This is why all your goals are bad for you


Most of us set goals for ourselves to do things that are difficult for us to do. Instead, how about setting goals to work hard at something that is actually a pleasure?

It’s clear that the deep, fulfilling experiences in life are when we are very focused at what we really enjoy doing. So goals should start with that premise, and aim to create more of that in our lives. Here are five steps to create goals that encourage you to do more of what you love.

1. Stop thinking about the goal, and start thinking about the process.
The things that matter most for success in life is how hard you work at what you want to achieve, according to research reported in Scientific American. So formulate goals that focus on working hard at something you like working at.

For a lot of us this means we need a bit of self-discovery. What are we great at? What do we love doing? If you are not spending a lot of time and energy on what you think you should spend it on, then maybe that’s not quite right for you.

The act of being lost in this world is actually the process of figuring out what are appropriate goals for ourselves. Where should we spend our time developing our talents?

2. Discover your best goals by watching what you like to practice.
One of the most disappointing pieces of news for all pushy parents is that innate talent is never enough–there's always a need for practice. Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt explain in the New York Times that the most successful people who have extreme talent also had an extreme love of practicing, which enabled them to cultivate that talent.

Dubner and Levitt use musicians to illustrate their point. But A-Rod is also good example of the idea that it’s a passion for practice that makes someone great, according to reports from Tyler Kepner of the New York Times. A-Rod was obsessive with the details and goals of his practicing from an early age — focusing on the process of greatness as much as on the result.

So focus on the process when you pick your goal. Stop thinking about the end goal just for a minute so you can test yourself — would you really enjoy the life that would require all that practice time? Find something where the answer is yes. Because you will naturally restructure your day to accommodate that process if you are aiming to be great at something you love to practice.

3. Take action where your passion lives, and the other stuff will follow.
I don’t have a link for this. But I’m sure of it. Because positive psychology coach Senia Maymin has spent hours on the phone explaining to me that if you just start living a conscious life, you can start meeting lots of disparate goals, not particularly related to the area you focus on for raising your own level of consciousness.

I have blogging goals. I want to go back to posting four times a week. But really, what I love, is sitting down with a block of time and a bunch of quiet, and writing whatever I feel like writing. So my goal needs to be to change my schedule so I lose myself in those moments more often. The extra blog posts will come naturally from me loving what I’m doing.

4. There is only one, real goal. So acknowledge it.
The moment when you reach a goal is so short, and almost immediately deflating. Because it is our nature to want something else, next. And that is not about crossing an item off a list.

The goal of taking care of one’s body, or sitting down to write is really the goal of being more of your true, best self. It’s about finding your best self — always changing, always elusive.

And any goal worth having is a goal to change your life to suit that best self.

5. Aim for flow
There is a state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about called flow. It’s when you are so involved in what you’re doing that you don’t think about anything else, and you are performing at your highest level. To get to this state you need some degree of mastery in what you are doing, and a large degree of passion. Arguably, the two go together in a world of practice.

But when your goal is to practice what you love to do, you are generally happier than if you have a specific, end goal. Here’s how Csikszentmihalyi says that flow is related to happiness: “Being happy would be a distraction, an interruption of the flow. But afterward, when the experience is over, people report having been in as positive a state as it is possible to feel. Autotelic persons, those who are often in flow, tend also to report more positive states overall and to feel that their lives are more purposeful and meaningful.” (Here’s the link. Sort of. Click the second reference.)

So flow is about a process, not a goal. You can set a goal and then be in a state of flow every day as you try to meet that goal.

When you restructure your day you get more self-discipline spread all over your day. And when you put yourself into that state of Flow every day, then your body gets used to that, and you elevate your whole life to one that sort of demands that state on a regular basis.

66 replies
  1. Alan Wilensky
    Alan Wilensky says:

    You are so damned real.

    The only goal to follow the higher self has become the hardest to achieve, and the subject of blogs, books, and groups – mostly led and written by those who are flummoxed by the very same search for one’s essence.

    Our age is one of “I don’t know what to do, who I really am, and what will make me happy”.

    Sometimes, you will meet a very successful, wealthy, good looking business person, and if get to meet them, a good few will disclose, “this is not making me happy, but by the time I found out I was good at business, it was too late.”

    Sometimes you will meet what one might consider a tradesman or a working class person, as I was, and they seem so at peace. I for one remember happier times fixing electronics – as opposed to my current travails
    in web applications. However, I am certain that I left the skilled trades due some intellectual unfulfillable need that the trades could not supply.

  2. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    #3 – (Take action where your passion lives, and the other stuff will follow)- resonated the most with me. Set aside blocks of time on a regular and scheduled basis for yourself to work on your chosen activity. I have found that an established and measured routine is easier to follow and is more productive than bursts of ‘irregular effort’ on any task or project.

  3. Karl Staib - Work Happy Now
    Karl Staib - Work Happy Now says:

    The more goals we have the less likely we will be able to reach them. There is only so much one person can accomplish. I like your idea of taking action and letting everything else follow.

    Control freaks, like myself want everything now. We hate to wait because we know what lost times means. It’s letting go of that need for control and just working hard. In the end everything will work out – hopefully.

    My weakness is spreading myself too thin. I’m working on promoting my blog in a disciplined way. Everything helps build toward my one real goal. It’s working. Each day gives me a little more opportunity.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I haven’t read any of his books. Reading books that are dense with theory interrups my flow. HAHAHAHAH.

      Really, I heard that of all his books, Flow is the one to read. But here’s something I learned when I was in graduate school for English: You can know any book well enough by reading the New York Times Book Review.

      I don’t even know why I link to books, really. I should link to the review.

      Just kidding. Sort of.


  4. jenx67
    jenx67 says:

    Totally off subject – but the font color of your links is sometimes hard for me to read. Maybe it could be a little brighter? I don’t know if other peeps have this problem. Maybe I have cataracts at 40.

    Anyway, the links look just terrific, and I will definitely check out flow.

    The writer, Brenda Ueland, (IF YOU WANT TO WRITE), wrote a great deal about telling the truth and being one’s truest self. It is a skill to master – one that requires wild abandon and tremendous courage. Most days, I’m full of self doubt about whether or not I should go there.

  5. That Mike
    That Mike says:

    Quite helpful.

    The passion can get one through the toughest times.

    After recently reading Henry Ford’s own story I was struck by how difficult following one’s passion can be. The majority of people around you will derail you and for a variety of motives.

    Henry had some good guiding principals as well and they did seem to get him to his goals and objectives. So principle and passion are what I am working out for myself.

    Henry Ford’s Own Story available free, online at –


  6. Craig Walters
    Craig Walters says:

    Thank you, Penelope, for a great post emphasizing the process as well as the result. Results are always fleeting, but the joy of process is continual.


  7. Rachel Esterline .:. A Step Ahead.:.
    Rachel Esterline .:. A Step Ahead.:. says:

    Great post, Penelope. I agree that where talent is important, having a passion for what you do and spending time improving your skills is what can lead you to success.

    You also made a great point about focusing on the process, not just the results. I remember my dad once saying that life is about the journey, not the destination.

    For example, I’m not worried about meeting my goal of starting a PR agency in 10 years. What I am focused on is gaining the most experience I can while I am in school, which will lead me to a great job. And those great jobs are what will give me the PR experience I need to start an agency someday.

  8. Chef Keem
    Chef Keem says:

    Thank you for this post.

    I just got back from a goal-setting meeting when I saw Jonathan Field’s tweet of your blog post. Your thoughts confirm the focus of my meeting and add a number of valuable tips to my plans.

    Chef Keem

  9. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    Penelope, you comment about just reading the NYT book review cracked me up. I was an English Lit major and I know where you are coming from on that! Shakespear in the Cliff Notes rocked!!!

    Anyway, I think we are going to see a bit of a paradigm shift (ugh, overused phrase, but appropriate) in the way people look at self-improvement. I believe we will be moving towards a more integrated approach, where it is about being happy now, not tomorrow, not five years from now, but NOW. In that case, goals will need to get more immediate in their focus. Doing something you hate today because it might bring you happiness five years from now is no way to live! Now is all we have and all we are promised so we should enjoy it while we can.

    As for the issue of practice. When I practice the things I love, like writing or computer graphics I don’t even think of it as practice. I’m just having fun :-) That’s how you know it’s love.

  10. Timmy
    Timmy says:

    “start leading a conscious life” is key. I think the most important part of this post is Take action where your passion lives. However, what seems to be necessary to do that is to figure out what your passion is. And what seems necessary to do that is to figure out what you enjoy doing AS WELL as what is worthy of being passionate about. There are many, many things that we enjoy doing. What do we seem to enjoy the most? Entertaining ourselves. I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of the American population becomes passionate about goals that aim to allow them to entertain themselves more.

    Some good clean fun and relaxation alone is certainly imperative, and the amount of time needed is different for everybody. However, there has to be a cap on that, and leading one’s life with that idea is not very healthy.

    I have “seem” in italics because in reality, entertaining ourselves has its uses, but it certainly doesn’t do the job like maybe loving others or receiving love from others. What would be totally great would be to combine goals you are passionate about WITH goals to lift others up and help them reach their goals as well. In fact, over time I think we would find that the goals would not only merge smoothly, but they would begin to take on characteristics that don’t reflect so much of the first set of goals. After all, doesn’t helping other help ourselves much more overall?

  11. Susan
    Susan says:

    Thanks for the great post. It took me years to realize that being passionate about something isn’t enough, that it takes practice and self-care to achieve it.

  12. principalspage
    principalspage says:

    Enjoyed this post.

    My problem (and question) is that I don’t need more goals or passion… I need more hours in the day.

    You can say prioritize or rearrange my schedule… but there is still only 24 hours in a day.

    And besides work, and goals, and passions… there is family, chores, exercise, meetings… and the occasional sleep.

    But the good news is… you are considering posting more often. Good luck.

    With that and everything else. Including your mom. Been there. Done that.

  13. Melissa McCreery
    Melissa McCreery says:

    This is a wonderful post. I will be sharing it with many. I especially like your fourth point, the idea that “any goal worth having is a goal to change your life to suit that best self.” Thanks so much for sharing this.

  14. Amy
    Amy says:

    You are mistaking goals for other things, and mistaking their place.

    I would recommend some reading on vision to complement the idea of goals. Goals themselves are not bad. On the contrary, measurable and attainable goals that are consistent with one’s values and vision are more than helpful.

  15. Diana Maus
    Diana Maus says:

    I think that flow, rather than goals, IS the goal. I am old enough to have had many different endeavors create a state of flow for me consistently for a year or several years. I’m curious as to why my flow “creators” always change, or should I say diminish, then change, after a period of time. For me, flow is always related to self-expression or digging for knowledge. But the actual form that it takes changes over time. It can lose its punch, so to speak. Or maybe we are supposed to move from one to another our whole lives.

    My point is that flow can expire before the goal is reached, and we move on to something else that gets it back. Just curious about the fickleness of it.

  16. Pizzamancer
    Pizzamancer says:

    Wow. You really nailed this one on the head, and it shows a clear understanding of what life really is, especially compared to a guy like Tim Ferris (I loved that post about him). Tim blows the smoke of the 4HWW goal, and everyone thinks, “Hmmmm, I would live to travel the world, live like a rock star, and only work 4 hour a week.”

    He leaves out the process of getting to the easy life that many aspire to. The process that you are clearly working on.


  17. Natalie
    Natalie says:

    I was just thinking about this concept. I took a week off from my day job to help launch my freelancing career. I realized that even though it’s scary, it’s the most right thing I’ve done in a long time and it’s not about making it big. It’s just about practicing it an pushing forward. For the first time in a long time, I can totally agree with what you’re saying and can claim that I’m excited about the process.

  18. chris Zydel
    chris Zydel says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Thanks again for another great post. This is just so right on! I have pretty much spent most of my adult life doing what I like to do and what has passion and meaning for me, especially in my work life. But I’m still continually surprised when things turn out well. Like somehow that’s not what is SUPPOSED to happen.

    I’ve always felt vaguely guilty about not having more goals ( which I have always associated with an unpleasant sense of inner or outer coercion) , and have wondered if maybe I’m just getting away with something. I do have visions and I do have desires but I’m never EXACTLY sure where those things are going to lead me. But so far, so good!

    My husband is the same way. What he pays attention to the most is his heart and intuition, and he is actually very successful, even in the corporate world. We joke about it and say that he is an “accidental careerist” cause he’s never had an official goal or game plan about where his work life is going.

    Thanks for writing about this. It’s really allowed me to feel much better about my natural approach to things!

  19. Lobo estepario
    Lobo estepario says:

    I would simplify it by saying: caring and enjoy this moment as the only of your life and you’re creating a wonderful future.
    Do not get your goals but does not need.

    A hug.

  20. Christian_R
    Christian_R says:

    I agree 100%, but I think something’s missing here regarding “flow”. As fare as making a living is concerned, one can’t help notice that flow is not rewarded. The more multitasking, interrupt-driven jobs are -with a few exceptions of course, the higher the pay. Flow is all nice and sweet when it comes to hobbies, but if you hope to get so involved in a paying activity as to forget anything else, your passion better be in sticking labels on products at the supermarket or cleaning offices after hours.

    • Diana Maus
      Diana Maus says:

      @Christian Sad but true that flow is not rewarded. But the flow I achieve while working on my art has become my real work and any “jobs” I take become my hobbies. Making money is something we all have to deal with but flow is what life is all about for me.

      My job used to have flow, the flow existed in that rapid pace, and the execution. But I tired of it once it was no longer a challenge.

  21. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Passion for something you are bad it can be frustrating and reduces flow. I agree, gotta read the good doc all the way through. (supports setting goals that are achievable).

    Flow also has to have a complexity of task to it, so that it engages attention fully.

    Also cool re: flow is that the more organize your conscious thoughts to reach that goal, the better you get at more sophisticated tasks. And the more natural high you get from each subsequent level.

    It’s the difference between enjoying pop music and Mozart.

  22. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Check out The Adventures of Johnny Bunko — great career book as a comic book.

    Rule #1 — There is no plan.
    Rule #? — It’s not about you.

  23. Jamie Varon
    Jamie Varon says:

    3. Take action where your passion lives, and the other stuff will follow.

    I have absolutely seen this happen in my own life. I stopped putting pressure on myself to achieve ALL MY GOALS RIGHT THIS SECOND and just worked towards what I wanted to do. The patience in the process has absolutely paid off. I have recently snagged a great job in San Francisco, which is exactly what I want to be doing. (And I’m only 23! 6 months out of college!).

    The best thing I did for myself was to acknowledge what I am passionate about and start cultivating how I wanted those things to fit into my future. Also, being flexible about which path will lead me to my eventual goals has helped.

    Thanks for the tip on Flow. I’m going to spend some time looking into that!

    Jamie @

  24. Angie
    Angie says:

    The ONLY activity I’ve found where I achieve flow is reading. So I need a job that pays me to read — and only read.

  25. That Mike
    That Mike says:

    Your find at Scientific American is worth gold.

    I hope everyone clicks the ‘research’ link and reads it.

    Thank you for incorporating that into this topic.

  26. hutchie
    hutchie says:

    Ugh. It’s getting to that state of flow which is so painful…Why do we resist it? Is it because we are separated from the world when we are in a state of flow? Time is lost? It’s weird, because I’ll spend way too much time skirting around immersing myself in something…but those avoidance hours are SUCH a waste of time (except when I come here and read your blog, of course.) It’s like a little kid fighting sleep.

  27. Diana Maus
    Diana Maus says:

    @hutchie I avoid it too. For me it is the separation that’s painful. Even though I am still alone if I don’t go in the studio, I can turn on the TV or just watch the world go by and feel a part of it. When I am in the studio, time seems lost or to stop. We are social animals. I guess that’s at the bottom of it.

  28. Jason Kiesau
    Jason Kiesau says:

    Great post!

    There is SO much talk about goal setting, yet I see very few focusing on how to reach them.

    – The mindset
    – The resources
    – The process
    – The timeframe
    – The accountability

    YES. . . goals are important, BUT let’s talk about how we’re going to make it happen!

    Again, great post!

  29. Joe
    Joe says:

    Very informative article. I like the addition of flow, the idea to follow your passions, and focusing on the process. I’ve always lived by the old addage “Do what you love and the money will come”.

    Also, flow and process are very key to success. If you have tunnel vision because you’re not being flexible to meet your goal, then you’re at a loss. But if you go with the flow keeping the process and end result in mind then you will achieve your goal faster and have a more enriched self along the way.

  30. James
    James says:

    I went to the Marilyn Munroe exhibit at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary (It’s on its way to Winnipeg as I write this). They had this huge display dedicated to the icon that was Norma Jean, but wasn’t. I was deeply moved by the imagery and had to leave part way through. There were so many comments of a negative nature and my gut just knotted – I don’t even really understand why. I have always felt sorry for Marilyn – like she was given a goal and the means to get it, but never owned it.

    A couple of older women were talking about Marilyn’s breast size while gazing at a few nude images. They were comparing their own breast sizes and talking like the attention was “mis”focused. It was all about them. It took what was an image of the youthful exuberant sexuality of that Forever Blonde, and made it obscene. Marilyn probably cried in her grave. I covered my ears and said, blah, blah, blah… as maturely as possible.

    I accompanied my sister-from-another-mother. I feel like I need to explain that – let’s just say she’s this great friend and I’d get the paper work done to make it legal if it mattered cause it just fits.

    Anyway, a play followed. It was a one-person, one-act play and starred Marilyn’s reincarnation right down to that breathy laugh that made the world turn its head. She switched costumes on set behind a screen and wore the tightest red dress that made me wish I was fabric. How the hell can anyone be so sexy?

    When my sister (fam) and I debriefed the show we talked about what it means to “know thyself”. We spent hours dissecting it. What we came up with, was what all of us already inherently know – life’s a journey, people change, and lotsa times we need a relationship to act as a mirror so we can strip away what is false and wrap our arms around what is truth. No man is an island. (And neither is any woman…) I just wonder why it’s taking so long to find a partner that is intimate enough to have that dialog.

    I guess the flow comes when you are immersed in your passion and “know thyself”, but I don’t think it’s something we can do alone.

  31. Brady Bagwan
    Brady Bagwan says:

    Delegation is definitely a big piece in being productive and efficient. For those that don't have a staff, who do you delegate to? One way to overcome this is to use a personal assistant service. I just started a company called Delegate Source based in Denver. While there are quite a few concierge services out there, there are very few who approach lifestyle and household management broadly. It really is simple math. If a professional’s hourly cost is more than the cost of outsourcing personal services, why not achieve a better work/life balance by delegating errands and tasks?

  32. NLP
    NLP says:

    This is a huge point
    “Take action where your passion lives, and the other stuff will follow”
    Specially when we are young we think our passions are our destiny and god, how fast we change of passion… . Thanks Penelope, top post

  33. Jonha
    Jonha says:

    Hi Penelope,

    You know why I am drawn to your posts yet it took me a week to subsribe to your RSS feed? I like all the conversations that follow in the comments area yet I am afraid I may get too much notifications just b subscribing. But I guess doing so was one of the most smart moves I’ve made this year, you didn’t clutter my inbox with notifications and I could still enjoy the intellectually stimulating conversations in the comments section. Not too many blogs have such a brilliant area. I still struggle about spammers just bombing my blog with spams. That might just be my goal, because I just love commenting.


  34. kocluk
    kocluk says:

    This is all very true. It is along the same lines as what Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. writes in her book Mindset. It describes the difference between having a “fixed” vs. a “growth” mindest. Which is analogous to what you have stated above.

  35. yasamkocluk
    yasamkocluk says:

    Great post!

    There is SO much talk about goal setting, yet I see very few focusing on how to reach them.

    – The mindset
    – The resources
    – The process
    – The timeframe
    – The accountability

    YES. . . goals are important, BUT let’s talk about how we’re going to make it happen!

    Again, great post!

  36. öğrenci koçu
    öğrenci koçu says:

    The passion can get one through the toughest times.

    After recently reading Henry Ford’s own story I was struck by how difficult following one’s passion can be. The majority of people around you will derail you and for a variety of motives.

    Henry had some good guiding principals as well and they did seem to get him to his goals and objectives. So principle and passion are what I am working out for myself.

  37. koçluk eğitimi
    koçluk eğitimi says:

    This is all very true. It is along the same lines as what Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. writes in her book Mindset. It describes the difference between having a “fixed” vs. a “growth” mindest. Which is analogous to what you have stated above.

Comments are closed.