Five Reasons to Give Up Goal Setting

without-goalsGoal setting is deeply ingrained in our lives, or at least our idea of what it takes to succeed.

It shows up at job interviews, relationships when searching for a mate, and in our finances (as evidenced by the abundance of posts on goals published in early 2012).

If you don’t have goals, you’re likely to be labeled as lazy, unambitious, and lacking direction in life.

But is that fair? And is it true?

I was recently heard of the “no goals” concept on the Man vs. Debt Podcast, and now it’s really got me thinking. Baker interviewed Leo Babauta from Zen Habits fame about his stance on not setting goals.

Here’s Leo’s take on his problem with goals. (note that while this isn’t plagiarism anyway, I think it’s way cool that Zen Habits is uncopyrighted)

“In the past, I’d set a goal or three for the year, and then sub-goals for each month. Then I’d figure out what action steps to take each week and each day, and try to focus my day on those steps.

Unfortunately, it never, ever works out this neatly. You all know this. You know you need to work on an action step, and you try to keep the end goal in mind to motivate yourself. But this action step might be something you dread, and so you procrastinate. You do other work, or you check email or Facebook, or you goof off.

And so your weekly goals and monthly goals get pushed back or side-tracked, and you get discouraged because you have no discipline. And goals are too hard to achieve. So now what? Well, you review your goals and reset them. You create a new set of sub-goals and action plans. You know where you’re going, because you have goals!

Of course, you don’t actually end up getting there. Sometimes you achieve the goal and then you feel amazing. But most of the time you don’t achieve them and you blame it on yourself.

Here’s the secret: the problem isn’t you, it’s the system! Goals as a system are set up for failure.

Even when you do things exactly right, it’s not ideal. Here’s why: you are extremely limited in your actions. When you don’t feel like doing something, you have to force yourself to do it. Your path is chosen, so you don’t have room to explore new territory. You have to follow the plan, even when you’re passionate about something else.

Some goal systems are more flexible, but nothing is as flexible as having no goals.”

I don’t know about you, but this definitely describes some of the situations in my life. Getting sidetracked, getting discouraged, and things just not working out as planned are all goal-related letdowns I’ve felt.

But as someone who considers themselves an ambitious person, the idea of having zero goals is a hard one to grasp for me. I’m not ready to give up yet, and I do think that I’m more successful when I have something to shoot for. I was pretty successful when I set up monthly money goals last year, too.

But I do see some merit in letting go of goals. I hate when I’m asked what my “5-year plan” is. There’s no way I can give a real answer for that (I usually just refuse anyway). Besides, how many people hit their 5-year goals anyway?

Here are five reasons why giving up on goals could be a good idea.

Let go of what you’re not enthusiastic about. This is the comment by Leo from the podcast that stuck with me the most. Once we set goals, we become very attached to them. But sometimes adaptability is better when we lose interest in something we were once excited about.

Don’t waste your time setting up goals. Setting goals can be a long and time-consuming process. You might create goals for many aspects of life, like money, health, travel, etc. Then you might set monthly, quarterly, yearly, and multi-year goals. Once you set them, you ideally check in on your progress. While it may be a good thing to take all these steps, it’s definitely something that takes time. Could this time be better spent on other tasks? In some cases, I think so.

Don’t set yourself up to be let down. No one hits 100% of what they set out to do all of the time. When we come up short, even if it’s not our fault, there’s often a sense of failure and letdown. Goals shouldn’t be about getting upset when you don’t accomplish what you hoped.

Concentrate on what’s most important. Goals may clash with what you want to do or need to do. What if a new opportunity comes up, and you have to make a choice between that and your goals?

Discover new things. Goals are somewhat limiting. The more specific you get, the less room there may be to expand beyond or outside the limits you’ve set. Without them, you don’t have to worry about screwing up your plans. You’re free to move in any direction you’d like.

I’m going to stick with some of my goals for now, and I’ll still take them seriously. But I’m not going to worry about changing or failing to meet my them. Either way, I think this is a good discussion to have.

Going forward, I think the most effective goal setting will be short-term, where I can have a reasonable chance of success for hitting them.

Do you feel goals give you the best chance to succeed?

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photo by: lululemon athletica


  1. prairieecothrif says

    Interesting post. I am kind of 50/50 when it comes to goals. I have some and say things I would like to do but I am also one to just approach each day as it is and make sure I get the most out of it. I guess this is where the discovery comes in that you talk about. I also like to accomplish things each year but often when I look back they weren’t the things I initially thought of.

  2. AverageJoeMoney says

    I don’t think point #4 is valid. If a goal really isn’t important, should it be a “goal” at all? That said, I (like you) find this discussion very interesting to think about. Currently, I’m in the “compete harder to achieve” rather than the “don’t compete” camp, but that’s also because I’ve never heard this argument before…..

    • Maybe I didn’t word it in the best possible way, but what I was trying to get at is that goals might hold us back on something new if we’re reluctant to give up on the goals we’ve already set.

      I didn’t do enough to point this out in the post, but Leo claims that he gets much more done now that he doesn’t have goals. It’s not so much of a free-spirited, just do what you feel like kind of mentality. In his eyes, having no goals is about doing more and being more successful.@AverageJoeMoney

  3. I’m also about 50/50 with setting goals. I definitely set them because I’m someone who loves meeting objectives and crossing things off on my “to-do” list, but I also acknowledge that my goals are fluid, like my budget. I can change/amend them as I see fit, which I typically do. This allows me to continue to move forward as well as to take advantage of many of the opportunities I’m presented with.

  4. bluesauger says

    The hardest thing can be to try and make sure that the short term goals really achieve the long term goals. I know it is so easy to get focused on the short term goal that those long term goals get lost in the midst of the daily hustle and bustle. That being said, I think goals are important because some degree of rigor is needed to combat laziness.

  5. It’s really hard to juggle a lot of goals because many times we don’t account for that thing called life and all of the curve balls it throws at us. Even the simplest of goals can come undone at the drop of a hat. These days, I have things I would like to accomplish but not really goals. Mostly routines that I would like to get into more than anything. Although some would say that establishing a routine is a goal!

    • Haha I wouldn’t classify establishing a routine as a typical goal. And yeah, one of the problems with goal setting is too many goals to manage. Then it’s just a waste of time. @Eric J. Nisall – DollarVersity

    • Haha I wouldn’t classify establishing a routine as a typical goal. And yeah, one of the problems with goal setting is too many goals to manage. Then it’s just a waste of time. @Eric J. Nisall – DollarVersity

  6. I see what you mean when you told me to hit my goals incrementally. Ideally, what we write down on paper should be subgoals of bigger goals. If my broad goal is to “make money blogging,” I’d be better suited to write down something like “post 2-4 times per week.”

    Since that is already a subgoal, if I were to drill that down even further into more subgoals, I’d just be procrastinating anyway. Great perspective!

  7. Keep a manageable and practical list of goals. Align your goals with your temperament. You’ll chances of success are much higher this way.

  8. Setting goals work for me. I have something to work forward to. I don’t get too stressed out about achieving the goals and as long as I make positive progress, I’m happy.

    Setting goals is not a waste of time.

  9. I see where your coming from Jeff. I like to nail down a list of goals to give me some focus and something to strive for. At the same time I see the merits of leaving some things open to following your interests.

  10. I’m not so sure its setting goals that’s a waste of time – I believe it has more to do with the willingness to change those goals as our priorities change. The problem with “setting goals” for some is that they become so narrow-minded and focused that they pass up all the other opportunities that come up in front of them.

    If I hadn’t set goals, I don’t believe I would have ever graduated from college, got to where I am in my career, and met the savings level I had aspired to reach (maxed out 401k). Goals aren’t a waste of time. You’ve just got to choose good ones.

    • I agree, I think goals are a waste of time when you choose the wrong ones, but are helpful when you choose correctly. I think if everyone did a great job choosing goals, I would endorse it 100%. But, unfortunately, that doesn’t happen.@MyMoneyDesign

  11. I keep high level goals then I break the steps to achieve those goals in to projects and tasks within the projects. The key is to break the goal down into actionable steps and actually sitting down to write out the steps to achieve each project. Most people just start running without sitting down to plan.

  12. My problem with goals is people usually wait to some ‘landmark date’ to wait to implement them. I don’t have as much of an issue with shorter term things – like, “hey, it’s Wednesday… let’s start something.” Since you picked up on it too it must be a trend, haha.

    The end of resolutions and the beginning of the shot-term goal?

  13. This reminds me of the movie with Bill Murray, “What About Bob”. The reason, the classic use of ‘baby steps’ to implement larger goals; and the use of realistic simple goals that are attainable for your situation. Making simple goals, and then using baby goals to get there reduces the effect of being let down by goal setting. No, it doesn’t eliminate it, but it does help.

    BTW I gave up on yearly and all those “benchmark” goals years ago. Never did make sense to me when I didn’t have a crystal ball to foresee the future.

  14. 101centavos says

    I like having short-term goals.

    Right now, my aim is to get up and have a beer.

  15. I didn’t use to have goals until 2 years ago. My years were ‘hectic’, I’d live from day to day. I accomplished NOTHING. In the past 2 years I started having better goals. Making myself a list of the stuff that needs solved, things I need to work on. I’ve done more in these months than in a lifetime. I’d never stop having goals: keep them real, learn from your mistake and never forget you should work hard for them

    • If you have no goals, I think you need some other system or plan for getting things done. Perhaps it requires a certain type of person to be able to accomplish what they wish without “goals” in the traditional sense. I’m glad you’re getting things done now!

  16. Hey Jeff,

    Interesting post. Two things:

    1. Goals are very important for me, but they have to be flexible to change. There are 101 reasons why goals can’t pan out that don’t mean you have ‘”failed”.

    2. The goal is there so that you can set yourself actionable steps to reach it. Whether you reach it or not isn’t the most important factor – the most important factor is that the goal-setting in the first place gave you something to aim towards. Without direction, you will not achieve as much as you could.



  17. FrugalBeautiful says

    Here’s my deal- as a student and full time freelancer/blogger without goals I have no objective. I think when you’re in school or working at a 9-5 job your goals are set up for you whether you realize it or not. Even when I was working for someone else, I found it necessary to set personal goals so I made it a point to do fulfilling things- but at a point I totally would guilt myself for not getting them done. Now I’ve experienced a frame shift to where I only make goals if I want to do them, not out of obligation. My problem is that if I don’t commit to doing certain things (like finally reading a book that’s been on my shelf or actually scheduling in time for new activities) they get cast aside with distractions like Pinterest or Twitter, haha.

    Maybe some day I’ll go goal-less but for now as long as I only commit to things I can see myself seeing through, I’m all about them.

    • Great point about making goals if you want to do them rather than you feel you should, Shannyn. Goals that aren’t what you’re interested stand even less of a chance of being completed. @FrugalBeautiful

  18. I think that you need to have goals to have some sort of direction to go in. For one, if you are always let down that you don’t achieve your goals, then don’t set them so high. Secondly, if your want to take your goals in a different direction then you should. After all, they are your goals. My goals change often and that’s fine with me but without them I wouldn’t have any idea where I was going and I likely wouldn’t get much of anything done.

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