Why I'm not setting goals in 2018

Throughout most of my adult life I’ve always strived to improve or maintain my life. Whether it’s maintaining good physical and mental health; cultivating my intellect and knowledge; building income and wealth; or developing personal and business relationships, I’ve always tried to be the best version of me.

A key part of my approach has been to set and write down a number of goals using the well-known SMART mnemonic acronym:

·       Specific – target a specific area for improvement.

·       Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.

·       Attainable  – that there is a realistic chance of success

·       Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.

·       Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.

Looking back, it’s amazing how many of my goals have been achieved. But a significant minority of my goals haven’t been achieved, or at least not to the degree that I wanted.

I have no idea whether articulating and writing down goals has had any impact on me achieving them, but they have certainly helped me maintain focus in the face of distractions, setbacks or challenges.

However, I’m now not so convinced that continually setting goals and striving to achieve them is the best way to maximise my personal fulfilment and contentment with life.

Deferring gratification is a key trait of most successful people but the downside of being so future goal orientated is that it can mean you don’t enjoy the present as much as you could or should.

I’m not advocating leading a hedonistic lifestyle, but striking a balance between finding contentment and enjoyment from daily activities, experiences and interactions, while also maintaining continual momentum and evolution towards being a better human being.

One downside of continually setting goals and working towards them is that you often defer your happiness and fulfilment until you’ve achieved the goal(s). The associated euphoria and happiness of achieving the goal often dissipates quickly.

This can lead to the thinking of ‘What next?’, which leads to the need to set more goals to work towards, more deferring of happiness and fulfilment and so on throughout life.

Whether it’s building a business, training for a sporting event, achieving a qualification, or buying a second home, as business expert Charles Handy said, sometimes when we get to the top of the ladder we find it has been leaning against the wrong wall.

And sometimes, not matter how hard you work, how determined you are and how noble and worthwhile the goal, you won’t always achieve that goal. This is because there are many things in life that are not under your control, and if you only judge your self-worth and success by whether or not you achieve your goals, you are likely to be disappointed for most of your life and deeply unhappy.

The ancient Stoics taught that the only things we can control in our lives is our judgements (about things) and our actions. The rest of life is as it will be and so being hard on ourselves and making our happiness contingent on achieving our goals is setting ourselves up for sadness and disappointment.

Now I’m not saying that sometimes we need and will want to set a SMART goal to enjoy life and be happy, but I’m not convinced that they need to be our main focus.  

I think it more helpful to think in terms of my personal values together with achievable and relevant milestones.

Being clear on my values helps me to align my thoughts and actions with the things that I think are really important to me, which keeps me authentic and genuine.

Milestones are a bit like waypoints on a long journey. They enable me to check that I’m staying on course without worrying too much about how much longer I’ve got to travel to get to the final destination.

The old saying that life is a journey, not a destination is spot on as far as I’m concerned. The other saying, that you’re dead forever, is also true.

In 2018 I intend to enjoy, live, experience and saviour every day to the full, while keeping an eye on a handful of milestones that should indicate that I’m on track to achieve my overarching life goal – which is to have no regrets when my time is up.

Best wishes of the season and here’s to 2018 being a great milestone along your own life journey.


Jason Butler