How to Achieve Without Setting Goals

Goal setting is something that’s deeply ingrained in our culture to a point where it’s seen as downright stupid to not do it. But is it possible to achieve without having strict goals?

Goals are like weird uncles. Everyone has one, but they piss you off regularly.

Open any ‘success’ book and it’s almost a given that ‘goal setting’ just assumed its position in chapter one. As if there’s no other way of doing things.

And for a large part of my life, I bought into this. The idea that it was pointless trying to achieve something without having set specific, short, medium and long term goals.

Everything I did was littered with goals. I had university goals, career goals, business goals, fitness goals, relationship goals, life goals. When I was a personal trainer I even had to be obsessed with other people’s goals!

Yet, if I’m honest, this whole concept of goals used to just frustrate the living shit out of me. I had to force myself along with it for so long because I was being told it was the most efficient way to achieving my dreams.

But, in truth, it was the most efficient way to being a miserable bastard.

The Problem with Goals

With all that said, many people may wonder why the hell that is. Setting goals seems so damn logical, doesn’t it? If you don’t have a clear picture or destination of where you want to go, then you’ll never get there. Or at least that’s how the story goes.

If you stop and think about it, though, this isn’t necessarily true. If you step outside and walk around randomly for 10 minutes, you’ll get somewhere. It’s just that you didn’t initially know or plan where that somewhere would be.

For me, goal setting was restrictive. When I had my personal training business, I’d do everything ‘by the book’ and set myself monthly, 90 day and annual goals. These might include goals for revenue, number of clients or certain milestones I wanted to hit.

Sometimes I’d get there, sometimes I wouldn’t. It didn’t really matter anyway because I’d still wind up feeling pretty much the same way… underwhelmed, unhappy, bored. So I’d set another, different goal hoping that this one would somehow fill that gaping hole inside.

I got so focused on this future goal that I forgot about how vital it is to appreciate and enjoy the journey. And it was only when I finally let go of this idea of desperately having to have complete knowledge on an exact path forward that I started to do this.

An Unknown Path

Many people reading this will know that I quit that personal training business back in 2015. What maybe you don’t know is that I quit without having any kind of idea about what my next steps would be.

For the first time since I was a child, I was living without a goal in my head. And it felt scary, strange and amazing all at the same time.

I travelled to Ireland on a whim and ended up spending the summer there after meeting the love of my life. I spent three months in Asia despite not knowing where I’d be beyond the first few days. I met amazing people. Swam in waterfalls. Climbed mountains. Read inspiring books. Started writing about stuff I was passionate about.

At no point did I sit down and list out 90 day goals to achieve any of this.

And it was this that led me to realise that setting such stringent, focused goals simply keeps our attention on the future and almost always shuts us off from experiencing the fruits of other opportunities that may arise.

Goals are merely a fantasy of how we hope things to change in the future. Let go of the fantasy and just enjoy the fucking journey.

Achieving Without Goals

This all sounds very idealistic here, doesn’t it? “Stop chasing the goal and let the goal come to you.”

But is this just the lazy bastard’s guide to goal setting? I.e. don’t do it, sit on your arse all day and hope for the best.

Of course not. Just because you haven’t set any goals doesn’t mean you can’t still have a dream. And it certainly doesn’t mean you stop taking action and doing stuff.

In fact, and maybe quite paradoxically, it liberates you in a way that pushes you into not being able to stop doing stuff. Stuff that you actually fucking like doing, as opposed to stuff you have to do in order to achieve ‘that goal’.

You get to write a book or travel or blog or create something you’re passionate about or spend time with your spouse or play with your kids or whatever.

Will this be everyone’s cup of tea? No. There are people who may read this and just not get it. And that’s cool.

But maybe one way of framing it is that it’s not actually giving up goals entirely. Living a ‘goalless life’ could, after all, be seen as a goal in itself.

Rather, it’s more like focusing on setting mini goals. Goals that can be achieved right now and are set for no other reason than doing it sounds like a pretty damn cool thing to do. It doesn’t have to be all about some long, arduous task filled with struggle and overcoming resistance to finally, one day reap your reward.

The Bullshit of Motivation

The counter here, of course, would be how painfully ‘unproductive’ this philosophy sounds. I can hear some people now throwing out their ‘SMART goal’ this and ‘aim high’ that. Surely, the most efficient way of achieving something is aiming at the target and going for it.

But here’s the honest truth that was relayed back to me so poetically when discussing the imperativeness of SMART goal setting with a former personal training client… “Well, you’ve just made my next 90 days on this earth boring as fuck.”

And that is the key. Nobody wants to live a life that is boring as fuck, even if it is promising a reward at some point in the future.

When I was a personal trainer, I’d get so many questions about how to stay motivated to achieve a goal. And I still get questions now on this subject regarding achieving things in all areas of life.

But I’m sorry to say that motivation is bullshit. Effectively, motivation is just something we crave in order to make us do that boring ass shit we don’t really want to do so that we can achieve this future goal.

Of course, there are times in life where we do have to do some things we don’t really want to do. But to do this stuff for an extended period? Or even your whole life? Not for me.

For me, the best form of motivation is to just start doing shit that you actually want to do.

And again, this isn’t going to be for everybody. Some people like weird shit and setting SMART goals may just be part of that. If it works for you, fine.

But a little line that has stuck strongly with me since I first heard it a couple years ago is very applicable here: You’ll never live a life you love by doing stuff you loathe.

  • I really liked this article, Michael. It came at a synchronized time when I was working on my own podcast and article all about another look at goals.

    I would argue that goals are helpful, but need to be used with some restraint respecting the unknowns, using smaller mini goals has been pretty effective for me as long as I have a system for accountability.

    It’s sure not helpful to set unrealistic goals, I’ve made that mistake enough times!

    Here’s my take on the subject:http://grinagaingoods.com/how-to-set-achievable-goals/

    I highly recommend Thomas Sterner’s advice on the subject too:
    http://imstartingfromscratch.com/index.php?podcast=414

    • Thanks, buddy 🙂 I like to think of it as moving in a direction without desperately focusing on a specific, set outcome. We can keep moing and achieve great things without desperately needing to hit a specific outcome and then labelling it all a complete failure if that isn’t reached! Work for some, but not all.

    • Enlightening article. I tend to agree with both. While goals are extremely beneficial, I think people get caught up in achieving them and miss out on some of the most amazing opportunities. It’s always, “I can’t. I have to work so that I achieve …this.”

      There needs to be a balance in life and as you so nicely put it, “you’ll never live a life you love by doing stuff you loathe.”

      • Thanks for the comment again, buddy 🙂 Yeah, I agree, there’s benefits to goals/targets/directions that we want to move in. But focusing solely on achieving ‘X’ and only ‘X’ leaves us forgetting about how awesome ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ can be (hopefully that makes sense 😉 )

  • John

    Great article, I’ve achieved heaps in my life yet I can never remember once setting any goals to do it, I just wanted something so I went after it and got it, personally I feel this setting goals thing is very restrictive (it may not be for others however for me it is) in that it causes people to get frustrated if they don’t achieve it in the time frame they set for it, then they become disillusioned about achieving anything, I just watched a good video by Former Denver Broncos running back Reggie Rivers discussing how focusing on your goals is the one sure way NOT to achieve them, made a lot of sense to me – https://youtu.be/V2PP3p4_4R8