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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