I’ve never set goals for myself. Or, rather, I’ve set goals for myself and they’ve never worked out, because they don’t motivate me. Over time, I’ve learned that setting goals just doesn’t work, and I’ve worried about it because goals are supposed to be good, right? If you don’t have goals, then you don’t know where you’re going and what you should be doing next, right?
I can’t remember having a goal. An actual goal.
There are things I’ve wanted to do, but if I didn’t do them I’d be fine with that too. There are targets that would have been nice to hit, but if I didn’t hit them I wouldn’t look back and say I missed them.
I don’t aim for things that way.
I do things, I try things, I build things, I want to make progress, I want to make things better for me, my company, my family, my neighborhood, etc. But I’ve never set a goal. It’s just not how I approach things.
It turns out, however, that setting and then chasing after goals can often backfire in horrible ways. There is a good case to be made that many of us, and many of the organizations for which we work, would do better to spend less time on goalsetting, and, more generally, to focus with less intensity on planning for how we would like the future to turn out.
Dave Winer, who I respect greatly, says that he’s a goal-a-holic:
You might say I am a goal-oriented person. Even goal-driven. Sometimes to a fault.
There are times when in retrospect it would have been better to give up and pursue a different goal. I’ve wasted a fair amount of time throwing good money after bad.
I remember as a kid, saying to my father that I couldn’t understand how anyone would choose to not be directed to do great things with their life. I was hoping he would tell me what he was trying to do. He said most people don’t have goals.
I don’t do goals very well. My wife, on the other hand, is very much a goal-setter, to the point that she feels listless when she doesn’t have an explicit goal towards which to work. We frustrate each other in this regard, to put it mildly.
At work, goalsetting is far and away my least favorite thing, and not just because it runs against the grain of my personality, but mostly because it tends to be a lot of wasted work. We make lots of plans with detailed goals, and then the universe has its say and throws those plans to the wind. It’s OK, life goes on and at the end of the half or year we are still able to look back and be happy with what happened, even though it wasn’t what we planned on happening.
One of my favorite quotes is from USMC General James Mattis: “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over. We may think it over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.” And that’s how it is with everything–we get one vote and the universe gets two.
Instead of goals, I try for habits. Good processes. Things that will move me and my work in a direction that I’m generally happy with, without spending too much time plotting the exact course. It has worked reasonably well for me thus far, and seems to not be as uncommon of a philosophy as I had feared it was.