On Not Setting Goals

Posted by Michael Boyink on September 16, 2009

If you don’t have goals, how do you measure or even define success? - John Faulds via Twitter

John asked me this question as part of a conversation taking place on Twitter - and while his question was specifically around the use of Twitter (and part of a related conversation) it caused me to back up and look at my life and work in general. 

I’m not a goal setter.  I can’t find the time or the interest to create goals and then track progress to them.

Don’t get me wrong - I have things I want to do.  I have another ExpressionEngine book to complete.  I want to increase the availability of classroom training for EE.  I want to get Boyink.com redesigned.

But I see those as just projects - work and professional versions of things like: finish the quadcycle I’m building with my son, build a shed-office in the backyard, install fuel injection on my Jeep, or take a family vacation on a houseboat.

I don’t keep a master list of those projects.  I don’t have Gantt charts for them.  I don’t have a projects calendar.  I choose projects to work on in a mostly spontaneous manner - factoring in the weather, my available time, my interest at any given moment, interest/availability of family members, or if getting one project done will help another (new book == more sales == houseboat vacation? Hmm…). 

When people talk about goals - especially in a business setting - my impression is that I’m expected to set goals that can be measured.  Something with a number attached: Income. Sales targets.  Number of retweets.  Referrers from a forum.  Butts in seats.  Page views. If you can measure it, you can track it, and then you know when you’ve achieved success.

And why would I set those goals?  Articles like this abound - saying that setting goals:

  • “Gives Clarity On Your Desired End Point”
  • “Keeps You Motivated”
  • “Gives You Laser Focus”
  • “Makes You Accountable”
  • “Be The Best You Can Be”
  • “Live Your Best Possible Life”

Notice the common element in all those reasons? 

It’s you baby.  It’s all about you.  Your desires, your focus, your best.

This is where I part ways with the worldy wisdom around goal setting because it conflicts with my faith.  Did you ever see the movie Evan Almighty?  Love it or hate it (and theological issues aside) there is one scene that constantly sticks with me.  The Rotten Tomatoes review describes the scene:

Early in “Evan Almighty” newly elected Congressman Evan Baxter (Steve Carrell) complains that the task God has given him interferes with his plans.

While Evan continues to rant, God (in the person of Morgan Freeman) begins to crack up. Pausing to catch his breath, God incredulously says, “Your plans?” And then he laughs harder.

For me, the “best possible life” and being the “best I can be” aren’t my goals to make - they are Gods. And I don’t try to see them as an endpoint (and then just substitute His goal for my own and then implement the same process to get there), it’s a daily thing.  It’s sitting down, in this chair, this morning, and asking and discerning what do I need to do today?  I don’t need to worry about the long term stuff - that’s God’s territory.

But the idea of “Goal Free Living” isn’t just a spiritual one. 

Author and Speaker Stephen Shapiro has a book by that very name.  I’ve yet to read the it (I had forgotten about it, and am now seeing if the local library has it).  But read this overview from Steven’s site:

We are taught from a young age that in order to achieve great success we must set and achieve our goals. However in doing so, we become focused on where we are going rather than enjoying where we are right now. We sacrifice today in the hope that a better future will emerge, only to discover that achievement rarely leads to true joy. Goal-Free Living presents an alternative philosophy - that we can have an extraordinary life now, all without goals and detailed plans. By living for each moment, it’s possible to have a successful life and follow your passions at the same time.

Our Western culture fuels this goal-setting flame with it’s competitive and consumerist nature - always telling us we’re worth more, need more, and should be actively seeking more.  We pride ourselves on our busyness, Getting Things Done, and feel guilty when we spend a sunny Sunday afternoon just reading a book.

The folks over at 37Signals (a tech company that is generally seen as successful) also have a “no goals” philosophy.  Check out President Jason Fried’s presentation at at BIG Omaha 2009 - where (starting at about the 4:00 mark) he posits that “plans are really guesses” and says:

“I don’t know what we’re doing….We have a rough idea of sorta what we’re working on…but we don’t have a 30 day plan or a 90 day plan…people ask we’re going to be in 10 years and I don’t know and I don’t care because it doesn’t matter. What matters is what you are doing right now, what you are working on today. And then tomorrow you will have more information and you should use that information to decide what’s important tomorrow…We figure things out as we go, and that terrifies people in the business world.”

So to answer John’s question?

I don’t set formal business goals.  I don’t try to measure success.  I’m just not wired that way.  I can’t get interested in writing down formal numbers-based goals and then come up with a way to track those things (that would probably involve spreadsheets, to which I’m allergic).

Instead - I try to find ways feel successful.  That feeling may be invoked by just looking around and realizing how good I have it with fresh coffee, a good chair, and Blues playing at high volume.  It may be invoked by getting a really nice email.  It may be invoked by selling a few things on Train-ee, or getting invited to speak at a conference.  It’s usually different one day to the next.

Goals and metrics are a merry-go-round, and like the Grandmother in the movie Parenthood I’d rather ride the rollercoaster:

Grandma: You know, when I was nineteen, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster.
Gil: Oh?
Grandma: Up, down, up, down. Oh, what a ride!
Gil: What a great story.
Grandma: I always wanted to go again. You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.