Nach is coming to iPhone and Android! Join the waiting list for the mobile app beta.

No Goals?

Published 18 Mar 2016 | Category: Theory

I've been asked a few times to share my opinion on the 'no goals' way of life, examples of which can be found in the linked Zen Habits blog articles. The gist of the argument is as follows: setting goals leads to an insatiable obsession with out-of-reach goals, making it difficult to live in the moment, and ultimately resulting in perpetual stress and unhappiness.

Obviously this flies right in the face of a goal-setting app such as Nach, so I'll briefly outline here my thoughts on the matter — why I believe this approach is a bit of an overblown knee-jerk reaction, and there's a better balance to be found somewhere in the middle.

To give this argument the credit it deserves, yes, it's fair to say that focusing too heavily on goals can have negative repercussions. I think these can come in two forms. Firstly, being too militantly focused on the end-goal, even if the current plan of action to get there is proving unenjoyable, and/or not leading to real progress. Of course this is bound to lead to day-to-day stress, an experience that is on the whole negative, and likely destined to fail.

The second consequence of over obsession — perhaps more insidious, as its negative effects only really come to light once a goal has finally been achieved — comes about when you allow yourself to be defined by your goals. This has an unforgiving habit of leading to existential feelings of emptiness and despair, whether the goals are successfully achieved or not.

The first effect — feeling unhappy about the way you're currently living life, but expecting that the lifestyle will lead to the completion of a goal that will result in salvation (typical examples including getting rich or becoming famous) — is a common trap to fall into. If you're feeling unfulfilled and unhappy about your life as it is, I typically don't believe that aiming for some far-future goal is a pragmatic way of addressing that. It's probably more appropriate to switch focus away from the imagined future, and instead examine the immediately explorable facets of day-to-day life, thinking about what aspects of the process are making it unenjoyable.

As long as it is reflected on openly and adjusted as appropriate, the process of working towards a goal can be a greatly enjoyable way to spend time in itself, regardless of the final outcome. A mantra that Steve Jobs was fond of:

"The journey is the reward"

This strategy of being fairly adaptable with the process leading towards a goal is something that Nach is designed around. Unlike typical corporate project management software, we often advise users against going into meticulous detail by building entire plans for their goals, and instead to be flexible and open minded, just planning a few steps ahead. That way if the first idea of how to tackle the goal is, for example, proving unenjoyable, it's quick and easy to delete or adjust the steps and try something new instead.

On a higher level than this, Nach also makes it easy for you to follow your motivation and passions, with extremely straightforward reprioritisation of multiple goals. Are you starting to lose interest in a goal and becoming indecisive over whether it's something you want to pursue further, thwarting your progress? Simply pause it, and prioritise whatever is now catching your interest to the top of your Goal Map.

Nach makes a big effort to be lightweight, and non-imposing. It uses technology to give a boost to how effectively you'd be able to make plans of action that are too complex to manage in your head or with a pen and paper. It can be thought of an extension of your mind, that allows you to go about non-trivial sets of tasks in a way that overcomes the limitations of human memory and focus.

Ultimately, there are many ways to create a life filled with joy and excitement, and I'm not here to dismiss any of them. But I believe that working towards goals is an equally valid one — and it has the merits that it's one of the most effective paths towards leaving your mark on the world, by helping you make well planned and structured progress.

For someone who has recognised that they had become too obsessive over their goals, such as the vocal advocates of these 'no goals' lifestyles, breaking out of the negative habits that have built up around them via a drastic change in lifestyle makes a lot of sense. But I think that demonising goals for the wider population is unnecessary.

The second consequence, mentioned earlier, of become too obsessive over goals — defining yourself by your goals — is a more tricky topic to address. For now, I'll leave this quote from Eckhart Tolle, which provides an interesting, somewhat spiritual, perspective on the subject:

"Yet on a deeper level you are already complete, and when you realize that, there is a playful, joyous energy behind what you do. Being free of psychological time, you no longer pursue your goals with grim determination, driven by fear, anger, discontent, or the need to become someone. Nor will you remain inactive through fear of failure, which to the ego is loss of self. When your deeper sense of self is derived from Being, when you are free of "becoming" as a psychological need, neither your happiness nor your sense of self depends on the outcome, and so there is freedom from fear. You don't seek permanency where it cannot be found: in the world of form, of gain and loss, birth and death. [...] There is nothing wrong with setting goals and striving to achieve things. The mistake lies in using it as a substitute for the feeling of life, for Being."

Stay updated:

RSS Feed


Share this article: