Your goals are making you miserable

You've followed the advice. You've set yourself goals. They're SMART. You keep a list of them which you check regularly. How's that working out?

If you're like most people you don't reach your all your goals. When you do you feel good for a bit, then wonder if that was the right thing to do after all. When you don't reach them you feel bad about letting yourself down.

Both of these things make you miserable. The problem isn't you. The problem is how you're using goals.

The problem with goals

Conventional advice is to set big, ambitious, attainable goals. You'll get "bonus points" if those goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. These goals are arranged into a plan in order to get a specific outcome.

The problem with such goals is twofold. The first problem is that they are big enough to be daunting. Achieving them requires significant investment. You need to proceed carefully. That means you have to do lots of up-front work to make sure you're doing the right thing even before you produce any work. We are risk averse; we like winning, but we really hate losing. Putting our future happiness on the line based on an uncertain outcome feels like a huge gamble. That feeling creates inertia. We procrastinate. When we do start we can't relax and enjoy it because we always have one eye on the outcome.

"May you get what you want" goes the - apparently apocryphal - ancient curse. This is the second problem. What happens when you actually reach your goal? You've been looking forward to this moment. You've put your heart and soul into the work. Evidence suggest that after a brief rush of excitement things will change. It turns out reaching your goals can make you miserable. We're awful at predicting what will make us happy in the future. We assume that reaching our goals will make us happy. It turns out the opposite is often true. Elite athletes fall into depression after their biggest victory. Many, many people experience "post-achievement blues". What you've done seems hollow, and the sacrifices too great. Not only are you not happy in this new situation but you have a host of other things to bring you down.

One response to this is not to have any direction at all. but that can be just as bad. A life lived without meaning is likely to be shorter and unhappier than a meaningful one. How can you maintain direction without the drawbacks of setting goals?

Huge intention, tiny milestones

The problem with the conventional approach to goals is it confuses your overall direction and purpose with the work right in front of you. Your big ambition gets squished into a reasonable-sized box. Your work starts to grow and creep until it's unmanageable. It is far better to keep these two things separate.

First is a huge, world-changing intention. It's the single most satisfying change you could see in the world. If this happens people's lives become wonderful. Mine is for people to fully enjoy their work. Not just a bit, but all the time, every day, and everyone.

Choose whatever is most meaningful to you. There is only one rule. What you choose must be so big nobody could ever achieve it. That way you never experience the hollowness of a solved problem. You are always working towards the most meaningful thing possible.

On its own this would be overwhelming. So aim for tiny milestones along the way. These are simple, achievable tasks that take you one very small step closer towards where you want to be. They are the kind of thing you can do it hours, or days. My next milestone will be publishing this blog post.

You're on an epic journey towards some distant land. It's many, many years travel away. You can just about see the next mountain peak through the mist. The only thing you can really do, though, is concentrate on the next few steps. The destination is your huge intention. The tiny milestone is the next few steps.

Huge intention Tiny Milestone
Impossible to complete Straightforward to complete
No ending Clearly defined ending
Years to whole-life long Hours to days long
Qualitative and fuzzy Quantitative and measurable

If you do this, suddenly competitors look like collaborators. They're working alongside you on the same problem. You're less worried about someone stealing your ideas or beating you to a particular solution. That's partly because you're not so invested in a solution at all, as you're taking small steps. Every time you reach a milestone you can look around and adjust course according to what you can now see.

Small steps also means you're free to experiment. As long as you know more than when you started you've been successful. Bigger, more planned goals become a slog as you realise that your initial assumptions weren't quite right. We're highly sensitive to doing the right thing in the moment. We can only really enjoy it when we know, deep down, that it's the best thing to do.

Choosing a huge intention

This is no small task. You're trying to find your life's work. If you've never thought about goals like this before it may not come easily. We're often told not to think on this scale. Consider the following:

  • What is the one thing that all my other goals aim to change, deep down? What is their common theme?
  • What is it that most annoys me in the world, and how can I help people who're suffering from that?
  • What can I do that makes the world a better place, according to my own most sincerely-held values?
  • What do I want to be remembered for? What is my legacy?

Spend time reflecting on the work you've done and how good it felt. If something feels good both whilst you do it, and when you reflect on it afterwards, that's a good sign. Move in that direction. The top of the mountain may stay shrouded in mist for a while, but as you get closer its exact location will become clearer.

Reaching the first milestone

Finding the next step can take a little practice to perfect. Don't worry though,the whole point is to learn along the way. You'll be using your own internal sense of direction to navigate.

  1. Sit without any specific task in mind. What has energy, what are you drawn to do?
  2. Take a few minutes to explore and experiment. Read, try different solutions, play with technology, talk to someone.
  3. Once something emerges, check that step is aligned with your huge intention. If it is, start. If not, go back to step 1.
  4. Decide what "finished" looks like. Is it a 1000 word blog post? Is it a completed customer interview? Is it the integration of a new feature into your app? That is your milestone.
  5. Work towards you milestone, following the energy. What's the most interesting way to get there? What makes you feel excited?
  6. When you reach the milestone, take a pause. Congratulate yourself. Reflect on how it went, and how you've supported your huge intention.
  7. Go back to step 1 and choose another milestone to aim for.

That's it.

You can be a lot happier and a lot more productive if you let go of some of the goals you're holding. When you can work on one thing at a time - really devoting your attention to it - you'll be both happier and more productive. If the thought of letting go of goals makes you nervous, try it out on a smaller project and see how it goes. If it feels more fun, then you're doing it right.