How To Set Goals For The Life You Actually Want

It's time to stop setting the wrong goals and start using goals to determine the journey, not the destination.

It’s a commonly accepted sentiment that setting goals will lead you to success.

Many of us believe life will be better by reaching those goals, so we make our plans, put our nose to the grindstone, and work our butts off until we’re there.

Many high achievers I’ve worked with over the years reach their goals, but they end up missing their lives in the process—and not in a trivial "I’m-working-too-hard-to-have-friends" kind of way.

No, they reach their goals and discover they were the wrong goals and the wrong path to get there. No one taught them how to set goals that would give them the life and the career they wanted.

Here’s how to set the right goals for the life you actually want:

1. Stop Setting Goals for the Wrong Reason

The first step to setting goals that will bring you an awesome life is to stop setting goals that will bring you a sucky life.

Most goals are about a destination. "I want a million dollars." "I want enlightenment." "I want a truck." If you tend to set your goals based on the destination, and don’t consider the journey, try switching it around.

2. Choose a Goal to Create a Journey

Instead of setting life goals, think about setting a life direction. Figure out the things that would create a fun, meaningful, compelling journey.

Ask yourself:

  1. How do I want to spend my time?

  2. What daily activities make me want to leap out of bed?

  3. What do I want to learn?

  4. Who do I want to hang out with? Talk with? Collaborate with?

Now set your goal. Choose one that will create the journey you just designed.

In fact, the specific goal you set is almost arbitrary—it’s simply setting a direction so the pursuit itself gives you the life that you want. With the right journey, it won’t even matter if you reach your goal.

For example, Chris, a mid-career finance executive, had an original life goal of making a small fortune. That goal led to an education in securities and securities law, a life of financial analysis on Wall Street, and a community of financial professionals. Despite the money, Chris feels like life is slipping by in a gray fog.

Any number of goals could send Chris on a different journey. Here are his answers to the above questions:

  1. How do I want to spend my time? "Helping people."

  2. What activities make me want to leap out of bed? "Problem solving, using my body, and public speaking."

  3. What do I want to learn? "History, anthropology, and urban design."

  4. Who do I want to hang out with? "Creative, ambitious, motivated people who expose me to new ways of thinking and challenge my assumptions."

Many possible goals can bring about this journey for Chris. He could help an immigrant neighborhood plan annual events to preserve its cultural identity; work on designing his city’s response plan for weather emergencies; or champion a real estate development in a historic section of town.

These goals are wildly different from one another, but what they all share is that the journey to reach them will motivate the activities, learning, and community that Chris really wants out of life.

3. If the Goal Doesn’t Work, Change It

As you can see, the goal is really just a way of making sure we take a meaningful journey. Some journeys are so much fun, people stay on them forever. My actor friends often say, "Why would I retire? What I do isn’t work; it’s pure fun!"

But if your job involves staring at a screen and filing TPS reports, you may not share that sentiment. As much press as persistence gets, keep in mind that you can always change your direction. Your goal is there to shape your life in a way that delights you, not enslaves you. If the pursuit of the goal is draining your life, then why keep it?

We adopt goals for one reason and one reason only: to change our lives. Rather than adopting a goal you hope will change your life once you reach it, do it the other way around. Choose the journey that for you would be awesome—the activities, personal growth, and friends. Then choose a goal that acts as a compass to give you that life as part of the journey.

And if you ever feel your direction needs changing, change goals. Because it’s not about where you end up, it’s about the life you live on the way. Your life is too precious to settle for less than extraordinary.

Stever Robbins is an executive coach and serial entrepreneur. He helps people live extraordinary lives and embark on big-vision, world changing projects. He is the host of the Get-It-Done Guy podcast, which has been downloaded more than 22 million times, and the author of bestseller Get-it-Done Guy’s 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More.

[Image: Flickr user kris krüg]

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16 Comments

  • Daniel Faith

    I never thought that it was a problem to find a goal. I think that people always have big goals. What they lack is having a small goal once in a while. Students can consider accomplishing a big essay piece like a small goal Or not using http://essayonlinestore.com/ for a semester). On time payments for loans can also be small goals (big is when the debt is fully paid off). The rest is just about a matter of imagination. Be creative and don’t forget to allow small rewards for yourself. It will help along the way to a big goal.

  • lifethinkist

    I've read quite a bit in the last 5 or 10 years about setting goals vs. focusing on the journey. I think it's really a big shift going on in the minds of people who are interested in setting goals, getting things done, and living a happier life.

    Everything Stever wrote here is awesome. I completely agree that we need to pick a goal that is important to us, remember that the journey is the important part, and be flexible enough to change your goal as you go along. With that said, I currently think that just because we should focus on the journey as this article explains, it doesn't mean we can't also work on a specific goal. If you have been reading articles like this, you might think to yourself that you can do both. You can enjoy the journey, and set goals at the same time which help you enjoy that journey and accomplish something at the same time.

    Set and Achieve Your Goals: The 7 Essential Steps

    @lifethinkist

  • Loved the article. Too often in our quest for efficiency we start to view life as a checklist. It was refreshing to see the article place an emphasis on life being a "fun, meaningful, compelling journey". This is also the driving belief behind our goal setting app - Jutsu.

  • Lois Park

    This article is awesome, especially for those who are in college, trying to figure out what they want to do in life. Very motivational and made me have hope for my future!

  • Cheryl Hart

    Love this article. Very insightful. However, where does skill set come in? It seems competency should at least be a consideration.

  • steverprivate

    I think that you need some kind of skill set to make yourself valuable to others. That's where the "learning" agenda comes into play. What skills do you want to learn? Those are the ones you're likely to put enough effort into to get good. - Stever Robbins

  • Great article Stever, best I've ever seen on goal setting.

    I think the flaws in goal setting you point out are all too common, and your remedy is remarkably simple and applicable.

    Thanks for the insights.

    Joseph Riggio, Ph.D. - Applied Behavioral Technologies Institute | Princeton

  • Francis Wade

    Great article - it illuminates a common mistake we all make. I have also observed that if we practice enjoying the process, then achieving goals become more fulfilling.

    When we practice looking ahead, then accomplishing goals can feel empty because we keep looking ahead, even when the goal is already accomplished.

  • Cady Macon

    My contribution here would be to ask, what about money is important to you?

    Understanding the answer to that question will help you to hone in on a value – which you can then create goals around.

    e.g. For me, I value money because it gives me freedom, adventure, and the ability to travel to spend quality time with friends. I don't like feeling like I can't do all I want to do or see all I want to see because of my budget. Articulating that distinction is a powerful one, because it acknowledges that money is still important to me, but it better understands why. Knowing what my true values are, I give myself permission to honor more of those in my life (freedom, adventure, travel, spending time with friends).

    Money in and of itself isn't a bad or unfulfilling value – it just doesn't paint the full picture.

    • @cadymacon, life coach
  • Cady Macon

    My contribution here would be to ask, what about money is important to you?

    Understanding the answer to that question will help you to home in on a value – which you can then create goals around.

    e.g. For me, I value money because it gives me freedom, adventure, and the ability to travel to spend quality time with friends. I don't like feeling like my experiences are limited because of my budget. Articulating that distinction is a powerful one, because it acknowledges that money is still important to me, but it better articulates why. Knowing what my true values are, I give myself permission to honor more of those in my life (freedom, adventure, travel, spending time with friends). Money in and of itself isn't inherently a bad or unfulfilling value – it just doesn't paint the full picture.

    • @cadymacon, life coach