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« Distraction or pure action | Main | Google Notebook v. Diigo Update »

Goalless living?

One of the questions I have been asking myself recently is “What happens if we deliberately live without any goals?”

All the books I’ve written in the past and just about every other self-help book assumes that goals are essential to success. But is this true?

We tend to think that living without goals would result in lying on a couch in front of the tv all day with a six-pack of beer (or whatever your own particular form of goofing off is!) But I suspect that this is actually the result of negative goals, rather than no goals at all. A negative goal would be something like “I don’t want to do the housework”, “I don’t want write that report”, or “I don’t want to do any work”.

The reason I have been asking that question is that I am conscious that many major positive changes in my life have come about without my having formed any definite goals about the changes. It’s been far more a case of acting on opportunity out of a deeper feeling that I am taking the right action for me. I’ve written before about how it’s sometimes only possible to see what is important to you by looking back to see where your past actions have been leading you.

So if you genuinely live without goals, positive or negative, what are you going to be doing? I think a fair amount of the time you would be doing the things which you enjoy doing, simply because you enjoy doing them.

If you enjoy doing something, you are far more likely to do it well in my experience.

I’m not quite sure where this is leading me, but I am sure it will be interesting to find out!

Reader Comments (45)

Hi Mark,
Your article reminded me of a speech that Steve Jobs made about his career to Stamford students in 2005.

In the speech he talks about trusting your gut and doing what you love and how that you have to "trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future".

It would be hard to say that Jobs has pursued goalless living given what he has achieved. However, he does seem to have based his life and career decisions on gut instinct rather than analytical planning.

I'm a great fan of your book, the tools and techniques, and use them everyday. Is there perhaps another chapter brewing in this area?

January 11, 2008 at 11:58 | Unregistered CommenterMike Hayes
Hi, Mike

Thanks for giving me that reference. Yes, some of the things that he says are uncannily like what I said, especially "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards."

Maybe not just a chapter... perhaps a whole book!
January 11, 2008 at 13:33 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I've been trying for clarity on this for a while, so it's a relief to hear your perspective, Mark. I now believe it's one of those "the truth is somewhere in the middle" answers.

On the one hand, we have (as you point out) almost every time management book saying start with first principles, i.e., purpose/vision/goals. The problem here is, in my experience, I don't know (at least on a conscious level) that they *are*! Mental cost: Guilt, trouble feeling authentic, self doubt. Solution: Rather vague "get it all out" exercises, with maybe some fire-walking to spice it up ;-)

On the other hand, we have more modern ideas (yours and GTD come to mind) that posit that starting from the bottom-up (i.e., at actions, projects, and inputs) is a prerequisite to discovering the above. It's a question of making space - either mentally ("How can I think when I'm too busy to make time to think?") or physically (with materialistic distractions, say).

Now I think it's not an either or, it's an on-going process - and it's cyclic. I'm now forming some goals (out to maybe 3-5 years) based on some rather radical changes I've made in my life the last year or two. Did I have that clarity then? No. Will my current thinking change? Naturally! (In fact, a test might be whether our goals change over time; I'd argue strongly that they should.)

Thanks for the post.
January 11, 2008 at 23:24 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell
Well you might be one step behind on this one - Stephen Shapiro published a book last year named Goal-Free Living - How to Have the Life You Wnat NOW!

I believe his concept is somewhat similar to yours - great book, and I do recommend it.

Speaking of which, I have read and abused ALL THREE of your books!! Tabbed and highlighted pages throughout each of them. I have read Get Everything Done twice, and have used more tools from that book than you can imagine. I have used the What's Better list periodically for the past 2 or so years (I admit I am not consistent with it beyond a few weeks though!) and LOVED the "self-coaching dialogue" structure of How to Make Your Dreams Come True. And Do It Tomorrow incorporates many of the principles I've been using in my own life to become less attached and more in the flow. Also, I've used your "rapid draft" method to write articles, newsletters, and speeches. (Of course, I plan to use it to write my own book, too!)

I am a huge fan of yours and will be one of the first purchasers of Goalless Living or whatever it winds up to be! :)

Tammy Cook
January 11, 2008 at 23:52 | Unregistered CommenterTammy Cook
I have employed this approach for about the last 18 months after seeing a hypnotherapist who introduced me to the idea. It's not so much goalless living but having a loose framework, trying things that appeal to you then letting them go when they don't work. It has transformed my life.

Although I haven't read it yet, the book, "Invisible Path to Success: Seven Steps to Understanding and Managing the Unseen Force Shaping Your Life" by Robert Scheinfeld seems to embrace the same thinking.
January 12, 2008 at 12:11 | Unregistered CommenterCaroline Dunne
Thanks, Tammy, for giving me the reference about Stephen Shapiro's book. I see he has a blog at which contains some very interesting stuff.

I slightly got the impression it was a case of "Tired of the continual chase after wealth, status and performance? Well, here's how to give up chasing after wealth, status and performance so you can have even more wealth, status and performance".
January 12, 2008 at 12:29 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi, Caroline

I came across Robert Scheinfeld's ideas quite a few years ago and looking at his book on amazon the basic message seems unchanged. If I've got it right, it involves writing your life like a movie script (or a tv soap) and it will then play out the way you wrote it (if you do it properly that is).

I found his ideas intriguing, but I can't say that they worked for me.
January 12, 2008 at 12:42 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mark

I think I probably need to read Robert Scheinfeld's book before quoting it!

My approach is very loose. For example, I am getting married at the end of the year. There are lots of things to organise but rather than setting myself goals to achieve by certain dates I have thought of the event as a whole, picturing it in my mind's eye. I have then written down all the things that need to happen to achieve that. Each day or so I go through and work on one item. Sometimes things are easy and just fall into place which is great! Other times, it feels like a struggle so I leave that particular item and come back to it another day. I always trust that I will find the right answer but perhaps today is not the right day! Often, when I have put something to the back of my mind, the answer or person who can help me will pop up out of nowhere.

Tuning into the whisper of your intuition and following the path of least resistance is a whole lot easier than a rigid timetable of goals and it works!
January 13, 2008 at 0:38 | Unregistered CommenterCaroline Dunne
Some years ago I went through the goal setting process and came up with a "Big Goal" I was going to work on. Every so often I'd do a bit, but most of the time I'd feel guilty because I wasn't working on them: I didn't do anything else useful, because I was supposed to be working on my "Big Goal".

About three or four years ago, I decided to stop doing this, and have a "year of being". By the end of the year, I'd started using the methods in "Your Best Year Yet" and "Getting Things Done" to set several much shorter term plans, combined with the methods in "How to Get Everything Done" for actually doing them. I was feeling a lot happier, and getting a lot more done, without the "Big Goal".

In one of those twists of fate, the little projects led me to a place where I do have a "Big Goal". But it grew out of the little goals I was doing, not out of a manufactured goal-setting process.

I know that research has shown that people who wrote down goals years ago have achieved more then people who didn't. But I have a hunch that they wrote down goals because they were the kind of people who were going to achieve more, rather then the other way round.
January 13, 2008 at 10:58 | Unregistered CommenterPenny
Mark and all,
What a great thread, thanks for all of the insights. It's really an interesting concept. And Mark, I hadn't even looked for Shapiro's blog, I erred - his book came out in 2006 (it's '08 now, not '07!) and I read it when the ink was still wet. I am going to reread it because when you summed it up with this quote

"Tired of the continual chase after wealth, status and performance? Well, here's how to give up chasing after wealth, status and performance so you can have even more wealth, status and performance".

alarm bells went off in my head - that's EXACTLY what I want! :) And to the best of my recollection, that is a pretty good description of the theme. The first time I read it, it seemed good but not "great," but I didn't record my thoughts and now I can't remember what seemed to be missing from the book.

And wow, talk about genius - Mark, you were able to sum up the main idea of the book in such a beautiful, one-sentence phrase, that's a skill I want to bring into my own toolbox! Amazing. Let's not even MENTION the fact that you did this just from reading descriptions of the book and other thoughts by the author, ok?! Heh. Impressive.

Carol, your thoughts make me think of the word, "Detachment." Sort of the idea, choose your desired outcome, start taking action to move towards it in a detached manner. Just start taking small actions, stick with it, and suddenly big results will start occuring!

As for the other things you've studied, Carol - I'm on the board of the Chicago Coach Federation, and we actually hire The Best Year Yet people to moderate and provide the structure and online program for our annual goal planning, so I'm very familiar with that, and I also have been a follower of David Allen's work for a few years.

And here's an interesting thing I heard on a teleclass; That legendary story, about the 3% of Harvard graduates who wrote down their goals blah blah blah, is an urban ledend. The speaker (I can't recall her name, but the mp3 is somewhere in my educational files!) was challenged by an audience member, "Is that story really true?" and she said sure, I read it in so-and-so's book... But then she researched it, and could not find any direct reference or results of any such study! I got a little sidetracked, but I just wanted to bring up the thought triggered by your comment.

January 13, 2008 at 16:46 | Unregistered CommenterTammy Cook
Hi, Tammy

It's interesting that one about the Harvard graduates being an urban myth. It's not the only one around the self-development world. Two others I can think of are:

"90% (or whatever) of our learning is visual". This was taken completely out of context from a scientific paper. The author specifically denied that it could be used in this way.

The famous quote by Nelson Mandela from Marianne Williamson "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure" was never in fact said by him. In fact Marianne Williamson on her website specifically denies that Nelson Mandela ever used this quotation.
January 14, 2008 at 9:48 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark -
Had to laugh at this one!

"90% (or whatever) of our learning is visual". This was taken completely out of context from a scientific paper. The author specifically denied that it could be used in this way.

I read that too! The mis-quote. In fact, heard it (mis-) quoted at a presentation just tonight, that people only remember 7% of what you say and 90% of what they see.

Alan Weiss's book "Money Talks" calls out the Mehrabian quote, if that is indeed the same one you were referring to.

I may start a reference article on my PC - misquotes and mis-understandings! Especially where these stories take on legendary status, being picked up and passed on by speaker, after speaker, after speaker...
January 16, 2008 at 6:26 | Unregistered CommenterTammy Cook
Hi, Tammy

Thanks for identifying Mehrabian as the author of the misquoted research findings. That was what I was thinking of, but I couldn't remember the details.

The Wikipedia has an article on him which includes a paragraph on the misintepretation of his rule, including his comments on its correct application.
January 16, 2008 at 9:42 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
As a follow up to my previous comment, you might add to your misquotes file what I call "floating quotes". These are quotes one comes across all the time, but which seem to be ascribed to a different person each time. The favourite "authors" of these quotes are Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Plato, Confucius and George Bernard Shaw.

The attribution gives a false impression of profundity to what are usually no more than platitudes.

"Education is the progressive realisation of our ignorance", Plato. (or was it George Bernard Shaw? No, it was Einstein, I'm sure it was, wasn't it?)
January 16, 2008 at 12:09 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Wow! Thanks for that link, it will certainly come in handy. I may even print out a couple copies and take them with me so I can pass them on when I hear it said! I'll be a one-woman-Mehrabian-clarifier force to be reckoned with, for sure.

And you are so very right about the "floating quotes," I can't tell you how many times I've looked for the originator of a quote, only to have 5 or 6 different results.

It's interesting to me, too, how everybody "trusts" the Internet to be correct. I received an email with "porcupine babies - they're so cute!" and looked at the photo, and those "porcupine babies" look identical to a little hedgehog we once bought from a pet store.

So I go to Google images, search porcupine babies. Then I search hedgehog babies, to compare. And oddly enough - the same photos come up for BOTH!

As the Internet keeps expanding and growing, it seems it may take more and more research to find "credible" answers to quick inquiries.
January 16, 2008 at 22:33 | Unregistered CommenterTammy Cook

I believe that your goal is to maximize your happiness. I believe every living thing have a goal, conscious or not. However I don't believe it's fixed forever.
January 18, 2008 at 23:19 | Unregistered Commentermamelouk
I very much identify with the idea of living without goals. I feel much more motivated pursuing my passions and interests than pursuing goals. And pursuing passions and interests can be as professionally effective.

I too have found at times that it is past actions which tell me what I am gravitating towards. Once I become aware of these 'interests' it becomes easier to see and grab opportunities in these directions.

So I am interested in seeing where the idea takes you.
January 23, 2008 at 20:10 | Unregistered Commentercatherine
Case In Point:
Reading "The Wealthy Spirit" by Chellie Campbell. In the Intro, it quotes Marianne Williamson and attributes the quote to Mandela's Inaugural address! I guess it's a pretty common misquote. I won't post every time I see this, don't worry! But I find it amusing that (I found this the day after my last post) immediately upon hearing that this isn't Mandela's quote, I find it attributed to him! (Reticular activitating system in action?)
January 25, 2008 at 13:24 | Unregistered CommenterTammy Cook
Hi, Tammy - saw your comment about the Marianne Williamson quote in my book "The Wealthy Spirit". Actually, I said, "I remembered Marianne Williamson's statement, quoted in Nelson Mandella's inaugural address..." So I did attribute the quote to Marianne correctly, although it is widely attributed to Mandella. I was trying to correct the mistake, so please reread my introduction to see that. And thanks for reading my book! I appreciate that. Cheers, Chellie
March 18, 2008 at 21:00 | Unregistered CommenterChellie Campbell
I just happen to come across ur blog post while surfing around. I have read known of ur books or for that matter I dont read that much stuff out side of my area of study & interests. Anyways the main reason i wanted to reply was coz i m living a almost complete goalless life for the past yr.
This is my take on the subject. A goal is something u come up with on achieving which u get some kind of reward resulting in happiness. A so called negative goal is not really a goal at all, in fact the brain is so oblivious to the negative words like "dont" that if u think of having a goal of not doing something the chances are u will end up doing it. ur rite about the fact that no matter what goal or no goal a person would do what he loves to do and since u dont have the shackles of your goals dragging u in someway, you for a change live every moment, enjoy the finer things in life.
It may sound contrary to the traditional ways but the best way to lead a happy & successful life(if being happy is success to u) is to have no goals life the moment and do what u want, you might wonder where it might take you in the future or for that matter if u have a future. Then again if u care too much you will never be happy :).

PS: I generally never reply to stuff like this but something came over me, just had to.
June 23, 2009 at 18:49 | Unregistered CommenterSuraj
Interestingly, sometimes the things we love to do require much more effort and skill than the "other" things. These heart things often lead us to persevere more and to face challenges with a more stoic resolve because we simply refuse to fail. Chances are, in the final analysis we succeed because we keep failing forward.
May 13, 2010 at 1:20 | Unregistered CommenterEnitan Doherty-Mason
Penny, you're insightful and wrong all at once! I'd agree with you 100% BUT the supposed Yale (or Harvard or wherever -- it changes!) long term written goal setting study was never done. It was bullshit to $ELL people goal setting books, audio tapes, and seminars.
May 20, 2010 at 12:08 | Unregistered CommenterChristoph Dollis
I see you smart folks beat me to it on calling out the fraudulent goal setting study.
May 20, 2010 at 12:17 | Unregistered CommenterChristoph Dollis
Currently reading Shapiro's book. So far, so good.
August 12, 2011 at 15:59 | Unregistered CommenterAvrum
Re the imaginary study, here's an actual study:

People who wrote their goals down achieved 50% more than those who just verbalized goals.
August 15, 2011 at 22:57 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu

Interesting study, but I have some major queries about it. The study measured people's success at the goals they had written down. But there was no investigation as to whether these were the right goals for them.

The aim of Dreams and Autofocus is to let the right goals emerge, which is a rather different way of acting.

Also I note that the period chosen - in contrast to the mythical Harvard/Yale study - was a very short one of only 4 weeks.
August 16, 2011 at 1:56 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I did a 3-year experiment with Michael Neill where I lived by removing money and planning and future success from my decision-making criteria and only pursued things that felt fun and like a perfect "10" for me. I did no worse financially and have done many, many more interesting things. I could never predict where my next income was coming from, but it was somehow always there.

It turns out that this style of living corresponds almost exactly to the "effectual" style of entrepreneurship formalized by Professor Saras Sarasvathy at the University of Virginia. In short, by studying actual successful entrepreneurs and their approach to problems, it turns out that they rely NOT on planning and vision but on more of a controlled, iterative learning process with only a vague sense of direction. (

Life is the ultimate entrepreneurial venture!

The rather unfortunate postscript is that when the experiment officially ended this past January, my brain immediately snapped back to uber-planning, goal-driven mode and I've been pretty stressed ever since. I'm trying to find a way to get myself back into the other mode, but it hasn't been easy.
August 19, 2011 at 15:00 | Unregistered CommenterStever Robbins

That's very interesting. I guess that this pretty well describes how I've been working over the years, though I've never formulated it exactly as such. I've always hated planning, especially the detailed variety, and have always believed that one's goals emerge from life rather than the other way round.

P.S. How did Michael Neill do at the experiment?
August 19, 2011 at 18:26 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Wow - Stever Robbins and Mark engaging... I like this.

<<rather unfortunate postscript is that when the experiment officially ended this past January, my brain immediately snapped back to uber-planning>>

I'm curious why the experiment ended? And did it end because there was a date, or because Michael and you stopped working together?
August 21, 2011 at 13:47 | Registered Commenteravrum
"one's goals emerge from life rather than the other way round"

Come to think of it, I've lived most of my life without goals. It went pretty well, but ultimately lead nowhere.
August 21, 2011 at 17:25 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
"Life is what happens while you're making other plans ..."
Didn't John Lennon write something like that?

But I think the key to Mark's point is this bit above:
"It’s been far more a case of acting on opportunity out of a deeper feeling that I am taking the right action for me."

That deeper feeling would seem to be an undercurrent related to one's deep-seated, unwritten vision, which perhaps tends to surface when we "genuinely live without goals, positive or negative." You might call it "getting out of your own way," by doing what you feel driven to do rather than what you have rationally directed yourself to call your goals.

Come to think of it, I have accomplished all my best stuff that way, too.

I am seeing a connection to the "Dreams" process, except that here we are not trying to capture the vision in words. It sounds like "Goalless Living" points us toward Pull Mode by refusing to bow to "positive goals" (Push Mode) or "negative goals" (Drift Mode).

I'd be very interested in anyone's thoughts on or experiences with that.
August 22, 2011 at 3:11 | Registered CommenterBernie
In business, a common mantra says the business plan is vital, not because it will happen as planned, but vecause it provides a baseline from which to deviate. Without a plan a business will likely fail.

Life goals are probably similar. Pursuing the goal gets you on the waves. As you move, you may change your goal for new opportunity. But these would never be found if you weren't out looking.
August 22, 2011 at 4:08 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
I think it's the attitude to the goals that count. If you cannot be at peace unless you have achieved a goal you block the overriding goal of peace of mind - something AF promotes. Also, if the goal is an excuse to get away from the current circumstances that will block the goal of acceptance, or of changing yourself in response to what is.
September 11, 2011 at 12:27 | Registered Commentermichael
So AF may be seen as happiness by responding creatively to the moment - the inner mood and the outer circumstance. Very Zen.
September 11, 2011 at 13:01 | Registered Commentermichael
Compare & contrast:

"the best goal is no goal" by Leo Babauta
September 11, 2011 at 15:34 | Registered CommenterBernie
Solomon had much to say on the theme of goals, no goals, and enjoyment. One example:
Ecclesiastes 2:17 So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19 And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. 20 So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. 21 For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. 22 What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? 23 All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.
 24 A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?

So there is no point in goals and hard work unless there is enjoyment in them. So it seems to be in agreement with Mark's article and Leo's.
September 11, 2011 at 19:24 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
One of biggest myth repeating in personal development literature is for me SMART goals. It never worked for me, and I tried many years. At the end I realized that nothing I successfully achieved in my life could be “specified, measured etc.” at any exact (or at least approximate) level when I decided to go for this goal. I could not say “I want to find perfect wife, blonde, 170 cm of height”, I could not say “In a year, I want to be able to address a speech on a subject of X in University of Y”. That is nonsense for me. That all is partly luck, partly results of many situation we encounter and partly result of our general focus/vision. So for me – vision is very important. I have general vision and general goals which state to what direction to go. But specifying e.g. SMART week goals were very limiting, boring and not motivating for me. No room for surprise, no room for flexibility. So now, I am setting not SMART goals, but “week focus” – 3-5 general areas/project which I want to work on. No detailed specification usually. When I need deadline, I of course set it. But the rest are only directions, enabling you to enjoy fresh air and changes in the wind :-)
September 12, 2011 at 7:27 | Registered CommenterDaneb
Just for addition to my previous comment: SMART goals are technical, stem from linear thinking and they mean that you know your expected results before you actually start to go for them. General goals/directions on the other hand allow people to change as they approach to the goal and as they gain new experiences. So, they are flexible, experience-based. That is something I gained from Herminia Ibarra work (book Working Identity) and was of great importance for living my „goals“.
September 12, 2011 at 7:45 | Registered CommenterDaneb

I think SMART goals do have an important role. They are a technical way of agreeing what everyone is working towards - a specification of the same order as the specifications for a new building or a piece of machinery.

What is usually missing in the corporate world is any indication that each worker needs to translate the SMART goals into their own personal goals. And these should be phrased very differently.
September 12, 2011 at 8:56 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark: Yes, I totally agree, SMART goals are definitely correct in corporate world or anywhere where consensus is needed. But I was thinking about personal development and life management, where this technical and linear approach may be insufficient for certain type of personalities.
September 12, 2011 at 10:49 | Registered CommenterDaneb

Yes, you are quite right. Personal goals need to be stated in a very different manner. See my book "How to Make Your Dreams Come True" for some exercises in personal goal setting.

My point above though was not so much that SMART goals are correct in a corporate setting, but that it is extremely important that each worker translates the goals that they have been given into personal goals that are meaningful for them.
September 12, 2011 at 11:49 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Five years later, where did this thought lead you Mark?
October 12, 2013 at 13:28 | Unregistered Commentermichael
Re: no-goals

One might say, zen-like: If you just sit there and do nothing, will “nothing” be the result?
November 16, 2013 at 13:25 | Unregistered Commentermichael
No, you'll starve to death.
November 16, 2013 at 18:53 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I think the problem with goals is we make them too important, getting fixated on an outcome. Our motivation starts to depend on them. Better to give value and meaning to daily effort rather than fixate. They key is to make no outer event or circumstance so significant that we depend on it to motivate us.
April 12, 2014 at 20:27 | Unregistered Commentermichael

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