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  • Jan Flynn

Goals, Schmoals

Why I’m backing off on mine

Photo by Dennis Anderson on Unsplash

I have this thing about goals

I set them for myself with near-religious zeal, from the overarching (live my life to the full) to the trivial (water the houseplants today before noon). I’m the person who is driven by a calendar, by reminders on my phone, by To Do lists — which are everywhere: on my desk; the kitchen counter; post-it notes stuck to my car’s dashboard.

In my writing office lives a whiteboard with my monthly goals, complete with in-month due dates, written in dry-erase pen. I hide the eraser from myself until the end of the month so the only way I have to obliterate the tasks is to carry them out. I get a small thrill as I put hash marks denoting progress next to each goal, and a concentrated sense of satisfaction when I put a strikethrough line, indicating completion, through them.

I don’t have a boss anymore, at least not in the standard sense. Nobody else cares if I get these things done or not. But the feeling of getting through all my monthly goals is akin to the shot of endorphins I experience when crossing off everything on my daily To Do list, magnified times 30.

Goals that don’t get accomplished in time . . . well, those items hang there, naked and ashamed, bearing witness to my sloth until I hurry up and do whatever it takes to finish them off at the eleventh hour. Otherwise, I must admit abject failure and carry them over into the next month — like a stain. Nobody else cares if I leave these things undone, but it rarely happens, because my own distress is more than enough to keep me slogging away.

It sounds like an effective method, doesn’t it?

By most measures, it is. It does what it’s designed to do, which is to get me to spend enough of my time in ways that will result in getting through a list of focused tasks, all of which are meant to lead to somewhere more meaningful than getting the laundry done (that’s merely a To Do list thing).

Often, after writing my goals at the beginning of the month, I stand back and survey my whiteboard the way a mountain climber probably stands down at base camp and cranes their neck toward the summit — feeling determined but also a bit daunted. The top of that peak looks impossibly far away.

At the end of the month, I’m pleasantly surprised, more often than not, to find that I’ve slogged ahead all the way to the tippy-top. There’s a lot to be said for simply putting one foot in front of the other, and not stopping until you run out of mountain.

But there’s always another mountain

And once you’re devoted to the habit of continually climbing, you tend to just keep gritting your teeth and heading upwards. That’s more admirable, perhaps, than hanging out all season down at base camp in your mummy bag eating trail mix and chatting with the yaks (yakking with the yaks?). But, in your zeal, you may overlook one important thing.

You could be heading up the wrong mountain.

I mean, it’s still a mountain, but it might not be one that gets you anywhere significant — like, to the other side of the whole mountain range. Just because you’re working hard and heading upwards doesn’t mean you’re going in the right direction.

I think I need to switch mountains

Enough with the climbing metaphor. My point is, like all habits, goal-setting itself needs to be examined from time to time, and I believe I have reached that time. I am noticing two things: one, that my satisfaction with my achievements is diminishing in almost exact proportion to my increasing anxiety over Doing More. I mean, so what if I achieved more than I expected to this month? I still haven’t done X.

I’ve reached the point where I don’t have goals so much as I have goads. It’s too much stick and not enough carrot, and my estimation of myself is dangerously close to becoming equated with hash marks on a whiteboard.

The other thing I notice is that being goal-driven can diminish quality. It leads to a git-‘er-done mentality at all costs. When this happens, it means I’ve fallen into the error of thinking that I’m here to achieve those goals — which, really, are nothing more than elevated tasks — instead of remembering that the only reason to set goals is to serve me and my vision of living a life I find most meaningful and satisfying.

Talk about putting the cart before the horse. Or, the yak.

Photo by Shane Aldendorff on Unsplash

I am hardly the first one to figure this out

The Bhagavad Gita caught onto the trap of endless, obsessive goal-setting over 2200 years ago:

“Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.”  Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, The Bhagavad Gita

I never said I was a quick learner.

But I do catch on, and before I make myself miserable, I’m going to do some serious re-evaluation. This is not to say that I’m abandoning all ambition or giving up on setting goals altogether. I’m simply setting an intention, as we embark on the final quarter of the year (ALREADY? Egad), to make sure that any benchmarks I set for myself actually lead me somewhere I ultimately want to go.

One way that may well manifest itself is in less frequent blog posts. I’ve been at this weekly, missing nary a week, for at least the average life span of an Etruscan water shrew. I’m proud of that, but it may be time to focus my energies in another direction.

Or I may just take a hiatus. I promise to let you know — next week, in fact. Until then, I’ll be at my whiteboard, doing some thinking.

Whatever I do or don’t do, I’m fairly certain the sun will still come up in the morning. Enjoy the sunrise.

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