Are Goals Necessary to Succeed?

Are Goals Necessary to Succeed?


Goals = Guilt

That’s the thing: even with goals, some people aren’t going to achieve anything, because they haven’t figured out how to motivate themselves. Goals don’t do that for you — they just make you feel guilty that you haven’t gotten them done.zenhabits

When I first started running, my “goal” was to be healthy.

I was already a ‘healthy weight’, but I wasn’t healthy. I ate junk food and couldn’t run a mile without stopping. Just because I had a fast metabolism, didn’t mean I was healthy or that I would stay that way forever.

I did not set a weekly mileage goal, time goal, or race goal. I just wanted to be healthy and exercise weekly.

Since I was prioritizing my health, I didn’t need to beat myself up for not running a certain time, distance, or quantity. If I skipped a day, no big deal. I’d just run the next day. I was still healthy!

Skipping a run for one day didn’t mean I was instantly unhealthy again.

With this mindset of “start running, be healthy”, over time I ended up running 5k’s, then 10K’s, then 15K’s, and then Half Marathons. But none of that was a goal in the beginning.

I eventually chose to race to challenge myself. Racing doesn’t make me “healthier”. I’ve had fun at every race because I don’t set a time-goal. I just tell myself to give it my all. If I don’t make a PR but ran the hardest I could that day, how could I feel guilty? And why should I make myself feel guilty after running a half marathon! Why should I feel guilty after doing something a lot of people will never do, can’t do.

Just because I was a few seconds slower than I wanted to be is no reason to completely dismiss the accomplishment.

What About Financial Goals?

You can fall into this same trap with financial goals.

Let’s say you set a goal to “save $3K in 2 months,” but you were only able to save $2K. You become guilty at yourself for not reaching your goal and wonder why you bothered anyway.

However, that goal guilt is keeping you from seeing what you did accomplish.

If, instead of setting a goal, you decided to value having a back-up via an emergency fund, then any money you put into savings would fall into this. Having a thousand dollars less than your goal doesn’t eradicate the emergency fund you do have.

These things aren’t all or nothing but we tend to see them that way. We feel that if we didn’t make our goal then we didn’t do anything at all.

I value financial stability, which to me is more than just savings & income goals. If I can’t put as much into savings as I normally do this month, that doesn’t mean I’m a failure. It doesn’t mean all of a sudden I am in debt or financially unstable or I lose all the savings I do have.

Putting less money into savings this month just means some months are different from others and that’s life.

Goals Change, Values Remain

If I focus on nothing by my speed and the money I make, I’ll never be satisfied or content. The goal will change. I’ll always want to run faster and take more to the bank – and I’ll drive myself insane somehow finding a way to convince myself that I’m failing. That I can be doing more.Life Without Pants

I value my health. I value financial stability. It doesn’t matter whether I run a half marathon in 2.5 hours or 1.5 hours because at the end, I’m still healthy, and that is what I value. It doesn’t matter whether I have $5K or $15K in my bank account, because at the end of the day, I am financially stable and that is what I value.

I did monthly goal posts at one point then realized, that these usually made me feel bad at the end of the month.

If I set a goal to run a marathon next year in less than 3 hours, I will fail. This type of goal has nothing to do with values, but is a challenge that can be affected by physical limitations that are beyond my control. Values, however, are never impossible.

If you value travel/exploration/experiences, sure you can set up a goal to travel to 10 countries a year, but that might not be possible every year. You can still adhere to that value just by traveling to new parts of your state, region, country. You don’t need to feel guilty because you couldn’t afford to see new countries this year, you still traveled and gained new experiences.

Values do not have limitations, goals do.

Doing What You Love Value

A goal is a personal challenge and these help to push ourselves beyond our limits, but a goal should not be used as a judgement against ourselves.

You probably are already doing what you value! Not because you “should” but because you actually care about it. You care about your health, your future, your mental well-being.

Eradicate the word “should” from your vocabulary right now. Things we “should” do rarely get done and are only a set-up for causing ourselves to feel guilty later. This is a constant cycle that many of us continue to go through.

Unfortunately, many goal lists are things we “should” do.

The reason many of us fail at our goals is because we are doing something we don’t care about.


I know many of you swear by monthly goals. Would you be comfortable living without them?


13 Replies to “Are Goals Necessary to Succeed?”

  1. I agree with a lot of the points of this post, but I get the sense that the thing that you respond negatively to is the guilt that comes from this process of setting goals, and not having goals themselves. When you talk about running to be healthy, for example, you’re not saying you didn’t have a goal — you just didn’t have an unrealistic goal, and you did not set up a cycle of self-shaming and guilt if you failed to meet said goal. I believe you are talking about a process and set of attitudes that don’t work for you (or many people). I agree.

    However, there’s no reason that setting a goal, even a very measurable goal of “I want to save $3K in X amount of time” has to set off a shame spiral. (I am not above this at all, but it is something I am actively working on). If you ended on date X with $2k instead, and you know why things hadn’t gone as planned — for example, you were being gentler with yourself, you had set an unrealistic goal at the outset, you had an unexpected expense — there’s nothing saying that you can’t CELEBRATE THE HELL out of having saved $2k. There’s no external goal fairy that tells us we can’t celebrate our accomplishments if we had said beforehand we would do something more or differently.

    The reason I still find realistic goals to be motivating, on the occasions that I can set aside the shame and blame attached to them, is because it helps remind me of what my intentions are, and that can be a powerful motivator. It helps me to have data about how I’m doing. For example, I started doing yoga recently, and my goal was similarly to get healthy. I didn’t want to set a goal for how often I would go, because I was afraid the guilt would get overwhelming & I’d stop going at all. But I did start keeping track, and told myself a lot that this wasn’t a place for shame but just curiosity and knowledge about my progress. That has actually made it *easier* on days when I feel like I haven’t done anything worthwhile. I can look at my little spreadsheet and say “hey, dude, you’ve been to 35 yoga classes in the last 2 months — you didn’t exercise 35 times in the prior 60 months. CELEBRATE!” The measurable aspect of this, with the right mindset, has been a huge support. I set the intention/goal of doing a thirty day challenge where I went to 30 classes in 30 days. Because of Sandy and work travel, I will not successfully complete the challenge. I haven’t given up though, I was like “holy %*&#%, I will have gone to 28 yoga classes this month and look at how strong my body is getting!” and I am giving myself permission to celebrate success.

    Anyway, sorry this was long winded. I’m not trying to tell you that your approach to goal-setting is wrong or that my way is better — just saying that it is possible to set SMART goals without the guilt, although working on the culprit mindset is really difficult. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

    1. I have nothing against tracking progress. I still budget monthly and have tracked my running routine from the beginning. I agree that this is great for motivation. I just worry that sometimes we lose track of what we value because we are focused on one particular goal and only see our options as success or failure.

  2. For me, goals work. My goals don’t always push me, and they are always focused on things I value. It’s how I translate my values into day-to-day actions. It’s how I track if i’m spending my time on things that I find important. That said, I don’t really hesitate to change them if my values change and they aren’t working for me.

    Also, I don’t really get upset if I don’t meet my goals, as long as I understand why and am OK with the reaons. Sometimes i wonder if i should be harder on myself, but what is the point?

    I could be comfortable without goals, but after a childhood of report cards, grades, yearly promotions from one grade to the next… It’s just a comfortable way of tracking things

    1. It is a valid point that goals are traditionally used to measure ourselves but that doesn’t mean they are right or efficient. And let’s not get into the issues of our education system’s testing and grading processes.

  3. Goals work for me but I’m pretty lax on myself with them. I try to set acheiveable ones and know that even if I don’t meet them, I’ll have got somewhere. Example wast to try 12 new foods this year. I think I’ve only tried 7 but the way I look at it, that’s 7 things I maybe wouldn’t have otherwised tried.

    Again, maybe personal to me, but my goals are never super important ones – just ones to stretch my comfort levels a bit.

    I think they serve a purpose but can easily see how sometimes, when taken to extremes, they’re not a great idea.

    1. That’s another great use of goals – to think of them more as guidelines or suggestions than make-or-break-it achievements. Sounds like you’re making them work for you!

  4. “The reason many of us fail at our goals is because we are doing something we don’t care about. ”

    I couldn’t agree more.

    There are goals I have fallen short of, and I’ve been okay with that because it was more about the sentiment involved.

    I used to do monthly goal recaps, but I’ve been a lot less focus on ongoing goals this year and haven’t done any in a long time.

  5. My problem with setting a goal like “be healthy” instead of “run 1 mile 5 days a week” is that it’s not quantifiable. It’s easier for me to say, “I will become a healthier person by exercising 6 days a week, eating fruits and veggies every day, and drinking 9 servings of water.” These goals allow me to track my progress and see that, yes, I am succeeding at becoming a healthier person. It doesn’t mean that I’m unhealthy if I skip one day of exercise one week, but it gives me something to strive for. “Be healthy” is just too vague for me.

    Having goals and not meeting them kinda shows us in itself what’s important to us and what’s not. If I make a goal at the beginning of the month and then completely fail, it’s evident to me that it’s not a priority. It’s kind of like when people say, “I don’t have time to exercise.” C’mon now. You just don’t make it a priority, so it never gets done. If your goals are in line with your priorities/values (barring some unexpected circumstances that derail your life), you’re going to make them happen.

    My goal with goals (ha), ultimately, is to turn them into habits. After drinking 9 servings of water every day for a month, it’ll become a habit that is easier for me to continue the next month and the next. If my goal is to read 3 books in a month, hopefully reading every day will become a habit. That’s just my two cents on goals. If you’re going to make them, forget all about them, and fail them every month leading to guilt (which I used to do), then why bother? But if you make quantifiable goals that are in line with your values and work hard to turn those behaviors into habits, I think they’re a worthwhile practice.

    1. To be fair, I wasn’t telling myself “be healthy” as much as I was motivated by “don’t die of heart disease when you’re 50” and “only one person in our family has lived past 65”. I guess you could say my goal is to “not die before age 65”. And it is also really important to me.

      I realize that vague goals like “lose weight” usually don’t help at all but it really just comes down to how how important it is to the person.

  6. I’ve talked a lot about this on my blog. I’m a depressive, so I have to try to steer clear of the shame spiral. You set a goal, you don’t meet it, you feel guilty. Then the guilt drains your energy/coping skills, making you “fail” even more. Cue more guilt, etc.

    My solution? I try things. I go in with the knowledge that I’ll stumble — or maybe even fail. In either case, I’ll have to find ways to work around it. But going in with that knowledge makes it infinitely easier to get back on the proverbial horse. To overextend the metaphor, if you know you’re going to fall again, you also know to roll when you land.

    Actually, these days, I even take the attitude of “let’s see how long this lasts.” It sounds like a cavalier attitude, but for me it takes the pressure off. I want to see how I do, so I try. But I also don’t worry if it doesn’t work out.

    Currently, the focus is cooking. We were spending WAY too much money on fast food because I felt like I just couldn’t do it. A bad financial crunch got me back in touch with my old friend the slow cooker. And we actually have food in the fridge. Weird.

    That said, I keep convenience food around because there’ll be days I don’t feel up to it. And at some point — because it’s been over two weeks — we *will* get fast food again. And it might even get out of control again. If so… Well, I’ll try again, I guess.

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