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."
When it comes to ambitious life goals, one of the single most important factors in determining whether you'll make progress or not, is how well defined your next step is - the step which you've prioritised towards the top of your list, as the first task you intend to tackle.
Choosing an appropriate next step is primarily about finding the right balance. It needs to be important - preferably the single most important thing that's currently holding you back from getting closer to your goal. If you don't think carefully about this, you could end up falling victim to busywork - even if you are getting lots of tasks done, which have some relation to your goal, unless you take a step back to review the big picture, there's no guarantee they're having a significant impact towards your progress.
On the other hand, they should also be simple enough to be actionable. If you've ended up with a first step which is a huge challenge in itself, it can often lead to procrastination, as the lack of certainty about how to tackle the task turns into an urge to put it off. Any step which is so big and vague that it can't be completed with a few hours of concentrated effort, would likely be better as a sub-goal, where it can be broken down further.
The above isn't to say that it's only the next step that matters - breaking down a large goal into a plan of action is also a highly useful process. But when it comes to making significant progress towards goals, breaking through plateaus, and identifying blockers, picking a good next step to tackle is crucial.
To make this process easier, we've introduced a new supplementary tool to Nach called the Next Step Revealer, which can be found at https://nachapp.com/next.
The page lists all of your top-level goals, and pulls out only the current next step. We'd recommend opening this up side by side with your Goal Map, so that it can be used as a reference while reorganising your goals. This view cuts away all distraction of future plans, so you're able to clearly consider whether your next steps are sufficiently important and actionable. You may find it helpful to carry out this process regularly - perhaps by setting up reviewing your next steps as a weekly repeeating step.
You can also consider whether you're giving these vital steps the attention they deserve, or whether you've allowed yourself to get distracted by tasks of lower priority and importance. Taking time out at the beginning of each day to complete just one important next step is enough to ensure you'll be consistently making real progress.
The trouble with traditional to-do lists, when it comes to planning out life goals, is their typical focus on the small and trivial tasks, with the big picture of how those tasks will amount to a completed long-term goal being treated as more of an afterthought.
Nach encourages tackling this process from the opposite direction. Begin by thinking big. Decide on what your biggest dreams are, and start by writing those down. Not what's needed for your job, or the obligations you're tied to by your current situation, but your most ambitious goals which you'd like to achieve within your lifetime. Whether you want to become a professional athlete, travel the world, or start a business (or all 3!), this is the kind of level we mean by thinking big.
Next comes bridging the gap between high-level goals and the smaller actionable steps which can be taken to make progress. The more that's likely to be involved in working towards the goal, the more helpful it can be to break it down into milestones using sub-goals. From an extremely ambitious life-goal, if you're able to think of certain incremental achievements which show solid progress towards it, these make good candidates for sub-goals. Keep breaking down these sub-goals, until you've reached the level of steps - relatively small tasks which are actually actionable.
The above process is, of course, easier said than done. Thinking bigger than you're ever required to on a daily basis, and coming up with a plan of how you're going to start approaching these elaborate goals, is a difficult task - but a task that is undoubtedly worth the effort.
With some form of a plan in place, all that's left is to prioritise the goals, consult your to-do list for the first steps to tackle, and start moving forwards.
A common theme can be found amongst people who have mastered a skill, become highly successful, or achieved something seemingly impossible. In nearly all cases, a large part of their progression towards success can be attributed to two things: regular time commitment, and efficient use of that time, ensuring that they're always moving closer towards their goal.
Whether you're looking to improve your fitness, learn a new skill, or complete a big personal project, these same strategies can be applied. The method we describe here, the "achievement loop" can be an extremely useful technique to ensure you're spending your time wisely, and always making progress towards your dreams.
The technique involves setting out repeating cycles (a week in length is a good starting point) consisting of the following:
It can be tricky to stay true to this strategy. Neglecting just one of the parts can lead to the whole thing falling apart. For example: seeing progress towards a fitness goal plateau over a period of months, despite the same amount of time being put in every week, due to a failure to plan and adapt when the strategy started losing its effectiveness.
Need for Achievement aims to help with this, as an app which adds automation and structure to much of the process, making it much easier to form a habit around progression and achievement. The following section describes how the three parts of the achievement loop can be applied using the app:
Create a main goal as ambitious as your dream, and from there use your the best of your current knowledge to break it down into sub-goals and steps. If you don't yet know how you'd even set about getting started, make one of your first steps to research into that, so that once you've got a more informed idea you can adjust your plan to be more accurate.
Set up repeating steps for the elements of practice which you should be doing regularly. If necessary, set a time of day, and use the SMS/email reminders to make sure you stick to it.
Finally, think if there's something relating to the progress which you can quantify, and turn into a tracker. Even better if you can set a target for the end of the week, so each day you can be focusing on getting closer to the target.
With most of the setup done in the planning stage, now all that's left is following it. Use the To-do List and Trackers tabs to keep everything updated daily. Visit nachapp.com from your smartphone to do so if it's more convenient than using a computer. You can also take advantage of the daily to-do list summaries, which are emailed every morning, to plan out your day.
Once the end of a cycle comes, take a fresh look back over your progress from the last week, and see what you can gain from it. The streaks, history chart, and graphs, should give you an idea of how well you stuck to your plan. You may have even reached a milestone by completing a sub-goal. It's easy to trick yourself into thinking you followed a routine more strictly than you really did when you keep it in your head, but your history of steps overcomes this by keeping everything on record.
Look over your trackers and see how much you progressed, and whether you met your targets. If not, try and think why not. If your progress is consistently less than expected, or reaching a plateau, it's probably time to try a new set of actions.
Finally, jump back to the Planning step, and adjust your goals, steps and targets for a new week. Learn from the mistakes and inefficiencies of the previous week, and use it to make an even more rock-solid plan.
By staying disciplined and continuing to follow this strategy, gradually, week-by-week, you'll be able to watch yourself closing the gap and progressing towards your dream.