The Case for Not Setting Goals

‘What you can plan is too small for you to live’

Photo: Charlotte May/Pexels

When I was 12, I plotted out my entire life on a ream of perforated printer paper. It was a long, skinny timeline of events and milestones: go to college, teach, publish a book. Maybe even get married and have children. I brought the ream of paper to my mother and pointed to each milestone — I needed a witness — then I rolled up my entire life and shoved it into a desk cubby.

I’ve always been a planner. It feels good to make a goal, work toward it, then check it off your list, even if your goal is simply to vacuum the entire house. But life’s richest moments are the ones you could never think to plan. In “What to Remember When Waking,” poet David Whyte puts it this way:

There is a small opening into the new day
which closes the moment you begin your plans.
What you can plan is too small for you to live.

The life we can plan is often no match for the way life unfolds on its own. It’s impossible to plan for meeting an interesting new friend at a party, running into a random bobcat during your morning hike, or taking a dream job you never knew existed. Goals feel good because they give our lives meaning and predictability. But I wonder if that predictability comes at a cost.

Goals create boundaries where so much could flourish without them.

A few years ago, I did meet a new, interesting friend at a party (okay, a conference), and she asked what I did for fun. “Hmm,” I wondered, scanning my brain for a hobby. “Honestly? I work a lot.” She didn’t say it out loud, but her slow nod and half-smile told me, “Well, that’s the lamest thing I’ve ever heard.”

For weeks, I couldn’t get her question out of my head. “When did I stop having fun?” I wondered. I had become so attached to my career goals that I had stopped paying attention to anything else. Sure, I had interests: photography, learning new languages, puzzles, watching movies, hiking. But I rarely made time for any of them because I was so focused on my goals.

Maybe you’ve felt the same way. The messaging around us certainly reinforces this idea: You have the same hours in the day as Beyoncé, for instance. Who has time for hobbies under that kind of pressure?

Goals create boundaries where so much could flourish without them. We stop paying attention to the world outside of the bottom line, which stifles our creativity, empathy, and mental health. As artist Jenny Odell writes in her book, How to Do Nothing, “It is with acts of attention that we decide who to hear, who to see, and who in our world has agency.” This isn’t to say goals are bad, but giving them the entirety of our attention often means we choose them over anything else. Odell continues, “In this way, attention forms the ground not just for love, but for ethics.”

Even when you reach your goals, there’s a chance success won’t feel as satisfying as you expect it to feel. The morning my book published, I rushed to the nearest bookstore so I could see it sitting on a shelf. I took a few photos and sent them to my parents. But on my walk back home, I thought, “Okay, now what?” For months, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself, and I spiraled into an inexplicable depression, which I tried to ignore because it felt like the biggest first-world problem I could imagine.

Eventually, I learned this was a common experience. Harvard psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar calls it the “arrival fallacy.” In a New York Times piece, he explains: “Arrival fallacy is this illusion that once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness.” But then you reach the goal, and life looks pretty much the same.

Author Danielle LaPorte argues that goals can leave us unfilled because our normal way of setting them doesn’t consider how we want to feel on a day-to-day basis. Rather than set milestones to work toward, LaPorte suggests focusing on what she calls “core desired feelings.” That is, think about how you want to feel on a daily basis, then create goals around those feelings instead.

On the other hand, goals aren’t always meant to feel good. We need them to adopt new habits or finish projects, and getting over the finish line isn’t always a matter of happiness. Cleaning the house doesn’t exactly spark joy, but it needs to be done. Goals aren’t the problem, exactly. It’s more that an obsession with them leads to a life where you prioritize doing over being. We design our lives—like I did with my paper timeline — and instead of the range of wild, unpredictable experiences they can contain, they become nothing more than products that can be designed in the first place.

If I could talk to my 12-year-old self, I’d tell her those milestones were wonderful, but the things that matter most — the experiences you’ll value more than anything else— seem to happen on the blank white space around that long, skinny timeline. If you spend more time and energy there, the milestones will follow.

Kristin Wong is a journalist and freelance writer. She’s written for the New York Times, ELLE, The Cut, and Glamour.