Why Goal Setting Shouldn’t Get in Your Way

This morning while getting ready for work, I got to listen to a really interesting video. (Yes, listen not watch; this is the price I pay for multitasking, but I figure listening is better than not getting the content at all.) Two of my favorite productivity/lifehacking gurus, Tim Ferriss and Leo Babauta, got together to discuss goal-setting and whether it’s a help or a hindrance. When I first read the title of the video, Tim Ferriss vs. Leo Babauta Showdown: On Whether Goals Suck, I have to admit that I was skeptical. Do goals suck? No! Of course not! Goals are awesome! How could anyone think otherwise??

I have always been a big goal setter, and my 50 by 25 quest is a great example of how setting a huge goal can get you to achieve more than you ever thought possible. In fact, one of my favorite lines from the video, a quote from Google founder Larry Page, says just that: “If you aim high enough, it’s very hard to fail completely.” When I did my first marathon, I hadn’t set out to run fifty. In fact, I hadn’t even set out to run one – my goal was to run just one mile without stopping. My goal eventually got bigger and bigger, but as I told my friend Blake today, I am honestly more proud of my first few marathons than of doing all fifty. The first ones were the toughest, since I wasn’t used to it, and they presented much more of a challenge.

But because I generally finish what I start (okay, and maybe because I was brushing my teeth and didn’t have a free hand to switch to something else), I listened to the whole video. And I have to say, I got a little bit convinced by the “no goals” side of the debate. Why do we set goals? Well, one quote from the video takes kind of a pessimistic view: “If [you] stop running to that goal, it forces [you] to take a look at the things around [you] – and [you] don’t like what [you] see.” While my initial instinct is to hate the idea and what that says about me, I have to admit that it is (at least a little bit) true. You don’t set a goal unless you want to change something, and once a goal is set, it can be scary to stop and reevaluate.

Long-time readers may remember when I took a big leave of absence from my blog in 2009. I was still running marathons and working toward that 50 by 25 goal, but I was using my goal to hide from the fact that I was going through a bout of depression. To those outside my closest friends and family, it looked like I had it all together; to those who knew me best, I was a disaster. In this case, that quote was quite literally true – I was flying to different states and running 26.2 miles in part to escape the things that were making me unhappy at home.

The video goes on to make another very astute point: “We have a fantasy of what it’s going to be like when we get [to the end of our goal] – and it’s almost never like that.” Eventually, I finished my 50th state – but then I had nowhere to turn, and had to face the reality that there were things going on that running couldn’t fix. While setting a goal is great when you need to focus, most goals are achievements in just one aspect (or maybe a few aspects) of our lives. They’re not all-encompassing, and while achieving a goal is a great thing, it may not solve all your problems. From my own experience I can say that the last thing you want to do is forget that, achieve something big, but then not be able to really celebrate because you’re too disappointed that your life still isn’t perfect.

In the end, I have to agree completely with Tim and Leo’s conclusion. As with anything in life, you have to pick and choose when the appropriate time is to set a goal – and when it may be better to just coast until you find the right goal that strikes you and is worth striving to achieve. As much as I talk up the advantage of measuring and tracking and always moving forward with a purpose, I think it’s an excellent point that goals can also get in your way. It’s great to set goals, but we can’t be completely outcome-driven and ignore the process – because that may mean ignoring some of the most important parts of what we seek to achieve.

"Life is a journey, not a destination."

Photo credit: Me from Run with the Horses, a perfect example of when my dumb goal ruined an amazing run.

This was one of my mom’s absolute favorite quotes when I was growing up, by the esteemed Ralph Waldo Emerson. I never really understood it as a kid, but many miles of running later, I think I finally get it. I mean, long distance running is the very definition of what it means. We don’t run because we need to get somewhere (we could take a car for that). In fact, most of the times when we’re training, we run from our home to somewhere else, only to go right back where we started.

But on that run, we get to experience so many wonderful things. We get to gossip with our friends and make new ones. We get to see the beauty of nature, and perhaps even explore a new place. We even experience seemingly not-so-wonderful things – like blisters and sore muscles – that later serve as a positive reminder of how hard we’re able to work when we really push our bodies.

It’s not always about running to a goal; it’s what happens while we’re getting there.

I think for me, the lesson learned is that it’s great to set goals – especially if they help push you to do something you might not otherwise attempt. But along the way, don’t get so focused on your goal that you miss all the stuff along the way. You don’t have to look at every marathon as a race – and you might enjoy yourself more if you make friends, take pictures, and savor the experience.

*This post perhaps brought to you by Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now, which I read yesterday. Despite me hating it, after writing this post I realize that it may have affected me more than I initially thought.


  1. Laura, excellent insights here. Your post reminds me of the saying “wherever you go, there you are” which I always used to interpret in terms of traveling or moving to a new city: you can’t find happiness or the solution to your inner problems by just going someplace else.

    Now I realize this saying has a more metaphorical interpretation. Goals are journeys too, and wherever you are on your journey towards your goals… there you are! I think we can sometimes use goals–even really big goals like running 50 marathons in 50 states–as a form of running away or evading dealing with our inner challenges.

    Thanks for getting me thinking today.

    Dan @ Casual Kitchen

    PS: You should give The Power of Now another try. It’s *exactly* the kind of book that affects you more than you think.

    • Dan, glad you enjoyed this one, and I also find it so interesting how you’ve related it to another great quote. Not sure about Power of Now, though… it was honestly just too spiritual for my taste. I do think it’s important to live in the moment, but I get turned off by actual meditation, which the book seems to advocate.

  2. There is a beautiful song by Dave Carroll, a Canadian singer songwriter, called “Now”. It’s based on Tolle’s work. You should check it out.

  3. Great post. Setting goals was a big part of my life until a few years ago. I realized I was pretty darn happy and I no longer was looking for that “someday” place we all like to talk about.

    Someday I’ll be happy. Someday I will “make it.” When I become richer, thinner, find a mate or kick a habit or two that’s when I’ll find true happiness. Forgive me for sounding cliché but happiness won’t be found in the destination, it’s found in the journey. Not a journey measured in time or distance because what you are looking for is not waiting for you in some far off place. But, a journey to a place within. That’s where you will find what you’re looking for.

    “Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”
    ― Lao Tzu

    When your not looking for that next mountain to conquer it can be a freeing experience. The stress and pressures of life drops off dramatically. But, where do you draw the line between contentment and complacency?

    So I’m back to setting and achieving goals and this time around I’ve decided to help others as well.

    As for you, what you have accomplished is fantastic. and I’m not just talking about the goal you accomplished. You have learned a lesson most people will never comprehend. How to set goals, persist, and achieve them. You can have, be or do anything your imagination can dream up.

    • Darryl, thanks so much for all your insights! I agree that it can be hard to figure out where to draw the line. One of my favorite quotes of all time is by Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “To reach a port, we must sail. Sail, not tie at anchor. Sail, not drift.” I always took that to mean “never be complacent” – but neglected to realize the all-important “to reach a port” at the beginning. Sometimes we aren’t trying to reach a port – sometimes we are just sailing to enjoy the ride.

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