Scott H Young

Take a Break From Goal-Setting


Goals are powerful vehicles for growth. When I first started using goals it was with a project I had long ago. I was amazed how simply defining what I wanted to do and when I wanted it done had an almost magical power to improve my productivity, focus and results. In two weeks I was able to accomplish more than I had in two months without setting goals. This power of goal setting really prompted me to create Goals! An Interactive Guide which is also posted to this blog, here.

Despite these immense benefits I am currently in a short break from goal setting entirely. It may seem a little ironic, that I would post a nine-part series on goal setting while I am currently taking a break from my goals, but I believe that a strategic break from goal-setting can actually be a good thing. I believe that these periods can help you reassert yourself in the present moment, sensitize you to new opportunities and improve your energy management abilities.

Goals Can Be Addictive

As powerful as goals are, within that also lies the possibility for addiction. Goals focus your resources towards a specific aim. This focusing power causes you to start speeding up and moving towards them in an accelerated fashion. As you begin to achieve your goals, they are inevitably replaced with more daunting and impressive goals. To achieve these goals your focus narrows even more and you move even faster.

This is often the process you see from very successful people. When they started achieving little goals, these became bigger goals that drove them even further. I once heard a quote of Henry Ford when he was extremely wealthy responding to a reporters question of when he would have enough money, Ford’s response was, “just a little bit more.” This illustrates the side-effect that effective goal setting can be addictive as each successful goal builds more momentum and focus for each one that follows it.

In itself, this building of momentum is not a bad thing. If there is a compelling purpose behind the goals, then building more momentum can create even more force behind that mission. I doubt that men such as Gandhi or Mandela would have been able to achieve their own missions and purposes had they not built momentum towards that path.

The problem with this process is that by continually increasing your focus, you lose the ability to see in the periphery. To illustrate this point in Stephen Shapiro’s book, Goal-Free Living, he points to a study where participants were asked to watch a video and pay attention to an object on the screen. So absorbed were they in this task that they completely missed the man in the gorilla suit jumping up in the background.

Building momentum isn’t bad, but too much focus can blind you of your peripheral vision. Your ability to see and act on opportunities that are not directly in your view can be impaired when you are too focused on just one objective. In the pursuit of your goals are you missing a jumping gorilla in your own life?

Shift Perspectives

I believe that taking constructive breaks from goal-setting entirely can allow you to shift your perspective from one of extreme focus to one of curious alertness. Re-sensitizing yourself to opportunities and events in your surroundings may be the very thing needed to take your life to a new level. Not only can you discover new opportunities but you can improve your ability to use your intuition to fix problems deeply rooted in your life.

Unfortunately one of the best ways to drown out a chronic problem in your life is to set a goal in another direction. Of course, no chronic problem can be solved by ignoring it, but by setting a goal that moves you in another direction you lose the ability to figure out what is causing the problem. Instead you simply feel the pain the problem is causing but you have no way to figure out what is causing it.

Setting a new financial goal may mask the chronic pain you feel in your personal relationships, but it cannot eliminate it. Continuing to build momentum with financial goals can often blur the pain you feel from your neglected or non-existent relationships to the point where you aren’t even sure why you feel bad. Your intuitive abilities to detect the problem become deadened when all of your conscious resources are devoted to achieving your goal.

I believe that whenever we are experiencing pain in our life that is a signal from our body, our subconscious mind and perhaps even the entire universe that we are trying to conflict with a natural law. In many cases the problem may have acute pain but the source can be masked or hidden. Finding the source of this pain and correcting the problem can often be immensely difficult, but it requires that we become very alert from any signals or signs drawing our attention to the answer.

When most people feel pain in their lives they immediately begin to deny, despair or distract themselves from it. If you instead look at pain as your environments way of telling you that you are doing something wrong, you can begin to interpret and utilize signs to fix it. Effective goal setting is built on the principle of focusing your conscious resources towards one aim. As a result you lose resources to spend to look for and interpret these signals.

Does this mean that if you feel pain you shouldn’t set goals? Of course not. In many cases you may feel pain because you are not moving towards a purpose or you are not seeing results you want. In this case setting goals aligned with your purpose may be the exact solution to your problem. However, if you try setting goals and your find yourself increasingly frustrated or unmotivated perhaps you need to do some exploration of that issue.

Keep in mind that short-term motivation problems are rarely caused by this issue. There are many things that can leave you unmotivated such as energy levels, clarity, commitment or self-esteem. But if you find it impossible to motivate yourself towards a specific goal in the long-term then that is definitely a case worth looking into.

Earlier in the summer I had just finished some major goals and decided to set some traffic goals for this website. Unfortunately these had the complete opposite effect from what I had expected. Setting these goals made it harder for me to write about topics, decreased my desire to work on this blog or this website and continued to frustrate me. It took me awhile before I realized this wasn’t just a temporary issue but something that needed to be addressed. As a result I temporarily postponed my traffic goals and it almost immediately became easier to continue to write.

Now I certainly don’t believe my problem was that my subconscious was telling me not to keep working on this website or even that the goals themselves were invalid. But after having finished several major goals in the past two months I think my subconscious was trying to signal me that slowing down and broadening my perspective was the correct course of action for right now.

Energy Management

Another aspect of taking a break from goals comes straight from proper energy management techniques. Any athlete will tell you that between training (stress) there must be time for recovery. Goals can definitely be stressful. This is usually the good kind of stress that causes you to stretch and improve your abilities. But in order to be able to push those boundaries even more, you have to recover the energy you have expended.

June was probably the most stressful but also fulfilling month of my life. Achieving several of my major goals that due to unforseen circumstances went under incredible pressure required me to work harder than I ever had before. Although this time caused me to grow immensely, it also expended a huge amount of my energy. Completely recovering this energy is necessary in order to perform once again.

Taking a break from your goals after the accomplishment of a major objective is just like resting your muscles after lifting weights. If you try to keep lifting weights without taking this recovery time your body can even start to damage the very muscle you were trying to build. Your own energy management works exactly the same way. By taking a constructive break from goal setting entirely, you can recover that energy and become stronger for the next goal you want to set.

Now this whole recovery phase talk brings up an important point. What exactly constitutes a recovery phase? Does this mean sleeping in all day, eating junk and becoming a slob? Although I think that relaxation must definitely form a part of your recovery phase, I believe there are other elements that can be formed into your recovery phase. Reading books, working on relationships, and trying different activities can be great ways to recover.

What if I Can’t Stop Setting-Goals?

A good question brought up by this remark is what if your work environment is continuing to push for you to set more and more goals to work harder and harder. If you run your own business you may find that if you stopped setting goals your business may fall apart as you can’t sustain the growth and improvements all the stakeholders require. Even your relationships may put pressure on you to keep setting goals for your family and friends. Your attitude for goal-setting and achievement may have worked you into a position where a break from goal setting may be impossible.

On this issue I have two important points to address. The first is that as I mentioned in the first section, goal-setting inevitably creates a demand for more goal-setting. Most people never realize most goals just lead into bigger and larger goals and don’t have a stopping point. When I was busy working towards my goals earlier in the year I envisioned this immense period of satisfaction as I finished them. But after I had finished these goals, I had set my sights on even larger goals and these seemed as urgent and as important as the ones before them.

Almost all goals create openings for new goals, so there is rarely a logical stopping point after a goal. This is why you need to assert control and decide when you need to put on the brakes for a week, month or even a year after monumental goals. Goals work because they demand your attention and motivation. You may have to resist their siren call and take advantage of the benefits that a constructive break from goal setting can accomplish.

The second point I would like to address is that a break from goal setting doesn’t necessarily mean a complete halt of all activities. If you are very used to goal setting for a long period of time it may be hard to realize that you can still work, raise kids or improve without setting challenging goals to fulfill it. Shifting your duties to autopilot can be a form of recovery. Many of my goals were blogging related goals, but I am still writing this post. Sometimes just turning down the dial to a somewhat slower pace can allow you to take advantage of the benefits of taking a break from goals.

The irony is, the more you feel you can’t stop setting goals the more you need to take a short break from goal setting. That is, the more your environment makes it difficult to stop setting goals the more important it is to take these breaks. If your environment truly makes it impossible to take any break at all, you may have to decide that this environment is ultimately costing you too much in your life.

Why Set Goals at All?

Unfortunately I may have given goals a bad reputation in this last post. That was unintentional. Goal setting is an incredibly useful and fulfilling practice for your own growth, happiness and fulfilment. But like any tool that holds power, it must be used with care to be effective. Taking a break from goal setting after your big goals can be one of the best ways to ensure that your tool stays sharp. If you are interested in goal setting and haven’t pursued the practice much then you should read my series on goal setting here.

Goals can be an incredibly powerful tool, but that tool can become damaging if it is not used properly. Taking a break from goal setting can allow you to stop the addictive cycle it creates to ensure you are heading in the direction you want. A break can also allow you to uncover opportunities and problems that lay hidden from your view. Finally, a recovery period can improve your ability to manage your own energy in the future.


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2 Responses to “Take a Break From Goal-Setting”

  1. Troy Worman says:

    Wow! Awesome article. Thanks!

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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