I’ll be the first to concede: setting goals is a pain in the neck.

It’d be far easier if we could just glide through life and have pleasant, meaningful experiences just happen to us. If we were just born to experience pleasure and fulfillment, and it came to us effortlessly.

Many people harbor this fantasy, even as adults: that good things will just happen to us. That a fulfilling life shouldn’t be this thing that takes effort and focus to create. Many people believe we “shouldn’t” HAVE to set goals in order for good thing to happen to us.

It’s kind of fascinating, all the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” to which people steadfastly cling when it comes to life.

Life “should” be this. Life “shouldn’t” be that. The rules for happiness “should” be this. That “shouldn’t” happen.

The reality is that life rarely, if ever, cares about our arbitrary “shoulds” and “shoudln’ts.” Especially when it comes to being happy.

Yes, it’s inconvenient that goal-setting seems to be necessary in order for us to live happy, fulfilled lives. I wish it was as easy as the universe just taking care of us, and delivering to us experiences that we enjoy and value. It’s kind of a harsh awakening when we figure out that, sadly, life doesn’t work like that. Choosing goals that align with our values and figuring out steps to fulfill those goals are, as it turns out, completely necessary steps to creating a life worth living.

Why do so many of us find setting and pursuing goals so onerous? Why do we keep retreating to this fantasy of not having to bother, of having good things just happen to us?

Setting goals is unexpectedly tough for a few reasons.

The process of setting goals is intimidating. It requires us to take responsibility for our values and happiness— meaning, if we achieve our goals and find ourselves not happy, then we’ve opened ourselves up to admitting we’ve somehow screwed up, somehow failed. Taking responsibility for our lives by setting goals gives us the opportunity to succeed, yes— but it also gives us the opportunity to fail. This freaks a lot of people out.

The wish that life would just deliver good experiences to us, without goal-setting or proactive effort— part of that wish is a fantasy of easing back into a life place of not having to take responsibility for our happiness.

It’s very similar to the fantasy that we are “born to” do or be certain things. If we are “born to” be a success or failure, “born to” have good or bad things happen to us, “born to “ be a certain person with certain characteristics and proclivities, then we don’t have to take responsibility for how our lives turn out.

Not having to take responsibility for our lives is a seductive, and ultimately very destructive, fantasy for a lot of people.

Setting goals is also though because it forces us to clarify our values.

Many people are so intimidated by getting clear on what they value that they spend entire lifetimes avoiding it. They cruise along, pretending that the values they were handed by their parents, or their religion, or their culture, are their own personal values, without ever pausing to consider whether this is actually the case.

In fairness, there are institutions in the world that actively discourage people from clarifying their own personal values, for the very reason that sometimes when people get to thinking about values, they really do discover that they hold disparate values from those they’ve been taught over the years.

We’re not exactly taught that clarifying our own values “should” be something that we prioritize; to the contrary, we’re often taught that we “shouldn’t” question authority or tradition. Many of us grow up with an instinctive, conditioned disinclination to clarify our values; thus the process of setting values-based goals is not something that comes naturally to many people.

The good news is, goal-setting is not as hard as we imagine it to be.

The even better news is, goal-setting is a discrete skill that gets better with practice.

To set an effective goal, you don’t have to think about the big picture all the time. You don’t have to be thinking “major life goals” with every goal. It doesn’t have to be “what am I committed to accomplishing in this next year?” It doesn’t even have to be “what are my goals for this next week?”

Start small. Set a goal for these next ten minutes.

“My goal for these next ten minutes is to sit down with my journal and write about how Dr. Doyle’s blog post today made me feel.”

“My goal for the next ten minutes is to begin getting dressed to go outside.”

“My goal for the next ten minutes is to set a few more goals for the rest of the day.”

See? Every time interval, no matter how small, can have a goal attached to it. And having a goal attached to a time interval overwhelmingly increases the chances you’ll feel good about how you spent that time interval; and this, in turn, builds your self-esteem.

“My goal for the next minute is to abstain from having a drink.”

“My goal for the next minute is to simply visualize feeling good.”

“My goal for the next minute is to be kind to myself in one concrete way.”

You’ve probably been sold a bill of goods about what it means to set goals, and why you’re not up to the challenge. Perhaps it’s time to more closely examine that bill of goods. Perhaps it’s at the point where your self-esteem is demanding you start setting goals— because, as it turns out, you weren’t “born” to do anything.

You weren’t “born” to set goals. But you have the opportunity to.


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