FAQ: What if I don’t have any goals?

Goal Setting, New Year's

In the Thinking Lab, I have a lot of material teaching goal-setting. But generally, the exercises start with writing down a pre-existing list of goals or a vague goal or a list of possible goals. Usually the problem is that people have goals that do not effectively guide and motivate their action. Either the goals are in conflict or they are not well-defined.

However, Lin Zinser, the Thinking Lab coach, advised me that some of her coachees were concerned that they “didn’t have any goals.” This was a red alert to us, because goals are essential to a happy life. It is by setting goals — and acting to achieve them — that you systematically ensure there is profound joy and deep meaning in your life. You can be contented for a while without significant goals, but you can’t flourish. As I wrote in another article, “your goals create the garden that you live in.”

The truth is that everyone has the fertile soil in which they can grow some goals, but not everyone knows how to till that soil. Lin wrote up a quick process to help her coachees get started and overcome the blankness they experienced when they tried to come up with goals. Her process is the inspiration and backbone for this article.

Why would you have trouble coming up with goals?

Let’s start by explaining why you might have trouble coming up with goals. This is a perfectly understandable situation, which likely has something to do with your recent history.

For example, if you have just graduated, or have just retired, or have just been promoted, you might find yourself with no goals. In these cases, you have been so focused on achieving a major goal, that it had pushed out any thoughts about what would be next. Once you succeed, there will be a gap in your life. Your major goal has no obvious successor. You will naturally feel some blankness about what goals to set next, because you haven’t been thinking about it. What you need is some way to warm up the context of your values, so you can start considering possible new goals to set.

In general, the farther you progress along the path of your life, the more personal and creative you can and will be in setting your goals. Early on, you may choose familiar goals that take you on well-trodden paths: get a degree, get married, have children, start a business. After you achieve these, you will have the knowledge and skills to go your own way. It is your individualized goals that will give the rest of your life the most meaning. But these tend to take a little work to figure out. The place to start is with ideas for possible goals.

Sometimes that first step is impeded by old baggage.

For example, some people become afraid to set goals because they failed to achieve goals they set in the past. The grief and self-doubt from this past failure creates a fear of trying again. This is an understandable fear, but it needs to be challenged if you want to be happy. This is “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

As far as I can tell, such failures are always caused by mistakes in choosing, formulating, and/or pursuing the goal. This is a tragedy, because it mainly happens when someone sets an ambitious goal. Ambitiousness needs to be rewarded! Fortunately, these are avoidable mistakes. You need a better process for goal-setting and goal-pursuit. I offer a few resources to help with this at the end of this article. But you cannot learn better ways to achieve goals without a selfish goal to pursue. The vision of something you genuinely want is what will motivate you to learn new skills, including introspective skills, that are essential to achieving challenging goals.

So, if you think you are reluctant to set goals due to fear, I encourage you to put that fear aside for the moment. Let yourself make a list of candidate goals you could set, if you were confident you could succeed. It may help to ask yourself, “What would I do if I knew I couldn’t fail?” Or it may help to remind yourself that you are not committed yet. That should keep the fear at bay while you explore candidate goals.

There can be other reasons for having difficulty thinking about goals. Existential circumstances can make it painful to look to the future. If you are battling a serious illness or you just lost the love of your life, it can be difficult to think about the future. In these cases, the issue you are dealing with probably takes top priority. But that doesn’t mean you can’t set goals in relation to it. That will help you through this difficult time.

The process below is a gentle way to explore your values in order to unearth wishes that could be turned into goals.

Step 1: Review your values to get possible ideas for goals

Although some people may not have goals, everyone has values. These are the source of goals, so this is where we start.

A value in the psychological sense means something about which you experience desire to gain or keep because you believe it will better your life. If you have emotions, you have many values, indeed you have an entire value hierarchy. (Read more about this in my series on the concept of “value.”)

If you don’t know what goals to set, start by understanding your values, right now. Here are some steps:

a) Create a list of all of the things you expect to do, or might do, or wish you would do in the next few years. Just pick your brain about your thoughts for the next phase of your life. These things don’t have to be goals. They can be projects, responsibilities, even chores. Or they can be fantasies, pipe dreams, even whims. The ideas that come to you are connected to values you already hold.

If when you think about what you’re going to do, you have a negative reaction, e.g., “I’m going to stay at the same boring job doing the same boring work,” then flip it to what you want in the future: “I want a more interesting job!”

b) Similarly, you can review what you did during the last year. I previously wrote an article about how helpful this is in relation to goal-setting. Last year’s achievements are leads to possible goals that are hiding in plain sight.

c) Tour your home and office, noticing things you value. Do any of these spur ideas for things you wish you could do in the next few years? Or again, if you have a negative reaction to the junk room, then “Clear out the junk room” is a possible goal.

d) Finally, go through each of the following categories and write down other things that you care about and/or wish for in this area:

  • work
  • home
  • relationships
  • finance
  • health
  • recreation

At the end of this step, I expect you will have a long list of things you would like to have happen in the next few years.

Step 2: Pull out a shorter list of positive wishes for the future

We now get to the serious wishing portion of the process. At this early stage, it is perfectly rational to use your emotions to help you assess which of these items is most meaningful to you.

Look at each item, and ask yourself if you really wish it would happen. If so, check to make sure it’s a positive wish for the future. If necessary, convert it into something that you would like to be new, or different, or better about your life in the future. If your wishes seem to be about the past, as in, “I wish X hadn’t happened,” then ask yourself how that would make your future better. Grab that wish for the future and write it down. You can’t change the past, but you can change the future.

Don’t censor any of your wishes. At this stage they can be impractical, inappropriate, or even inadvisable. You are not committing to anything just yet, you are just trying to get a handle on where your desires lie. Any crazy wish you have can be clarified into a rational goal. But first you’ve got to get a hint of what that desire is for.

Once you’ve got a list of positive wishes, then reduce the list to your top 10 biggest wishes. I recommend no fewer than, say, 7 because that would narrow your possibilities too much before you start getting more practical. I recommend no more than approximately 10 because you would be overwhelmed. Again, at this stage, it is proper to use your emotional reactions to help you see which of the wishes are most appealing to you.

Step 3: Reformulate your wishes as proto-goals

Now we start to bring in facts and practicality. Goals are logical.

A goal is a specific outcome in the future that you decide to achieve. You set an intention and then you follow through on it. You do this by figuring out the cause-and-effect sequence needed to get it. If you have trouble, you use logic to help you solve problems. Achieving goals takes considerable thinking. The goal gives you the direction, but you need to do the work.

This is why you can only have a few goals at one time. Every goal is a commitment to thinking and action, and you have just so much time and energy to put into them.

In contrast, you have literally thousands of values. Emotions alert you to values at stake here, now, in the moment. When you get an urge, you can act on it right now. But that is a reactive process. In contrast, setting goals is a proactive process. You decide in advance which values you will gain, and then exert special effort to make that happen.

So, the next step is to convert your wishes into something that could be a goal. Specifically, goals can’t violate the laws of physics or be literally impossible. If the wish is entirely out of your control, you need to reformulate it in terms of how you could create the benefiit for yourself.

For example, if the wish is “Person A does X for me,” (which is outside your control) then reformulate it in terms of what you could do through your own power, such as, “I find a way to get X for myself.” Or similarly, if your wish is formulated as “I win the lottery” (which is outside your control), translate it into “I earn 10 million dollars.” The focus of goals is always on what you do for your future, not what happens to you.

In short, convert all of your wishes into things that in theory you could achieve. You don’t have to be confident, or even know exactly how to achieve them. You may need to be a litttle creative to figure out what might be possible. This is your list of proto-goals.

Step 4: Gauge your commitment to your proto-goals

The biggest difference between a wish and a goal is that with a goal, you are committed to exert the effort to make it happen. So the last step of this process is to gauge your potential commitment level.

Look at each of your proto-goals, and evaluate whether you are willing to exert the effort to make that proto-goal come true.

If you’re not willing to lift a finger, cross that item off your list. If you’re willing to do whatever it takes, circle it. For everything in between, just ask yourself honestly, “Would I be willing to put in effort on this? How much?” Rate the effort you’d put in as small, medium, or large.

Before you can make a commitment, you need to see if your willingness to exert effort is in line with what’s needed. So go through the list again, guesstimating the time and effort that it would take to achieve each proto-goal.

For example, if you wish you could lose 100 pounds, that is a pretty well-defined proto-goal. It takes a significant effort at first, and then consistent smaller efforts over a couple of years, and likely a permanent change in eating habits. If you were willing to make that effort, it makes your shortlist for goals. If not, not.

Or if you wish you could find a romantic partner, that is an open-ended wish. Nobody can predict exactly how and when you’ll find someone. But it may be such a big value that it’s worth small to medium effort for as long as it takes. It would also make the shortlist.

But on the other hand, suppose one of your wishes were that your 17-year-old nephew would call you more often. First you would need to turn that into a proto-goal, something that was under your control, say “find ways to communicate with nevvie more often.” If your nephew is like mine, that might involve quite a bit more effort than picking up the phone, because he doesn’t use his phone. Having this goal, I have signed up for several new services and committed to organizing a weekly online family game so that I can have more interaction with him and his sister. That is a fairly big time commitment. If I were not willing to devote that effort to those relationships, it might not make the shortlist.

* * *

At the end of this step, you should have at least a few candidates for goals to set. This is the first step in the process of goal-setting. This is the sunshine and water that help your values sprout into proto-goals. Once you have these candidate proto-goals, you can then undertake the process of choosing which goals to set, formulating them in rational terms, and figuring out how to achieve them. For more on this, get my freebie, Set Goals that Motivate, where I explain how setting a goal properly ensures you are motivated to work on it.

On the other hand, if you rejected everything you came up with, I hope you will take that as a wakeup call to get serious about goals. The path to happiness, the path to mental health, the path to good relationships, the path to wanting to get out of bed in the morning — all start with setting goals and starting to work toward them. I recommend you revisit your list and pick a relatively short-range proto-goal that has the highest wish quotient, and set that as your goal, even if it doesn’t seem like you are willing to commit the effort.

Your purpose at this point would be to get your flywheel moving on some but any project. There is so much inertia, that nothing motivates you. Well, the way to change that, psychologically, is to deliberately choose a goal and start acting to achieve it. Your first step will be to make the goal juicier,  so that it is more motivating, and you can get a virtuous cycle going. Once you get moving again, I encourage you to dream bigger.

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