If you read a lot of self-help books, you know that you can’t get through a page without a discussion of goals. For good reason. Having a sense of where you’re going vastly increases the chances that you’ll get there.
But sometimes you decide that a destination isn’t worth reaching. How can you let go of a goal without guilt?
I was thinking of this question recently after writing a piece here at Fast Company on "How Creating a Better Bucket List Becomes a Blueprint for Living Your Best Life." One reader told me that she’d started a list like mine, but she couldn’t get past 25 items, because the whole point of creating such a list seemed to be holding yourself accountable to each goal. Could you really put an item on such a list, and then take it off, without feeling like a failure?
My answer? Sure. Life changes in ways we can’t always predict. One year, I set an ambitious (for me) goal to run 1,000 miles. That was about 30% more than I’d done the year before, and it was going great until the pregnancy test turned up positive in mid-January. I ran through the pregnancy, but I didn’t log 1,000 miles by the next January. Oh well. I got a cute kid out of it.
Sometimes we also set goals that aren’t entirely within our sphere of influence. You might set a goal to go to every country in the world, but if one of those countries decided it was no longer accepting people of your particular nationality, there is not a whole lot you could do about it. You could try to fight it or work around it, but the time spent doing so could crowd out other goals. And we only have so much time. I wanted to be on the Oprah Winfrey show, but given that she’s no longer taping it, I guess I missed my chance. Fixating on that might keep me from pursuing other media opportunities that would also have a lot of visibility.
More usually, though, the reason for letting go of a goal is that we’ve evolved away from the goal, or we thought it sounded good at the time and it no longer does. That’s fine. If you’re prone to guilt, the best way to deal with that is to set a new goal—ideally related, but somewhat more in line with your new reality. You may have decided you no longer want to earn a master’s degree, but you can still take a course a year in a subject you find fascinating. You don’t want to invest the time in getting fast enough to qualify for the Boston marathon, but you could run it as a charity runner—or you could aim to run a 10k in Boston. As you cross the finish line, you may feel many things, but failure probably won’t be on the list.
[Image: Flickr user Brian Cantoni]