Are Your Goals Making You Miserable?

Here in the FI blogging community we like goals. We set them, we track them, we write updates on how we’re doing. Most people have some sort of goals (even people who haven’t discovered FI yet). It’s natural that we want to improve ourselves and learn new skills. Otherwise life would be pretty dull. There’s an overwhelming amount of information out there about goals: how to set them, how to track them, how to achieve them. You’d think that with all these goals flying around and all this information about how to achieve them we’d all be pretty damn happy, right? Right? But how many people do you know who are bouncing off the walls with happiness? *Scratches head and thinks really hard.* Umm…not that many? Exactly. That’s why it’s worth asking yourself: are your goals making you miserable?

Are we all just being too hard on ourselves?

I’ve set myself dozens of goals in the past. Some of them I’ve achieved or even surpassed, some not so much. After struggling with my goals for years, I recently realised that I don’t set myself goals for things I want to do, but for things I think I should be doing. And I’ve been using goals as a vehicle to try to force myself to do these things.

In today’s fast-paced, always-online world we’re bombarded with information about how to improve ourselves. How to be more productive, get fitter, read more books, etc. etc. It’s all too easy to get caught up in it and feel like we should be reading and implementing all this advice too. So we set ourselves goals to read these books everyone else is reading, become insanely productive, get a killer body and do Ironmans or whatever.

It seems like everyone else is doing it and if we don’t we’re going to get left behind. If we don’t read the latest bestselling self-improvement books we won’t know about the cool new management techniques everyone is talking about so we won’t have anything to say when everyone else is discussing them. We’ll get fewer things done than everyone else who’s following all the latest productivity tips. We’ll look fat and unathletic compared to all the lean, muscular people in walking around in lycra and signing up for their next Ironman competition. Eventually we’ll end up socially ostracised, fat and overlooked for promotion. We may as well go and kill ourselves now…

I’ve had an epiphany, guys!

Maybe I’m just a bit weird, but I kind of feel like if I set myself a goal I’m implicitly telling myself that I’m not good enough as I am now. That I need to achieve the goal to be a more acceptable, less shitty person. It seems that we put too much focus on reaching the next milestone rather than just standing still and enjoying what we’ve already achieved.

If I can run 5 km now, I could set myself a goal to be able to run 10 km, then a half marathon, then a full marathon, then in a few years I’ll be doing Ironmans. Or instead I could just be happy that I can do 5 km, enjoy my runs and stop stressing about running further and further.

If my blog has 100 subscribers I could set myself a goal to get 500 subscribers, possibly writing articles about topics I think will get me more subscribers and optimizing the bejeezus out of them for certain keywords. Or I could just be happy that 100 people enjoy reading my ramblings and continue writing about whatever I feel like.

I’d rather do the latter. Frankly I could do without the stress and performance pressure associated with goals. I’ve been thinking about things and I reckon I’m doing okay as I am. My life is going pretty well, I’m a nice person (at least I try to be, just don’t talk to me when I’m hungry or concentrating), and I try to spend my time doing stuff that has value, either to me or to those around me.

Just do what you feel like doing

goals making you miserableYou know those things you do without having to force yourself to do them? Those things you do because you actually enjoy them? The things you do when you “should” be doing something else that will help you achieve your goals? Obviously I don’t mean watching cat videos and scrolling through facebook. I mean your hobbies, interests and new skills you’re learning because you actually want to learn them. Do more of that. And stop feeling guilty about it. Let go of the guilt about not doing those things you’re “supposed” to be doing. Because by letting yourself feel guilty, you’re ruining the enjoyment you get from your real interests.

Scrap all those virtuous goals about reading improving books and getting up at 5 a.m. to clear your inbox. Unsubscribe from all those motivational newsletters. Accept that your hobbies and interests make you who you are, even if they’re not “cool”. Even if most people think they’re downright weird. Stop trying to be cool and embrace your inner geek.

Find your tribe

One of the cool things about the internet is that no matter how obscure your interests are you’ll instantly be able to find an online community of people who are equally as enthusiastic about whatever it is. Then you can geek out to your heart’s content with the people in the community. A lot of communities will organise meetups and conferences you can go to to meet fellow geeks face-to-face.

Embrace your interests and enjoy being an active member of their associated communities. Enjoy pursuing your interests without setting goals or stressing about targets. Chances are you won’t even need goals because you’ll make progress anyway purely because you love doing whatever it is.

Since you’re reading this I’m assuming you’re part of the FI community. It’s still a pretty niche community and although FI is getting more and more interest from the mainstream media it’s not something you can talk about with most people around you. That’s why we started this blog, set up the FIWE event and launched FIREhub.eu. Finding the FI community online, and maybe even going to a local meetup if there’s one in your area, allows you to geek out about all things FI with like-minded people. You can have conversations with people in the community you could never have with your best friend from school. You don’t have to explain anything, you don’t have to worry about the other people thinking you’re weird. They just get it. You can cut all the introductory crap and get right to the interesting stuff.

Spend as much time as possible with people who share your interests

At least that’s how it’s been in my experience. Ditto the language-learning, zero waste and knitting communities I’m part of. When I went to my first language-learning conference I immediately felt like I’d found “my people”. People who not only would ask me what language I’m planning to learn next, but would be interested in the answer and ask follow-up questions when I thought for a minute and said, “Hmm, probably either Scottish Gaelic or Serbian”. People outside the community would either not ask that question, not listen to the answer, or run for the hills on hearing my answer.

I’ve also noticed that people outside a particular community ask totally different questions to the people inside that community. People who’re new to FI ask things like, “But don’t you get bored now you’re not working?” Those who are FI know that in reality they have so many ideas, so many things they’d like to do that they could fill ten lives. People outside the polyglot community ask things like, “So how many languages do you know then?” Those who have a lot of experience with learning multiple languages know that “knowing” a language is a sliding scale rather than a black and white thing. We know different languages to different levels. We may be able to read one language but not speak it well, and vice versa for another language. It’s complicated goddammit!

Make time for your real interests

We all have limited time and an endless number of things we want (or have) to do. It makes sense to look at what you’re spending your time on:

  1. What are your obligations? These are the things you may not enjoy doing but have to do, like housework and your tax return. Make a list and then question every item on it. Do you actually have to do it? Can you delegate it to someone else or get someone else to help you? Can you put a system in place to automate it or make it easier or faster to do?
  2. What are your passions? These are the things you’re happiest doing and should definitely make as much time as possible for.
  3. What things are interesting but optional? Do these only if you have time left after spending time on your obligations and passions.
  4. What do you definitely not want to do? Like those boring social events you don’t really want to go to but feel obliged to attend, helping an acquaintance write their CV or throwing an elaborate birthday party for your kid to keep up with the other parents when you know that your kid will enjoy their party as long as it involves other kids and some kind of cake. Take steps to eliminate these things from your life. Practice saying no and enjoy how great it feels. If you speak German I highly recommend a hilarious book called Am Arsch vorbei geht auch ein Weg [1] about how to say no to all sorts of things and stop caring about stuff that’s not so important. (It’s mostly about how to stop giving a s**t about what other people think.)

Give yourself a break

Even though I’ve followed the steps above and enthusiastically embraced the principles described in the book I still feel like I’m chasing an impossibly long to-do list. As soon as I tick off one thing I add ten more. If I focus on one thing I’m happy about the progress I make on it but it comes at the expense of all the other things I want to do, so I end up hopping between lots of half-finished projects rather than just tackling them one after the other. I’ve also come to realise that if I try to plan too much I spend all my time reorganising my todo list and hardly any time actually doing the things on the list. Which is possibly why my list is so long in the first place.

I’m trying to be easier on myself and focus on fewer things at a time. I’m trying to consciously enjoy what I’m working on without feeling guilty about not getting everything else done. And I’m trying to spend less time looking at lists and setting goals.

I could have done any number of other things this afternoon instead of writing this post. But I made a conscious decision to sit down and enjoy writing. I’ve been thinking about this post for a couple of months now and it feels good to finally be putting my ideas into words. The other things can wait. I’ll do them, just not today. The world won’t end if I do them tomorrow. Or the next day. Or never.

I think I’m finally on the road to a more relaxed, fulfilled life. I won’t get everything done – I won’t even try. But I’ll do the things that are most important to me and I’ll enjoy doing them. All the other stuff can go f**k itself.

[1] This is not an affiliate link. If you buy the book using this link I won’t get anything. If you do buy the book, or if you’ve already read it, let me know what you think of it in the comments.