The Fine Art of Abandoning Goals

Hopefully, this headline woke you up a bit this morning.

Several months ago, I made a list of 101 goals that I wanted to reach in the next three years. I piled this list on top of an already long list of medium term and long term goals – building a writing career, paying off every debt, and so on.

While making this giant list of goals felt very empowering at first, it soon became a big weight on my shoulders. I felt like there were too many things that I was reaching for at once. When I make a goal, I’m committed to achieving that goal, and thus I often felt like Lucy and Ethel on the chocolate candy assembly line – more to do than I could possibly keep up with.

As I mentioned yesterday in my review of the excellent book Happier, one big key for making goals more accessible and attainable is to figure out the ones that feel the most vital to you and eliminate the rest. You’re then able to focus a significant amount of your time and energy on each remaining goal, bringing those goals to fruition much sooner.

I sat down with my list of 101 goals and decided to pare it down to five goals. How can I do that, when I find value in all of the goals? Here are a few principles I used.

Ask myself serious questions about every goal. Does this goal really fulfill me? Do I find value in working towards it? Would I feel value in achieving that goal? Compared to other goals, does this one offer significant value in my life? Using these questions, it became clear that, at the very least, there were a lot of those goals that were simply not up to the standards left by others.

Realize that many goals overlap, and seek a goal that, through completion, would take care of other goals automatically. Many of the goals that did remain had significant overlap, so I tried to select one goal – or create a new one – that contained what I was striving for with the other goals. This eliminated many more of the 101 goals on the list.

Evaluate these remaining goals in terms of how much joy and fulfillment they bring to my life. A good goal brings some joy and fulfillment along the road to success and often a giant burst of joy when you reach it. They add genuine value to your life. I attempted to rank all of the goals by the value they would bring to me while doing them and the value they would bring from successful completion. Using this filter, the top five goals became very clear.

Thus, here are my goals for the next three years.

Build up my fitness so that I can do at least rung 30 of the lifetime fitness ladder on a daily basis. Basically, achieving this goal means a thorough daily cardiovascular exercise. I can do this each morning when I first get up, down in the basement while the family is still asleep. This is a combination of several fitness goals on my earlier list.

Eliminate all of our family’s debt besides our mortgage and build up a $50,000 investment portfolio. This means, day in and day out, practicing frugality and putting my own money away. This is also a combination of several goals from the earlier list.

Read a significantly challenging book every week, totaling 156 books. I’m looking primarily at well-written pieces of fiction and nonfiction. I consider collections of essays and short stories (The Best American series) to be appropriate here, as well as Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Award winners, and critically acclaimed nonfiction books.

Write a daily diary for my son and for my daughter, recounting something I did with them each day. This requires not only writing in the diary, but also doing something valuable and worth noting with them every single day.

Make my writing a full time endeavor. This encompasses a large number of goals from the earlier list, because to do this I need to continually raise the bar of excellence on The Simple Dollar, find some new ways to use my writing to build income, fully develop and create some other blogging ideas, and then make that scary leap, which is itself something of a block.

That’s it. These are my five goals over the next three years. As long as I’m able to keep moving forward on these goals, I will have accomplished virtually everything of value on my list of 101 goals.

This new list doesn’t feel like pressure – it actually feels like a weight off my shoulders. I no longer have to look at that long list of goals and feel as though I’m failing because I’m not accomplishing them. Instead, I can just look at these five and feel empowered. Five goals, all of which provide some pretty obvious “next steps” all the time, fill me with a sense of “let’s get this done!” excitement rather than the sense of “that’s just too much” that the longer list gave me.

However, creating that longer list served an incredibly valuable purpose. It identified for me, pretty clearly, where my chief concerns like: my family, my health, and my creative growth. From that came this more immediate and concise list of goals – but it would have been much harder to find good ones without the brainstorming of the longer original list.

In other words, don’t be afraid to abandon your goals when they begin to overwhelm you. Seek to define goals that are really in accordance with what you find valuable in your own life, keep that number of goals low, and you’ll find yourself with a lot more motivation to succeed without the subtle weight of feeling overwhelmed with too many goals to achieve.

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  1. JBS says:

    I guess this one just varies by personality. My husband and I loved your idea and made a joint list. It has kept us focused on financial, family, and health goals while also making sure we incorporated fun along the way! Yes, we made a fair number of “fun” goals too.

  2. Mike Panic says:

    The headline alone reminded me instantly of a Seth Godin book, The Dip. I won’t bother leaving comment spam, but I did get the audio version and write a review about it on my site, in a nutshel: He talks about “the dip” which is a gap between achieving your goals or giving up on them to persue new ones.

    One of the most memorable things about the book is that he quotes the ever famous Vince Lombarde’s line, “Winners don’t quit and quitters don’t win.” He dissects by comparing it to a first job, say at McDonalds. What if you never quit there? You could be stuck on the fry machine for the rest of your life and that a lot of times, quiting makes you choose the better path, even if it has more resistance.

  3. Sandeep Goswami says:

    Great post Trent!

    You have explored the whole Goal deal from an angle which otherwise was is not very apparent.

    Enjoyed reading this post.

    Thanks

  4. Brian Tracy calls it setting “posteriorities” or a list of things you won’t do anymore.

    On “winners never quit,” I say a sign one time that said “Winners never quit and quitters never win. But those who never win AND never quit are crazy.”

    I like your approach.

  5. Cat-Daddy says:

    Yeah, you can only do so much.

    Another angle’s to use the Law of Comparative Advantage (ah, economics). Your time’s best spent doing what you’re best at and delegating the rest. So doctors shouldn’t mow their lawns– they can make/save more money by doctoring, and pro lawnmowers (in my town, a 14-year old) can do a better job faster. It’s why I like indexing.

    For me that means goal triage. A lot of stuff I want to do– like learn Spanish– is tons of work with little progress. If I’m honest with myself, I ditch it. No need to sacrifice the goals that are going well for the ones that aren’t.

    Mike Panic, I like Seth Godin a LOT, but I found “The Dip” to be a book-length paragraph. But he says the short books sell better, so I guess it works for him.

  6. Allie says:

    My friend and I made a similar list. I have felt the same way-overwhelmed at accomplishing all of these things. I’ve been wanting to scale the list back for this reason but have felt guilty about it. Thanks for helping remind me that the purpose of the list is to improve your life overall, not overwhelm and make you feel defeated. I’m going to cut my list in half. If I can only get my friend to do the same!

  7. Andrew G says:

    Rung 30 of the fitness ladder is a good goal. You can also figure out how to design your own effective exercise programs here:

    http://aggfitness.wordpress.com/2008/02/05/how-to-make-your-own-basic-effective-exercise-circuits/

  8. Susan says:

    Very interesting, I’d like to try this, I feel like my goals are so jumbled sometimes and long-term to the point I can’t focus on the immediate. I also always have lots of travel goals, which in fact tend to take care of themselves and don’t really need their own list to work on.

    I also love that you write a diary for your kids, what a great idea. Be sure to give it to them when they can appreciate it, like when they become parents, not when they turn 18 and throw it under the bed in their dorm. :-)

    http://www.theinnovativetraveler.com

  9. Ria Kennedy says:

    It sounds impressive to have a long list and makes it seem like you’re accomplishing more, but I think real priorities are based on things that are meaningful/helpful. I wish you luck in your pursuit of these splendid goals.

  10. guinness416 says:

    I had the same issue with the 101 goals. I think brainstorming and writing them down was a good thing to do. What came out was a weird jumble of things I should be doing (like flossing my teeth), career certifications I needed to sit down and get, things I want to see in my new city, financial goals, a need for a method to track my gym routines, bad habits I need to get rid of, a list of places I really want to visit in the next couple of years … and so on. But after the initial couple of months of effort it was hard to keep track of so many scattershot items requiring different levels of effort. So my list contracted quite a bit too. I do maintain that sitting down for a while and coming up with the 101 goals is worthwhile, though.

  11. In Debt says:

    I totally agree. For me, having just two or three goals at a time is much more productive than having a dozen. Not only am I more likely to achieve my goals, I also won’t be spending time unnecessarily chasing goals that I won’t meet.

  12. Ro says:

    I enjoyed this post quite a bit, thanks for it! I will be looking at my goals again and although I don’t have 101, I think some of them can be eliminated and some will encompass others.

  13. A_D says:

    I read this blog occassionally, but I didn’t see your list when you first posted. I think you have made up your mind on not doing the 101 in 1001, but I wanted to reiterate to others that your list was not really accomplishable to begin with, which is an important part of the list-making.

    I have been using the 101 idea for awhile (though as 36 in 365) since finding the Triplux site and an important thing to remember about these 101 in 1001 lists is that you need to cross something off your list roughly every 10 days. So most of them need to be acheivable in that time period.

    Just as an exmaple, your list includes well over 2,000 books to be read, between your own reading and reading to your children … not to mention 2 versions of the Bible. I realize the children’s books are short, but that is more than two books a day for three years! For your own reading, you are talking a book every 8 days, while accomplishing other things simultaneously like learning songs. There are quite a few other things on the list that overlap in very unrealistic ways.

    Something to think about.

  14. Chazzman2000 says:

    I started a goal of losing weight around August 2007 and so far have lost 53 pounds. I’ve never felt better in my life and plan to try to see where I am at on the rungs.

    For me the turning point has been technology. I’m utizling a BodyBugg (http://www.bodybugg.com/). I enter in the foods that I eat and the BodyBugg calculates what I burn and its been very accurate. If I eat something crazy I can see where I’m at and how much I need to workout to get back in the black.

    Its kind of like a game to me anymore and I personally love it. The only downside for people is that it can be expensive ($300)…but I’d rather lose the fat and be healthy rather than own a Wii, PS3, XBox, iPod, etc. It’s changed my life for the good.

  15. moonimus says:

    I’ve always struggled with having too many goals and not seeing enough progress that makes them feel acheivable. I’ve got them narrowed down to two right now (broken down into bite size goals of course) which makes the monitoring and progresssing part much easier and fun. Losing weight and increasing my wealth. Good luck with your goals Trent! Looks like you’ve already discovered that focusing on the most important goals can be extremely rewarding!

  16. I actually went the opposite way and increased my goals recently. But I went from 1 to about 10. 101 would be too much to handle.

    I love the idea of writing a diary for your kids. I’m thinking of doing the same. I might just send myself an email each day, I know it will get done that way.

  17. luvleftovers says:

    Trent, you are not ‘abandoning’ goals – you’re just re-evaluating them. I do this often. Let’s face it, what’s important right now may not be 6 months from now. Or, life changes and you have to change the goal with it. Everyone should go over their plans at least a few times a year.

  18. I didn’t read through all the comments, so someone else may have posted this already, but…
    There’s a great social networking site called ’43 things’ which is built around people who share their goals and their journeys toward them.

  19. Jillian says:

    That fitness ladder is cool. I started doing it when you last mentioned it – the first time I tried I couldn’t even touch the floor, let alone do a push-up. The first couple of weeks I thought I was going to die. Now I’m up to rung 22 – that’s 15 marine push-ups a day! I wonder when I can join the Canadian Airforce…

  20. k says:

    I too whipped up a 101 goals list when I read Trent’s original post on that topic. It’s way too long for 1000 days — I realized that pretty quickly — but I am holding onto it. Because it is so long, it does have the effect of making me consider which goals are the most important and which ones I’d really like to accomplish in that time frame even though they aren’t at the very top of the list. Those left undone I’ll either carry over to the next 101 goal list for the next 1000 days, or I’ll decide they weren’t that important after all. There also something valuable in imagining the range of possibilities of what one can do, even if you can’t accomplish all of it at once, or some of it never.

  21. kazari says:

    Maybe i entered into the spirit of the 101 goals list a bit differently.
    My list of serious goals is quite short. so my 101 filled up with small and fun goals, and stuff i knew i would do anyway.
    grow strawberries.
    learn to layer my shimmy at bellydancing.
    buy a new couch.
    keep my blog alive.
    so it contains milestones as well as goals. i only revisit it every couple of months. so you could say i’m aware of it, but i don’t follow it slavishly. and every time i look, i’m surprised how much i can cross off…

  22. ToriJuliette says:

    Great post!
    I LOVE LOVE LOVE the daily diary entry to your son & daughter. What a lasting gift. I’m tempted to do the same if I could find the time to committ to it each day. Our children are roughly the same age as yours (20 mo and 5 mo) It’s amazing how quickly they change and what “new” adventure or discovery happens each day. This morning our son found “bugs” (lady bugs) on his window sill – I never want to forgot that look of fascination on his face.

  23. Mayank says:

    The lifetime fitness ladder seems to be a great way to begin exercising on a tight schedule.
    Now I just need to get started…

    Thanks Trent!

  24. robtwister says:

    >abandoning goals

    One thing I do is to identify which goals are true ‘end result’ goals, and which are merely implementation details. For instance, from your list, the true goals are 1. Eliminating debt, 2. Build up 50K investment portfolion, 3. Complete fitness ladder rung 30. The rest of them (read a book a week, daily diary entry for kids, and writing full-time), I would argue are implementation details.

    By quantifying goals with the intended end result, you give them a life of its own, and it results in more motivation and meaning. By giving meaning to a goal, it becomes an inevitable result, rather than just a target.

  25. Matt says:

    Eliminating goals can be a tough thing, I’ve had goals in the back of my mind since I was just entering the work force 12 years ago. These goals are no longer things I would put in my top 5 but they are still on my list. Taking them off the list would be like removing an old friend… then again how much baggage do those goals come with if left unfulfilled.

    I think you’re dead on the money it is a very fine art, getting rid of goals. I think it might be time to build my huge list up and then tear it back down again.

  26. Shana says:

    As a writer by hobby and profession, I can tell you that odds are reasonably high that you will abandon the “read a significant book each week” goal. I’ve found several prize-winning books dull (Adventures of Kavalier and Clay? couldn’t finish 30% of it (it almost literally bored me to tears), and I love other Chabon novels). I’d recommend lowering that number, and allowing yourself to read occasionally whatever you consider “popcorn” books. Besides, when you’re reading a dense, well-written book, it’s best not to rush through it — especially if it’s 500+ pages. Also, if you continually read high-brow books all the time, my experience is that you tend to get numbed by them and probably aren’t going to appreciate the level of writing as much.

  27. Ashley says:

    I love the 43 things website Rich Million money!! Thanks!

  28. brooke says:

    the 101 goals/1001 days list that i developed has been a godsend to me. i keep it on my computer desktop and look at it (at least briefly) every day. while many of my goals are “real” goals, many others are things that simply enrich my everyday life. ex. going to see my favorite band in concert or going on a picnic. i use my goal list as a sort of daily or weekly task list – reminding me to do/work on the things that are important to me and to my full enjoyment of life. currently, i am 204 days in and have completed 20% of my goals.

  29. Monevator says:

    I think you have to differentiate between goals and action points when you try to make major life changes.

    101 is way too many goals for anyone to contemplate. Setting goals works because our brains prefer simple idea they can grasp to the swirling ever shifting reality we face.

    Set 10 goals, think about them, and your brain will respond night and day to making them happen.

    If you’ve got a goal to ‘retire at 45′ say, that’s a sensible achievable goal that will help direct all your daily actions. A plan for achieving that goal might include “save 10% of my monthly pay check”, but that needn’t be a goal, any more than “don’t buy a sports car with my savings” need be.

    I’m not saying 10 goals is right, or that 10% saving isn’t a great target, incidentally. I’m just trying to draw a distinction between, as a previous commentator put it, means and ends.

    Good luck with your shorter list! :)

  30. Leanne says:

    This is a year late but I am a new follower of your blog (which I love and have been sharing with lots of folks).

    One way I’ve often found useful is differentiating between priorities and goals. Priorities being more like values, general themes & directions in life. Goals are the more specific steps or measures to support those priorities. In this parlance, you’ve clarified your priorities and are doing the goals you need to do to support them.

    I’m creating my own 101 list now, and I’m finding that many of the goals are small things on the way to larger themes. I am thinking that will keep it from seeming overwhelming, but who knows.

    Thank you for your writing. It is very inspiring to me.

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