A Goal By Any Other Name?


This New Year’s there were plenty of folk decrying the New Year’s Resolution – saying things varying from they’d rather focus on a theme for their year, key words they wanted to evoke during the new year , or even my favorite from the lovely Molly Mahar, to focus on ways of being, and let goals and directions and tasks flow from that.

So, if this blog is about achievement junkie me trying hard to break that pattern of thinking and learning to be more… well, learning to be, then shouldn’t we talk about what a “goal” is? Dictionaries define a goal as the purpose toward which an endeavor is directed; an objective, an intention.  But I’d argue that a goal and an intention are different, very distinct, things.

A goal, in my short, narrow view, is a specific event or thing that can be achieved.  For example, “Run the Philly 2014 Marathon” is a goal. It has a deadline, a specific action and tasks that have to be performed to accomplish it – in this case, training for and actually running 26.2 miles.

An intention is an idea, an aim or a purpose.  When I taught yoga, I would describe an intention as a the thing you seek that is, ultimately, also seeking you.  I would provide peace, love, clarity, joy, and honor as potential intentions.  When I get on my yoga mat to practice, I sometimes dedicate my practice to someone I love who might need an extra boost of good vibes, like a sister with health issues, or a friend with a broken heart, or I might state specifically what my plan is for that practice – “to be here, and now” or “to feel centered and grounded.”

While you can say that your goal is to be centered and grounded, how to you quantify it? I was 80% present at work today? I was present during the meeting on benefits again even when I didn’t really understand it? There are specific things you can do to become more centered and grounded, yes, go to yoga, sleep more, be clearer in your communications, etc., but again, not a clear way to quantify it. There’s no “win” there – no ZING! I did it, I am now balanced and happy? So intentions are those things that we can strive for, but maybe won’t set off the achievement hungry monkey inside saying “feed me things to check off my list!”

So a goal is not an intention, it is something that is, for our purposes, quantifiable, with actions to take and a deadline.

How then, do you motivate yourself to do things you want – for example, I want to feel more fit, I want to start a small online boutique, change my job, and I want to write more – without having deadlines and specific tasks to do?

As Laura Vanderkam states in her article on giving up goals in Fast Company, found here, “having a sense of where you’re going vastly increases the chances that you’ll get there.” Ok. So far so good. We know where we want to go – what things we want to do more of in 2014 – and thus, we’ve announced them to the universe (well, at least to the one person reading this blog).

Laura’s point, though, is that sometimes you have to let go of goals because you evolve away from them. That is, let go of goals that don’t serve you.

Other research, at least on the business end of things (and I did declare in my barbaric yawp that I wanted to start an online boutique) that goal setting can be harmful.  In a Harvard Business Review article, the authors discuss using goals to motivate employees and start with noting that “advocates of goal setting argue that for goals to be successful, they should be specific and challenging, and countless studies find that specific, challenging goals motivate performance far better than “do your best” exhortation.” The article can be found here. However, the authors found that “the use of goal setting can degrade employee performance, shift focus away from important but non-specified goals, harm interpersonal relationships, corrode organizational culture, and motivate risky and unethical behaviors. [and ] In many situations, the damaging effects of goal setting outweigh its benefits.” This study is also discussed here where the author suggests keying into areas of focus.

They note, as we have, that goals focus attention. However, goals focus attention so narrowly that people can overlook other important features of a task.  In our case, as we’ve discussed, goals have specifics, they have quantifiables. A goal of a marathon has a training plan attached.  That means, the goal of running the Philly Marathon in 2014 would have specific tasks of running 10 or 12 miles. That attention on the miles tends to take attention off of the actual enjoyment of the running.  I know that when I was banging out 12 mile runs last year, I wasn’t enjoying being outside as much as when i just ran. That’s a whole other post thought.

The authors state that “With goals, people narrow their focus. This intense focus can blind people to important issues that appear unrelated to their goal.” I think, on a larger scale, if I set goals of doing specific things – at last count last year I had about 20 goals – to run a marathon, to do yoga every day, to bill however many hours, to write however many articles, I lost focus on other things. Everyday things, like making home made pizza and having a beer with my friends.

So what do others do instead of setting goals? Come on, I’d love to be ground breaking here and say I was the only blog talking about not setting goals (but I will be the only one who talks about motivation and also talks about our addiction to getting shit done which glorifies busy-ness). Let’s take a peak:

  • some blogs talk about setting One Word as their focus to encourage activity or to set a theme
  • some blogs talk about the fact that without goals, their projects were unfocused and didn’t have follow through like this one
  • others (on fitness) urge readers away from goals “Its not the goals that matter, its the method, systems, or plan that do.”
  • others talk about goal setting as creating burnout, that goals may hurt more than they help
  • some blogs discuss the idea that creating goals can stifle creative outlets, and suggest that readers focus on starting habits instead
  • one of the most helpful does talk about goals, but frames them in terms of three questions: what is your vision, what do you want to learn, and how can you perform it authentically, i.e., in a way that makes you your best self?
  • Another provides six ways to challenge yourself, based on your feelings and reactions, to live outside your comfort zone, get to know yourself more, and find things and actions that resonate with you.
  • many refer to Leo Babuta’s Zen Habits and having a year with no goals.
  • the last exhorts that you create a reminder list of what you want to do on a living, dynamic areas of focus

So how do I plan to take on this year of having no goals? First, and most importantly 28d354a4bf5476448434b995d6a9c4a2

As I said, I have things I want to do, priorities and ways of being I want to encourage this year. But I also am someone who burned out pretty hard in 2013. As in, at one point literally couldn’t get out of bed. A person who could drink a latte and then take a 4 hour nap. Caffeine didn’t work because I was so exhausted from killing myself on 10 and 12 hour days, training for a marathon and trying to run around the Delaware Valley taking care of friends and family.

I’m starting with those priorities, and inviting them in. My priorities are to write more, find a job where I don’t have to pick up a sword and shield to do battle with the billable hour, where a 9 to 5 schedule is easier to enforce, and to start this little online boutique. To do those things, I have certain tasks I need to do, but I don’t need to fall back into achievement junkie mode of focusing only on the tasks rather than being present in my every day. This is why motivation is so clutch to this project. This isn’t a blog about sitting around going “om”. It’s one where I have plans and priorities and things I want to get done, the question is, can I get them done without falling back into that process addiction of doing too much all the time without a core belief in my worth without the checked off to do list?


Why No Goals?


So I’ve started this project, this unresolution project, this idea of not having any goals partially because I’m so fascinated by motivation, what gets us to accomplish things, what keeps us from taking action on our dreams, and partially because of my love and fascination with entrepreneurs and self-starters.  Revolutionaries really. The folks who see something missing from the market – whether its a new kind of honey or a better way to bring clean water to those who need it – I’m in love with those people who use their creativity to solve problems. But they have more than creativity, they have follow through. Motivation. Planning. Dedication and Faith in themselves. And partially for myself.

I was having a warm snuggly conversation with a younger friend, the kind you can only really get into after an ass-whumping yoga class, about how to tell if what you are setting as a goal or a dream is your calling or coming from a deeper, maybe darker place. I know this question. I ask it of myself a lot. Many of the things I’ve done over the last fifteen years I’ve done with the idea that they were a calling. I worked (hard for little money) in Washington, D.C. on various public interest campaigns and the harder I worked, the times we won, it never amounted to what I thought it would. I never saved the world. And for me, it was about myself. If I could save the world, then I must be a good enough person.  If I couldn’t, then I simply wasn’t good. Failing at a campaign meant not only the sting of losing acres of national forest to logging, but also the midnight darkness of confronting myself, another failure, another bit of evidence to show that I just didn’t measure up. “One more disaster I can I to my generous supply” so sings Elphaba. But even the successes didn’t ring right either. They were tinny and insignificant. I’m in the wrong field, I’d tell myself, my friends. I need to work on First Amendment issues, not the Environment. And then it became about the how of what I was doing. I needed a law degree so I could be Important (yes, with a capital I) and people would Listen (also with a capital L). Trust me, this didn’t work. In fact, I only learned after a trip to Haiti following their massive disaster of an earthquake and failed government that I couldn’t save the world. I stood there, staring at hungry children, some of whom were trying to tell me about their bleeding cuts and my french failed me repeatedly as I hungered to get their meaning, that I couldn’t save them. But I could point out where they had to go to find the doctor. I could tell them to not give up waiting in line. In that moment, the desperation of trying to communicate was not about whether I was good enough to save that little girl, because I clearly wasn’t, but whether I could make something just a little easier for her (and yes, she did find the doctor and didn’t give up on the line). I gave up on saving the world. I gave in to the idea that I could be valuable even if I didn’t fix everything.

But was I called to go Haiti? Or was it ego? At this point, I don’t really care what motivated me to go, just that I did go and helped a few people, and came back and told everyone and anyone that would listen how much people there needed help.

Calling? Ego? Is there anything else that motivates us? That’s my drive here. Is there something that can direct me to learn and strive and do things if its not to check off a box?

I did stumble across this article on distinguishing your calling from your ego. It’s quite lovely.  http://www.inc.com/shelley-prevost/5-ways-to-distinguish-your-calling-from-your-ego.html. Crikey. I’ll have to relearn linking in wordpress later.

The point here was to talk about motivation. That some of us, me mostly, had backed our way into a corner where they only thing getting me to do much of anything was if it came with a reward. Bill all the hours and get the bonus, and therefore have all the partners like you.  Run all the races, and therefore be considered an athlete and maybe be skinny and then people will think you are dedicated and tough. etc. etc. Everything began to be associated with a brass ring. I started motivating myself with rewards – do yoga every day for a month and get a new sweater (it’s lovely by the way).

I needed a way to stop motivating myself only with goals – run 10 miles every Saturday! Lose 10 pounds by July 4th! – and find a way forward to enjoy the activities I wanted to do.

I think this article sums it up well http://jamesclear.com/goals-systems

Focus on the process, the systems, not the outcome and end up with the same, if not better, results he says.

The other real truth is that by constantly focusing on checking off boxes, on attaining goals instead of enjoying life (to be honest that’s what I was doing), I missed out on things in 2013. It took me months to figure out I was unhappy in a job and in a relationship (both of which are on the mend now, by the way). There’s a truth to the idea of someone being a workaholic – someone who literally uses work to avoid life or take the edge off the moment. At this point though, there are entire sitcoms named workaholics and it just doesn’t mean anything anymore. What did it ever mean to be a workaholic? To compulsively work. To work to avoid life.

It’s possible to have a compulsion to work. To become dependent on the rewards of “getting it all done!” It’s classified as a process addiction (as compared to a substance addiction). According to processaddictions.com (they seem like they should know), a process addiction is: a “compulsive behavior, such as compulsive gambling, sexual addiction, eating disorders and spending addictions.”  This includes work. Interestingly, “There are real chemical and biological changes which occur in the brain of someone who has a process addiction.” So while the addiction is to doing something, it’s based on a chemical reward.  In terms of work, there is a rush of satisfaction in finishing something on a deadline. Woo hoo! I made it! Zing! And becoming reliant on that, to the point where your work is no longer satisfying or fulfilling, can lead you towards a process addiction to the Zing!

With me? Maybe not. There is also the idea that we are what we have done. I am my last court success. Not, I am how I treat my dog when she barks to go out at 3:19 am. I am my last half marathon time, not, I am the person who stops and pets your old, graying yellow lab when I run by (and also gets some kisses too, I admit). I can’t show you, at a party, or a reunion, the doggie kisses, or the hair standing on top of my head slippers falling off while I let the dog out person. I can only show you the wins in court, the half marathon time, the sales of my art.


Getting attached to achievement – markers, goals, deadlines, quantifying everything – turns you into a process addict. An achievement junkie.

And saying no – stopping the cycle of doing more to be more to do more to be more – means doing something weird and strange like saying “no goals in 2014.”

So there you are. Confessions of a recovering achievement junkie.

My one and only goal, for 2014, is to make it through this year without setting any, comparing myself to any, or getting wrapped up in any.

No goals. Just mindfully enjoy the process.

The UnResolution


I know. It’s weird, right? Most blogs are about setting goals (“Cook All the Things!” “Run All the Races!”) and achieving them. Some are even about mastering a thing, or teaching you how to master a thing.  But this one is about learning how to not do. Maybe it’s better said that this blog is about unlearning how to constantly, relentlessly be pushing for the next brass ring.  2014 will be the year of no New Year’s Resolutions, no signing up for endurance races and triathlons, and no dieting.  It will be a year of figuring out how to enjoy an activity (and people) without constantly thinking about an end result. These are my confessions of learning how to live without measuring myself by achievements, by gold stars or boxes checked off a list. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t.