Many months ago I wrote a message for my email list subscribers about the benefits of goal setting that is no longer available. I have wanted to publish it here on Leaving Work Behind for a long time but have held back on the basis that it is a frank expression of my disagreement with a very popular blogger — Leo Babauta.
Leo is someone that I have a great deal of respect for. Based upon the interviews I have seen and the conversations I have had with people who know him, he appears to be a very nice guy. However, I completely disagree with his position on goal setting. In fact, I would go as far to say that he has got the concept of setting goals all wrong.
I am sure that Leo won’t even notice this post. Even if he does, I am not disrespectful in my arguments and I am sure he can handle someone disagreeing with him (I doubt he would give this post a second thought). As such, there is little point in holding back any longer, so here goes.
“The Best Goal is No Goal”
For those of you who don’t know, Leo Babauta is the author of the astonishingly successful Zen Habits blog, which at the time of writing has over 250,000 readers. He wrote a post back in 2010 entitled “The Best Goal Is No Goal“.
I couldn’t disagree any more with Leo regarding his opinion on the subject of goal setting. And there is no better way for me to explain exactly why goal setting is so important than rebutting each of the points he makes in the above-mentioned article.
Let’s take a look at what Leo has to say.
Why You Should Live with Goals
[Living without goals is] absolutely liberating, and contrary to what you might have been taught, it absolutely doesn’t mean you stop achieving things.
It means you stop letting yourself be limited by goals.
Consider this common belief: “You’ll never get anywhere unless you know where you’re going.” This seems so common sensical, and yet it’s obviously not true if you stop to think about it. Conduct a simple experiment: go outside and walk in a random direction, and feel free to change directions randomly. After 20 minutes, an hour … you’ll be somewhere! It’s just that you didn’t know you were going to end up there.
First of all, living with goals may well be liberating, in a sense that you are not consciously setting yourself up to achieve anything. But that’s not the kind of liberation I want to experience.
As for Leo’s random walking experiment, let me adjust it a bit to expose the falsity of his argument. Say you want to walk to your friend’s house, but you decide to do so by heading out of your house and walking in a completely random direction. Whenever you reach a fork in the road, you head in yet another random direction. What are the chances of you reaching your friend’s house?
Wandering aimlessly is all well and good, but if you actually want to achieve something in life, you must have direction (tweet this).
Goals Can Broaden Your Horizons
If you live without goals, you’ll explore new territory. You’ll learn some unexpected things. You’ll end up in surprising places.
The implication here is that living with goals means you will not explore new territory, will not learn unexpected things, and will not end up in surprising places. Nothing could be further from the truth — one of the benefits of goal setting is that it can push you to places that you would not have otherwise experienced. In my opinion you have a far greater chance of achieving new and fulfilling things in life by pushing yourself to achieve more.
I’ll tell you a brief story — a couple of weeks ago I was in Cozumel, Mexico:
It is a truly beautiful place. Golden sands, warm climate, friendly locals…I would happily spend a lot more time there. When we were leaving my brother turned to me and said, “You could just come live here for a while, couldn’t you?” I answered in the affirmative, and he said, “Well — why don’t you then?”
In reality I have a few things keeping me in the UK at the moment (my band for instance), but the very fact that I could grab my laptop and work from an island paradise if I wanted to is enormously liberating and exciting.
The moral of the story? I know that I wouldn’t be where I am now if it weren’t for conscious goal setting.
Goals Can Galvanize You
Now let’s get down to the meat of why Leo doesn’t like goal setting:
You know you need to work on an action step, and you try to keep the end goal in mind to motivate yourself. But this action step might be something you dread, and so you procrastinate. You do other work, or you check email or Facebook, or you goof off.
And so your weekly goals and monthly goals get pushed back or side-tracked, and you get discouraged because you have no discipline. And goals are too hard to achieve. So now what? Well, you review your goals and reset them. You create a new set of sub-goals and action plans. You know where you’re going, because you have goals!
Of course, you don’t actually end up getting there. Sometimes you achieve the goal and then you feel amazing. But most of the time you don’t achieve them and you blame it on yourself.
Here’s the secret: the problem isn’t you, it’s the system! Goals as a system are set up for failure.
I consider this to be extremely damaging advice. In that above scenario, the problem most definitely is you — or more specifically, your way of thinking. Leo in fact says it himself: “you get discouraged because you have no discipline”. He is absolutely right — if you have no discipline then goal setting will not work for you. But if you have no discipline, working for yourself isn’t an option. You need to go get yourself a job at McDonalds so someone can tell you what to do.
Setting goals that are so difficult as to be unachievable is definitely a bad thing to do. But setting no goals at all because you don’t like the idea of pushing yourself to achieve something demonstrates nothing to me but a complete lack of drive.
Goals Are a Requirement of Success
…nothing is as flexible as having no goals.
Quite right. It’s like saying no one has as much free time as the person who never does anything. But do you want to be that person? I would like to think that your answer is no.
So, what is Leo’s alternative strategy? What does he recommend as a superior alternative to goal setting?
…you simply do. You find something you’re passionate about, and do it. Just because you don’t have goals doesn’t mean you do nothing — you can create, you can produce, you can follow your passion.
That is very romantic, but I’m sorry to burst your bubble — it’s not likely to get you as far as conscious goal setting would. In fact, I challenge you to find me many people who have been successful in chasing their passion with nothing more than reckless abandon.
There are people who make a living out of their passions — professional athletes, actors, musicians, and so on. But not one of those people did so without making enormous sacrifices and pushing themselves hard. A NFL wide receiver doesn’t get drafted by just catching footballs all day. No — he spends hours in the weight room, learning plays, eating right, and generally living a life of enormous discipline.
Success always requires sacrifice (tweet this). That, in part, is what makes it worthwhile.
So What Now?
I hope that you are convinced of the benefits of goal setting. If you are not setting goals for yourself yet, there is no time like the present.
First of all, don’t be afraid of success. Far too many people demonize success and consider it something that is reserved for only certain people. I know this, because I used to have that attitude before I understood that success is simply a process.
Once you are no longer afraid of success you need to figure out what you truly want from life. Not too long ago I wrote a comprehensive post on setting achievable goals — I would recommend that you start there.
Don’t worry if you don’t know exactly what you want from life yet — I certainly don’t. You can achieve a great many things before you get to where you want to be, and that’s fine. It is not a race — it’s a journey.
Plan For Success
I am not claiming to have set the world alight (far from it), but I am extremely happy with where I am in life, and incredibly excited about where I am heading. Furthermore, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be where I am without goal setting. I doubt Leaving Work Behind would have even got off the ground.
At the end of the day, the benefits of goal setting are numerous. Your ability to set goals is one of the most powerful tools in your armory. Please do not neglect it.