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An Alternative To Goals

It’s that time of year again when a lot of us create new goals and plans for how to reach them. The beginning of a new year is a hugely optimistic time and I think all of us do a lot of thinking about what we’d like to have or develop in the upcoming year.

Although I do spend time at the end of one year/beginning of the next thinking about things I’d like to have, do, or improve in the upcoming year, I have found myself settling into a much more fluid way of creating and achieving goals. So much so, that the term “goal” might not even be appropriate. (But, we don’t need to be that nit-picky.)

Creating Goals

Part of my issue with goals is the setting of them in the first place. In the past, I might sit down at a specific time for the specific purpose of creating goals, maybe categorized by different areas of my life. But what I found was that my best goals sort of just “arose” in their own time.

When I sat down with the specific purpose of creating goals, sometimes they just felt uninspired or forced. So, even though it was the new year I might not come up with any goals that really made me feel something. My best goal that I created that year, may have popped into my mind while I was at the grocery store or sitting at my desk at work.

Goals and Desires and Swimming

Which brings me to my next point. The word “goal” has a very purposeful connotation, but, really, isn’t a goal just a want or a desire? It just sounds a little better than saying, “here are my desires for the year.” The word “desires” is a little fuzzier. But, for me, that’s why I think I like it.

In the course of your days and weeks, you are exposed to so many things that it’s almost impossible to not to have desires creep up on you. And these, I think, make the best goals.

A couple of years ago now, I’m not sure why, but the desire to do some swimming for exercise popped into my mind. Although I can swim, I’m not a swimmer – not for exercise or competition or anything more than wading in the ocean or enjoying a pool in the summertime. But the thought wouldn’t leave me.

Over the next eight or nine months, the idea of swimming stayed with me, but I didn’t have access to a pool and wasn’t really sure how well I would do swimming laps – if I had the skill or endurance.

The thought kind of incubated in mind over these months, but I didn’t take any action. It just didn’t feel right. And then, one day, it felt right.

It was like, the idea had gestated and now felt ready to be put into action. I can’t explain this really well. It’s just a feeling that I get. I feel particularly energized and attracted to whatever it is that I want to do. Almost like I’m being pulled toward it and I can’t stop that pull (but I don’t want to).

I joined the local YMCA, bought an appropriate bathing suit and some goggles and got in the water. (By the way, I was pretty bad at first! I found lap swimming very difficult and had trouble making it one length of the pool. But there was something telling me to just keep going, so I did.)

Long story short, I started swimming, was not very good, but eventually was talking to another swimmer at the pool who recommended a “learn to swim” program that I did end up buying and following, and I’m happy to report that I’ve gotten a lot better and swimming is now much more enjoyable.

So, I guess you could say that I reached my goal in this situation. But the truth is that I’m not sure it was ever really a goal in the first place. Swimming was just a desire that arose one day for me, and I followed the feeling of that desire to it’s completion. (And, really, there is no completion because I’m still swimming and still improving, and will always.)

Goals, Your Gut and The Road Ahead

Sometimes I think that setting goals requires you to “use your eyes” too much, rather than your gut. You look out into your life and see the things that are missing, and then you try to fill those in.

My goal of swimming didn’t fill any particular purpose in my life. If I had sat down and taken a good look at my life, I wouldn’t have seen learning to swim as filling in any holes in my life. It just came to me one day, and I couldn’t let it go. The opportunity arose and I took it, even though it sort of came out of left field.

Goals can make you think that you’ve got everything under control. That you’ve planned it all out, and with perfect execution you can get exactly to where you thought you would go.

But then something happens. Maybe a good thing, maybe a bad thing, but a thing nonetheless and reaching your goal becomes that much more difficult. Or, you just don’t have the motivation to follow it anymore. Any you realize that no matter what you planned out, the Universe sometimes just has different plans for you.

So, really, goals aren’t necessary. You’ll still have wants and desires (and if you want to call them goals, go ahead, this is really just a semantics thing and the way that I like to think about it), and if the opportunity arises and it feels right you can follow them. And if it stops feeling right, you can drop them. Or just maintain them without growing them. Anyway is fine.

I’m not really sure that at this point in my life I have goals anymore. I have things that I want, I have desires and I do follow them. But mostly, I see what comes up in front of me and take the opportunities that I get.

It feels good not to think that I can plan everything out and get there just the way I thought (although sometimes this thinking does creep back into my mind). And it’s probably more realistic.

I’ll get to where I’m going. It’ll probably just be a really winding, twisty kind of road.

Published inPersonal Growth


  1. I can relate to this approach, and my own is similar. While I do still make use of solid goals these days, I have simplified the practice in recent years. Most of my concrete, deadline-oriented goals pertain to my writing. A lot of my goals are small, daily things, as well, what most people would call a “to-do” list. Feels more manageable that way sometimes.

    And, the goals I do set are broader in many cases than those of most people. They are often pursuant to the type of person I want to become.

    I particularly relate to the notion of just one day feeling like it’s time to do something. (As in your and your swimming.) It’s like there are all these gears turning in a clock, and only when they are lined up just right does the chime strike, and then off you go.

    In short, I suppose goals such as these point to a large goal of being present in one’s life, as opposed to trying to lay out one’s coming year like a power point presentation that makes us look oh so together and professional in the eyes of everyone else.

  2. Amanda Linehan Amanda Linehan

    Hi Ty – I really like your clock metaphor, and, yes, that is what it feels like. One day I just hear the chime, and at this point, I know that means it’s time to act! And, yeah, I think presence has a lot to do with it.

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