How to stop struggling with your goals, start enjoying life, and still get everything done
Updated: Feb 15
The problem with goals is when they crowd out everything else in your mind. From the outside, this looks like determination (which is a nice word for it), or obsession (which is more of a mixed bag, but is still celebrated in our culture).
My problem with this attitude isn't a matter of whether or not the goal gets accomplished or not. Logically speaking, the more obsessed you are with your goal, the better your chances of bringing it into reality. It is this success that we celebrate, whether we're talking about Thomas Edison (who famously discovered 10,000 ways not to make a lightbulb), or Steve Jobs, or Elon Musk. We're grateful to them for improving our standard of living, and we hold them up as examples of what you can accomplish when you really put your mind to something.
But I'm not convinced that any of these people were particularly happy while in pursuit of their goals, or even after they achieved them. From my own experience, I get pretty miserable when I obsess on my own future state. All I feel is the enormous gap between where I am currently, and where I'd like to be. It's a state of scarcity and lack, rather than a space of abundance and joy.
This is a problem because it becomes much harder to enjoy my work when I'm in this state. I lose an important sense of pride in the quality of my work, I lose that joy of connecting with people, and I lose track of the fun. Everything I do, then, is part of a long and expanding checklist. Each day, another day to "hurry up and get it over with."
It's no surprise then, that when I live this way, I find myself struggling with a growing sense of despair. If I can't even enjoy the present moment, I wonder, why should I expect to enjoy life after achieving my goal? The goals I accomplished in the past didn't rescue me, why would it be different for the goals I accomplish in the future? Maybe you feel the same way.
Yet we still feel a need for purpose and direction. We want to improve my life over time and I enjoy the sense of progress that comes from doing so.
How should we handle this?
One option is to compartmentalize these two areas of life. Yes, it is good to have goals and vision for what you want your future to look like. It is also good to do a bit of planning on what it will take for you to achieve that state. Goals approached from this perspective provide an important sense of direction and motivation. They make sure that what you're doing today will lead to a desirable future.
Goals only become pathological when you define your current state by whether or not you've achieved them. Doing so guarantees that you will be miserable for the 99.99% of your life outside the fleeting moment when you've accomplished your goals. When we live this way, we miss the sense of progress that goals are supposed to provide. All we see is "done" or "not done." And if the answer is "not done," our response is usually to stop smiling and get back to work.
This pattern is a recipe for failure. You still may get a lot accomplished, but you won't enjoy any of it. And eventually you'll die without having really enjoyed any part of your life's journey. It was little more than a race to the finish.
What we really need is a way to marry our goals to a lifestyle that we can enjoy along the way, where we can benefit from that sense of progress as well as the joy of living in the present moment.
This is why I am such a big fan of celebrating wins. In my work with clients we still set goals and monitor our progress towards them. But we also take a moment to look back over the past few months and review the ways that they've moved forward and accelerated their progress. Maybe they successfully switched jobs to something more enjoyable, maybe they got a significant pay raise, maybe they started maxing out their 401k, maybe they managed to claim a few extra deductions on their tax returns.
These are great chances to say, "yes, you are moving forward towards the thing you want. You don't have to spend so much time worrying about it because it is already being handled. You've got a designated person looking out for you, checking in with you, and keeping you on track for the important stuff. You're already on a good path towards your goals. AND THEREFORE, you can relax and enjoy life day to day without worrying so much about the future." The pressure is off.
Yes, this is a nice little advertisement for my financial planning business. But I also want to leave you with a better framework for how to live better day to day. Here are two things that I've found really helpful.
Rather than create a long to-do list for each day or week, I'd like to see you experiment with a "done list." Obviously, keep scheduling important appointments and getting critical tasks done. But see what happens to your daily experience when you introduce a few moments' reflection on what you accomplished that day. What mattered? What went well? Keep it positive so that your brain knows to look for more of those things the next day. Then, give yourself permission to rest and enjoy your time off.
Then, to the extent you need to plan out your day/week/life in advance, with certain tasks, meetings, and deadlines, try to break larger tasks into small enough pieces that you can get them done in a single day. This helps you cultivate a much-needed sense of accomplishment to avoid the "treadmill" feeling, where the view never changes, and you only get more and more tired each day. Thus, you can enjoy that sense of forward progress throughout your day, which is made meaningful by the fact that your activity supports your long term goals, but is not dependent on them.
If you do these things, you will probably find that you get better sleep. What you're probably doing wrong with sleep, is that you're reflecting on your problems and remaining things to do in the day ahead. The better thing to do is "Sleep on a Sea of Merit," where you actively contemplate the good things you did throughout the day. Here's the full video where this idea came from, where you might find even more useful tips for your sleep.
Combine these ideas to experience a better life, full of the purpose and accomplishment associated with goals as well as true joy and satisfaction in the present moment.