“When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning.” – Reiner Knizia
Goals and goal-setting is a topic I cover frequently on The Simple Dollar. Why? I attribute goals and goal-setting with almost every good thing that’s happened in my life over the last several years. Debt freedom is an obvious example, as is my current career flexibility, but the most powerful result of goal-setting over the last few years (in my eyes, at least) has been my ability to spend lots of time with my family.
Ten years ago, I barely thought about goals at all. I lived very much in the moment. What changed?
How goals “clicked” in my life
My first post-college job really forced me to learn how to manage goals. Right off the bat, I was faced with an enormous project that had a major six month milestone and some significant milestones off in the distance beyond that. I had a goal and, with the help of some others, I had to plan for that goal.
Still, it didn’t really cross over into my own life. I was often able to put up a mental fence between the goal-setting I was doing at work and the realities of my day-to-day life. In fact, if anything, my life outside of work moved more into a day-to-day pattern. I began to accumulate debt. I talked vaguely about the future, but I didn’t really do anything about it. I engaged in a lot of expensive hobbies and pursuits.
Eventually, in April 2006, I hit financial bottom, and I realized things had to change. I read a lot of personal finance books, made a few strong short-term moves (like selling off many of my vintage baseball cards and most of my video game collection), and got my head above water. I started paying careful attention to my finances at that point, watching where my spending was going.
Still, I wasn’t really pointing towards anything in life. It wasn’t until that summer that goals really began to click.
I went on a trip with several coworkers in mid-2006. Almost as soon as the plane landed, I began missing my son, who was just on the verge of walking at the time. Before I left, he had really mastered the idea that I was “Dad” and he would say “Dad…. Dad…. Dad….” all the time when I was around. He was in a strong “Dad phase” at the moment, meaning that he wanted me at almost every opportunity, and I relished the fact that I could be there for him.
I listened to my voicemail and there was a message from him where he kept saying “Dad…. Dad…. Dad….” along with my wife saying hello, and I realized that, with every ounce of my being, I would rather be there than be on the business trip I was on.
I expressed this sentiment to my coworkers, who largely thought I was being silly at the time. What I felt, though, is that I was on a path towards being an absent father. I didn’t want to be a father who was away all the time, either on travel or asleep because of the hard working hours.
By the time I had left, I had set a goal for myself. Three years from then, I did not want to be in a position where I had to travel for work. I did not want to be away from my family, especially when my children were young. This was a fundamental issue for me, one that I realized would lead to a great deal of unhappiness in my life if I allowed myself to compromise on it.
The next few months were filled with a lot of focus on how to achieve that goal. I discussed it with my supervisor at work, who seemed to be willing to reduce my travel, but wouldn’t necessarily eliminate it. I began to really look at my finances seriously, as I began to understand that without good finances, I wouldn’t have the leverage I would need at work to minimize my travel as my children were growing up. I also began to look at opportunities for a side income, one of which eventually became The Simple Dollar.
It was that overarching goal that really made a lot of things possible. Right now, we have no debts. We own our own home free and clear. We own two vehicles free and clear. My wife is working at a job that she really loves; she has other career options, but our financial freedom enables her to choose what she wants to do. I’m able to work on things that I love with the flexibility that enables me to spend many hours each day with my wife and my children, which is what I value more than anything else in this world.
Goals made that happen.
Along the way, though, I realized that the real valuable change wasn’t the successful reaching of the goal, it was the changes brought into my life along the way to that goal.
Goals add purpose to everyday actions
Before I really started to incorporate goals into my life, I would often come home from work and do whatever seemed like the most fun thing to do at that moment. I’d play a video game or read a book or go golfing with someone or go out for a drink with someone.
At the end of the day, when I was standing in the bathroom brushing my teeth or nodding off to sleep, I would think back on the fun things I did that day, which was pleasant. It wasn’t really long-lasting, though. It was a lot like eating a meltaway candy – it’s immediately delicious in your mouth, but in a few moments, there’s nothing left behind.
When I would think about the future, it was usually in vague terms. I’d imagine things that the future might hold for me, but they always had a dreamlike quality, as though I knew on some level that I wasn’t really heading toward those things.
Establishing concrete goals for my life changed all of these things. Whenever I have free time now, I’m usually looking for some way to push toward a goal of mine, whether it’s writing a novel or learning a new skill or something else entirely. At the end of the day, if I made goal progress, I feel really really good about the day, even if it wasn’t a purely “fun” day.
Most important of all, when I think about the future, the things that are potentially coming seem a lot more concrete. I know I am taking steps every day to move toward those things, so those destinations seem much more real than before.
Many of my daily actions are filled with a long-term purpose, whereas once they were not. It’s that purpose that makes it fun to get out of bed in the morning. I feel like there’s a real reason for the things I’m doing, and it’s fueled by goals.
Sometimes, I do get too hung up on the long-term consequences of my actions and I overthink things, but I would far rather see the pendulum swing a bit too far than to not have it swing far enough.
Goals prepare you for an uncertain future
Our futures are uncertain, of course. No one knows exactly what the future holds. I often hear the idea that if you have a big goal for your future and something derails it, then the goal and the progress you made toward it was a waste, so why even bother with setting goals at all?
Most of the actions you take toward a goal will still be valuable even if your life changes. For example, Sarah and I are currently saving money toward building the house in the country we’ve always wanted. Whenever we make a choice that saves us a few dollars and we set that money aside for the house, we’re closer to that goal.
However, if that goal were to change for some reason, we would still have that money, which could then be applied to different goals.
Many goals that revolve around self-improvement, from weight loss to mastering a new skill, share this trait. The time invested still has value even if the terms of the goal change later. They prepare you not just for the future you envision, but for a wide range of futures.
To summarize, goals have added significant meaning to my life. They’ve added a great deal of purpose to my everyday actions, which makes me feel better at the end of the day and motivates me to get started in the morning. Even if I don’t achieve the things I’m envisioning, I know that the steps I’m taking will help me with whatever may come.
What are your goals? What actions can you take today toward those goals? Ask yourself those questions every day and you’ll find yourself heading in a positive direction.