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Is Goal Setting Making You Miserable?

December 31, 2014 | By | 4 Replies More

26539026_sBeware the thought-provoking book read while you’re relaxed enough to be open minded – it just might change your life! Or it could at least make you seriously doubt conventional wisdom. This happened to me recently. I am trying on a new attitude and I wish to share it with you during this time of hopeful plans, ambitious goals, and resolutions for the coming year.

Despite my cynical tendencies, I mostly believe in the power of positive thinking. But I have noticed that there are times when I call “bullshit” on my own thoughts.

Sometimes, there’s no way I can believe my own grandiose visions of the future, my affirmations that I am “Good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like me” or even that things are going to be OK despite all signs to the contrary. Today’s self-help industry would have us believe that it must be our fault when things go wrong because we’ve let those pesky negative (or even just realistic) thoughts creep into our minds.

But, I just read a book called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman. Not only did this book reassure me that I am not broken for my inability to remain blindly positive, but it also taught me that the tireless quest for a 24/7 positive outlook can actually contribute to unhappiness. How ’bout them apples?! Among the many topics addressed in the book, the one that resonated most strongly with me this time of year was Burkeman’s perspective on goal setting.

goal setting

Goal setting gone wild…

There is much evidence to support the notion that goal setting is productive and that it will help you create the life you want. When I look at my life now, so much of what makes me happy exists because I wanted those things and worked to make them happen. But, goal setting taken to an extreme can backfire and end up making you feel like…well, kind of how you might feel right about now if you failed to fulfill your 2014 resolutions.

Goal setting comes very naturally to us because it helps counter uncertainty about the future. With solid plans and goals, you have the illusion of control since you have defined exactly what you will be working towards. But, life is messy and often doesn’t go the way we want. Unexpected challenges can derail the best laid plans. On the other hand, if you are so singularly focused on achieving your goal, you can become inflexible and not recognize or act upon some very cool opportunities that may come along.

You also may not see that you have set the wrong goal in the first place. For instance, a couple of years ago, I set a goal to save an ambitious amount of money in my 401(K). That was the year that the stock market tanked. But, I stayed focused on my goal anyway, socking away thousands despite the fact that I had nearly $60K in student loan debt that was costing me more than what I was earning on the 401(K). It would have made better financial sense to pay down those loans instead. Had I been more flexible, I would have switched gears and set a smarter goal.

goal setting

A good book and a cup of tea can change your life!

There’s a tendency in all of us to chronically plan our lives away, always looking towards the next milestone even though today is perfectly lovely. Life, at least a happy one, is about the journey and there is infinite value in learning how to appreciate the present moment and all that you have already accomplished.

Even when I reflect on achievements that were so important to me at one time, I can admit that while I’m pleased to have met those goals, I am not fundamentally happier for having done so. Each goal attained is simply replaced with another. And yet another!

In his book, Oliver Burkeman talks about the virtues of a goal-free existence, one that embraces life’s uncertainties, stands ready to adapt and take advantage of opportunities, and relishes the present. I’m not quite ready to quit goal setting cold turkey, but I am ready to explore a different, looser kind of life plan. I’m ready for the uncertainty that 2015 could bring. And, one thing is certain: at this time next year, I won’t be beating myself up for all those goals I didn’t quite reach. I hope you’ll give yourself a little break too.

What’s your philosophy on goal setting? I’d love to hear from you – please comment below!





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Comments (4)

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  1. Lisa Curley says:

    This one was fabulous, Last year I started a journal, 12-30-13. I revisited 2014 to figure out as much as I thought it sucked, I completed every goal I had, so tic for tac. I figure if I work on 3 or 4 small doable goals, I won’t be crazy about it, like you, I have a tendency to obsess. So, for 2015…better what I started in 2014, I figure, it’s gotta be good! Happy New year to you and yours! Lisa

    • Brande says:

      I’m glad you liked the post, Lisa! Yeah, even if I don’t achieve every goal, setting the goals usually helps me make some progress. Cheers…to the end of obsessing! Happy new year!

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