So, I guess I’ll just admit it. I used to be one of those guys.
You know, the kind that create wild, outlandish goals and obsess about them. The kind that listen to Tony Robbins audiobooks and get inspired to take Massive Action at All Costs.
Yeah, that used to be me.
Not anymore though.
Killing my fitness goals has made me healthier and happier. And by not having goals I’m even making progress faster in the direction I want to go.
The last part wasn’t a typo. I’m actually getting to where I want to go faster by not having goals.
So, what am I doing instead?
First I need to tell you about a quote that really pissed me off.
Either the dumbest, or wisest quote ever
I like to think I’m a man of principle, so when I first heard this quote, I was simultaneously intrigued and really angry.
“You have the right to your labor, but not the fruits of your labor.”
—The Bhagavad Gita
How can we not have a right to the fruits of our actions? How does this make any sense, whatsoever? It’s enough to make any decent capitalist infuriated.
Let me explain. 🙂
We don’t have a “right” to the fruits because we cannot control or dictate them. We can plant the seeds, water, tend and nurture, but we have no control over what happens next. A flood, tornado, or tsunami (okay that’s a stretch), might come and ruin our crops.
If the fruits come, then yes, we should enjoy them. But what this quote is trying to say is that we aren’t entitled to results, because they are beyond our control.
It’s another way of saying the saying you’ve heard a thousand times: focus on what you can control, forget about the rest.
In other words, there’s zero point obsessing about the outcome or goal because you can’t control it. It makes much more sense to focus your energy on the process.
But there’s another problem with goals, that goes far beyond you not being able to control them.
Why goals often make us miserable
The problem with goals is that they immediately make you feel like you are not where you want to be. Seeing where you’re not, you feel the pain caused by that gap. The bigger the distance between you and your goal, the bigger the pain, and the more unfulfilled you are with where you are now.
Creating goals can make us obsessed with the outcome, and the future we’d like to see ourselves in. If your goal is to do the full splits, but you’re a year away from accomplishing it, your attention will likely be focused on how far you have to go to get there. Even while making progress along the way, it’s easy to ignore your achievements and obsess with how much further you must journey. After all, you don’t want to lose focus, become lazy and not reach your goal.
So, what are you supposed to do? Become a lazy bum and give up any desire to do and be more?
There is another way.
Focus on systems and showing up
The answer isn’t necessarily to never have any goals and to never reach for anything greater. We’re wired as humans to continually look to better our lives. If you’re anything like me, it would be very painful for you to try to stifle your desire to grow, do and be more.
The biggest breakthrough I’ve made is instead of focusing on goals, to focus on creating systems.
My biggest “goal,” if you even want to call it that, right now is to have healthy joints. I want to “make shit work nice” as Dr. Spina would put it. If all my joints work nice, I can move better and feel stronger with whatever I choose to do, whether it be climbing at the gym or doing parkour in the forest.
Instead of obsessing about certain goals with my shoulders or hips, I’m focusing instead on daily habits, continually working on my mobility with FRC principles.
My focus is on creating a practice that feeds and nourishes me, and is adaptable to days of fatigue, sickness, or whatever compression modern life might be bringing me.
I don’t want an approach so rigid that I have to force (gotta catch that goal!), even when it’s not working for me. Back to the example of the splits, if my goal is to achieve them by a certain date, and I’m noticing some pain in abduction of my left hip, I’ll probably push through the pain because not doing so will delay my realization of my goal. This will lead me to injury and more pain in the long term.
But if my approach is to create a practice of expanding range of motion in my hips, and the goal is to simply show up and be present to the process, then there is no hurry. My practice has room for times when things feel off. This way I’m able to listen to my body and stay patient, because after all, I’m doing this practice for life. I reach the goal every time I show up and stay connected to my practice.
You can control the system, and you can control showing up
The best part about focusing on systems is that you can actually have control over the process. You can choose how you design the system, and how you show up to your practice. You might occasionally jot down a goal so your practice matches the horizon you’re sailing toward, but that’s about it. Then it’s back into the beautiful work of doing your practice.
One way says “I’ve gotta get this goal as soon as possible so I can feel whole”
The other says “I’m whole right now, this practice will ensure I’m on the path to rewards both now and in the future”
What are your working towards right now?
How can you create a system or habit that helps you focus on what you can control?
If you’re looking for a starting point, one simple practice is a morning ritual for daily joint mobility. Here’s the routine I use every day.
Note: Big thanks to James Clear and this post for inspiring me to change the way I think about goal setting.