You don't need goals to be successful

Instead of aiming for a specific target, I'm focused on making sure my work stays true to my values and letting them guide the decisions I make.
This article first appeared in the
edition of The Ongoing.

One of the worst parts of being a manager for the last few years was setting goals for the people on my team.

I hated having to measure other peoples' success against a future that was unpredictable, and often outside their control. And when problems inevitably came up, I hated the feeling of failure - both for my teams' sake, and my own inability to guess the future. I hated the idea that I was curbing their creativity and motivation by pushing them down a particular path.

So when I started my own business, I decided not to set any goals for myself and my work. Not a single one.

Maybe this makes me seem like a slacker, and I'm not saying it's the right approach for your work, but the lack of goals doesn't mean I'm not motivated to keep my things moving forward. Instead of aiming for a specific target, I'm focused on making sure my work stays true to my values and letting them guide the decisions I make.

For me, goals feel restrictive and limiting.

Once you're pointed at a particular goal, you don't have much choice about how you get there - you're forced to go down a single path, with a single focus, and no option for detours along the way. If you could take path A or B, and A gets you to your goal faster, then you have to choose A.

Instead, I'm letting my values guide my decisions. It feels freeing - if I value spending a sunny afternoon at the playground with my daughter more than work, I can do that without feeling guilty. If I want to create meaningful work that helps others build businesses around their values, there are hundreds of ways I could make that happen. I can pick whichever path works for me, and still be keeping in line with my values.

Whenever I come up with a new idea or start a new project, I ask myself three questions:

  • Does this limit how flexible I can be with my time?
  • Does this reduce how much control I have over my work?
  • Is the work meaningful to myself and others, and would I feel happy doing it?

You'll probably notice that "making tons of money" isn't on the list. It's not that I don't value money - I've just learned over the past year that working for the sole purpose of making more money simply isn't fulfilling for me. In fact, full-time employment goes against pretty much all three of the core values I just listed. As long as my work brings in enough money to sustain a comfortable living, and lets me stay in control and stay flexible, I'm winning.

Goals can trick you into believing you can control the future.

As humans, we have a tendency to overestimate how much we can get done in a certain amount of time. Maybe you want to grow your mailing list to 10,000 subscribers this year, or run a marathon, or make a million dollars by the time you're 30.

All of these things, though, force us to focus on factors that are outside our control - things like other people, the economy, or future events. I mean, none of us can predict the future (shocking, right?).

But every time we write a resolution or set a goal for ourselves, we try to do it. We plan out when we want to reach our goal, and how long it'll take to get there, even though we have no idea what might get in our way.

And when those inevitable setbacks come up, we feel like crap for not reaching our goals. Are you a failure if you only got 2000 new subscribers? Or if you only managed to run a half marathon? Of course not.

By thinking about our goals as black and white, success or failure, we set ourselves up for unnecessary stress. We get stuck worrying about things we can't control, instead of focusing our efforts on the things we can.

Now just to be clear, I'm not saying don't make plans. Plans are great - they help ensure we're making the most of our time, and not constantly getting distracted reading self-help articles. By all means, plan away - just make sure your plans are focused on your actions, and not on specific outcomes.

Instead of worrying about how many new mailing list subscribers I'll get this year, I'm making sure I write valuable articles every week and sharing them with as many people as possible. Instead of taking the easy path and looking for a full-time job, I'm searching for sustainable freelance work that gives me total control over my schedule.

By making sure every decision I make aligns with my values, I know that even without a specific goal for where I want to end up, I can be sure I'll end up in a place that works for me.

So instead of asking yourself "am I doing something that'll move me toward my goal," ask yourself "does what I'm doing right now line up with my values?" Stop stressing about things outside of your control - focus each day on taking small steps that align with your values, and you're not just guaranteed to end up in a good place - you're already there.