Completing a big project or achieving a goal can lead to an unexpected experience. Part of you feels proud and satisfied—you did the thing you wanted to do. But another part of you can end up feeling totally lost.
On the one hand, completing a hard-won project has given you the thing you set out to get. But, on the other hand, achieving it has also taken something away. That same ambition helped structure your life, your thoughts and your habits. With the goal achieved, there can be a vacuum as you’re not quite sure what to do next.
It’s a bit of a shame that so much ink has been spilled on how to set goals and achieve them, and relatively little on what to do after they’re done.
A Few Common Post-Achievement Experiences
Before I attempt a look at any solutions, it’s probably best to understand the different facets of the problem. I think there’s actually a few different distinct experiences one can have after completing a big project or goal.
#1 – Disappointment
One problem with many goals is that they’re set out to magically fix problems that they really can’t address. You may want to lose weight to address your relationship problems, only to find the skinnier you has all the same anxieties and difficulties from before. You might want to jump ahead in your career to feel successful and end up feeling no more valued than before.
#2 – Boredom
Working hard on a project occupies a lot of time. Putting time in towards a purpose can be occasional stressful. You might even wish you were less busy when working on a goal. But when that goal goes away, you may find it difficult to find something to do that is equally compelling.
#3 – Feeling Lost
Goals don’t just occupy time, they occupy your need for direction and meaning in your life. Some goals naturally extend outwards so that achieving them doesn’t rob your trajectory of direction. However, other goals, upon completion, remove an orienting device from your life that can give you a feeling of existential vertigo, as you aren’t sure where you should move next.
These different experiences can come separately or combined, depending on what happened with the goal you set. Their intensity is often a feature of the relative intensity of the goal that preceded them. Short projects create less of a vacuum than realizing lifelong dreams.
Should You Stop Setting Goals Altogether?
Given how common these post-achievement negative feelings actually are (especially since people tend not to talk about them), after going through it once, many people think perhaps that they shouldn’t have set goals in the first place. Why work hard to achieve something if it turns sour once you taste it?
I don’t agree with this reflex, but I understand it. The truth is that a lot of these unpleasant feelings can go away, once you have the right perspective.
#1 – Remedying Disappointment
Disappointment happens because you had unrealistic expectations for what achieving a goal could do. If you feel down, or even depressed, after achieving a hard-won goal, you may want to look at what your expectations were going into that project.
Be on the lookout for situations where solving one problem permanently improves your emotional state. This is usually unlikely, as our emotions have a tendency to adapt to our relative circumstances.
Similarly, exaggerated spillover effects can also lead to disappointment. If changing one isolated thing is supposed to bring tons of ancilliary benefits to unrelated areas of your life, you should be be cautious.
#2 – Remedying Boredom
Boredom often has a simple solution—set a new goal. Especially if the previous process of working on a goal had minimal costs to other areas of your life, this might be feasible.
These days, I find myself mostly setting goals because I enjoy life more with a goal than without it. This may be an extreme, as most people set goals primarily as a means to improve something rather than an end in itself, but the dual nature of goal setting as both a means and an end is worth appreciating even if you still feel there are many things you want to improve in life.
#3 – Remedying Feeling Lost
When a goal breaks with a continuous direction in your life, either because further pursuit of that goal is impossible or because your motivation to go further in that direction is impossible, this often creates a feeling of being lost. You don’t know where to go next now that the orienting direction of your life has diminished.
This moment often creates a spiritual or religious impulse. The vacuum of direction creates an intuitive desire for an ultimate direction or purpose, one which cannot disappear and therefore one cannot feel lost.
While this may work for some, I tend to subscribe to the philosophy of David Chapman , that such “ultimate” purposes and motivations are inherently unstable. This instability isn’t a turn to nihilism or despair, but rather a suggestion that mundane goals and purposes are full of meaning, even if it may not be within the power of the human mind to wrap them up into an ultimate direction.
As a solution, I believe feeling lost, for a time, is often a good thing. Trying to shut down these moments, often misses a valuable opportunity for growth, as the chance to realign values and beliefs with the current context of your life becomes much easier.
However, this feeling too can carry on too long. Especially if, out of fear of being lost again after pursuing a new goal, you turn to seek a final direction that will never make you feel lost again. It is better here, to recognize that meaning and purpose exist all around you and that you may have to reorient yourself to the strands of it to fit your current situation, even if there are no guarantees that the new trajectory will last the rest of your life.
Achieving a goal can be a wonderful thing. But it can also lead to some unexpected experiences if you’re not prepared for it. If you recognize what those experiences imply, whether they’re unrealistic expectations, unfilled time and energy, or a realignment of values and direction, they can end up being a positive thing.