to say:

“If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent pre-success failure.”

Continuous Improvement, Not Occasional Achievement

O’Shaughnessy, Fried, and Adams point out three inherent drawbacks of setting goals: 

  • A goal is something that goes away when you hit it.
  • When you set a goal, you set it for the person you currently are as opposed to the person you will be when you reach the goal.
  • Leading up to a goal, you are in a state of continuous failure since you haven’t reached the point you have defined as “successful.”

All three argue that it’s better to focus on continuous growth and simply let any external rewards come if they may. 

O’Shaughnessy focuses on hitting his daily practices. 

Fried focuses on “building things” and “making things better” each day.

Adams focuses on setting up systems that make growth inevitable. 

All three believe in a philosophy of continuous growth and improvement without defining goals or milestones for themselves that they need to hit to feel successful. 

Why I Have Stopped Setting Goals

I recently read a nightly journal entry I had in my phone from May 2017 in which I wrote:

“It would be so cool to hit 20,000 page views in one month by the end of the year.”

At the time, I had been consistently receiving 10-15,000 page views per month. Instead of obsessively focusing on hitting this goal, I decided to implement a new habit: writing and publishing one article every day. The following month I hit 24,000 page views and by the end of the year I was receiving over 45,000 per month. 

In another journal entry from August 2016, shortly after I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I had written:

“I think I can save $100k by 26 if I buckle down and focus.”

At the time I was 22 years old, had a net worth of about $4,000, and had no idea how fast I could actually save $100k. 

Long story short, I made a few crucial decisions and set up a few habits that helped me save $100k by age 24:

Decisions

1. Job-hopping to boost my salary from $52k to $80k.

2. Choosing to share an apartment with a roommate ($611 monthly rent) to keep my biggest monthly expenses fairy low.

Habits

1. Tracking my net worth each month (using Personal Capital).

2. Tracking my monthly spending.

These decisions and habits helped propel my net worth higher at a much quicker pace than I could have predicted:

NW Sept 18

Related: Answers to Your Questions: How Did I Save $100k in 2 Years?

The reason I was able to save $100k by age 24 and receive far more than 20,000 page views per month is because I focused on setting up systems and habits that naturally lead to continuous growth.

I am trying to use a similar approach of continuous growth as opposed to goal-setting in different areas of my life:

Instead of trying to read X amount of books this year, I just try to read for 30 min. – 1 hour per day.

Instead of trying to bench press X amount in the gym, I simply make sure I lift 4 – 5 times per week. 

Instead of trying to hit X amount of page views per month, I just make sure I write every morning.

Instead of trying to reach a net worth of X amount by the end of the year, I try to continuously increase my income, track my spending, and track my net worth each month.

I believe that setting up these habits and practices will help me achieve far more growth than setting goals. Also, by not setting goals, I have learned to enjoy the process purely for the process. 

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from F.M. Alexander:

“People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.”


My favorite free financial tool I’ve been using since 2015 to manage my net worth is Personal Capital. Each month I use their free Investment Checkup tool and Retirement Planner to track my investments and ensure that I’m on the fast track to financial freedom.

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5 Replies to “Why I Don’t Set Goals”

  1. This is a great perspective. Focus on the journey and not the destination. I may take this approach myself. I find myself in a state of perfection paralysis with my own “goals” and this could help get past that. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Looking at my “goals” list after reading this post, I realized most of the items are habits, not achievements. Guests o was onto something!

    I’ve listened to a podcast with Jason Fried and his points really resonated with me. It’s a much more fulfilling life to focus on our habits rather than achievements.

  3. It’s funny timing for me to read this. I’d been thinking about the whole goals vs habits difference lately and considering making some changes. I currently set (perhaps) too many goals – personal mission, life goals, heart goals, all the way down to weekly goals. I really like the idea that these daily things are scoped down to the work rather than the result. Great to read a bunch of other takes of it!

    One area that I wonder about when only setting daily habits – what guiding principles/vision/future are they aligning with? Habits that make you happy or fulfilled on a daily level perhaps don’t lead to long-term happiness.

    I think about your growth story. The motivation to write everyday needs to be either because you absolutely love it and can’t imagine not doing it, or because it’s leading to something. Any thoughts on that? Not exactly a goal, but a vision perhaps?

  4. You know, this reminds me a bit of reading about Financial Independence for the first time. You’ve taken a concept that I was already moving in the direction of, but for some reason reading it explicitly like this makes me realize “yeah, that makes perfect sense.”

    Having a goal, especially a far off one, can get really frustrating because you just want to be there. I tend to get grumpy and impatient that I haven’t yet achieved it. In contrast, anything that I’ve just made a normal part of my life (diet, exercise, frugality, investing) ends up becoming something that gives me ongoing satisfaction, is easier to stick with, and over time produces the sort of positive outcomes that would otherwise have been set as “goals”.

  5. Great points on goals and the authors you’ve cited are def leaders in so many ways. The one example to the contrary that I’ve found really useful is my switch to a goals-based investing strategy. Aiming for one long-term financial goal of retirement often comes to a conclusion that bears regret over missed opportunities and exhaustion from years lacking work-life balance. Rather than defer enjoyment and earnings for a far-off job-free utopia, I’m now using goals based investing to enable mini-retirements. I find that it’s a better way to savor the present while still progressing toward total financial freedom and full(er)/option retirement in the future. My complete guide to how I put it into action: https://interestinlife.com/achieve-financial-freedom-mini-retirement-guide

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