Trade Goals for Values

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We are a goal-driven and goal-oriented society; we've been taught to believe that only good things come to those who set goals. Every New Year, those who want a better future get out a pen and paper and set realistic and measurable goals.

While there is a time and place for some types of goals, there is also value in living a goal-less life. Perhaps you've participated the New Year "set and fail cycle" before — set a goal, don't reach your goal, and feel guilty. Promise to do better next year. For many people, goal setting leads to frustration, guilt, and feelings of inadequacy.

The solution? Exploring and clarifying your values instead of setting measurable goals. Not having goals is not the same as lacking direction. Goals come from our values, calling, or bent in life. We all consciously or subconsciously have a destination to which we are traveling.

Goal setting is our attempt to break those bigger vision items into smaller and more manageable sections and segments. (See also: Goal Setting: Defined and Deconstructed)

The Problem: Setting the Wrong Goals

The problem is that we're not usually very good at setting goals that really focus the direction of our life. In 2011, I had the goal of writing a book. I did write that book (The Secret to a Successful Budget), but I also sacrificed a lot of valuable things along the way.

Goals give us such intense focus that it's quite possible that we put on blinders to the things that bring our lives true meaning and true joy. Life is so fluid and unpredictable that perhaps we're better off accepting events as they come rather than trying to control the outcome of a year. 

Determining Values Instead of Goals

What if, instead of setting goals, you simply acknowledged your values?

For example, in 2012, I determined that relationships were important to me. As a result, my focus was on maximizing the opportunities I had to spend with friends and family.

The result was that I took three months off and traveled with my wife and kids. I'd take days off work to go and visit friends who happened to be passing through town. Our family attempted to say “yes” whenever we had the opportunity to be with friends or family.

Life is so fluid, so transient, and so fleeting that goals can easily become obsolete or a distraction.

So, what do you value?

If you value fitness and health, then you'll be looking for opportunities to explore and improve your fitness level. Instead of staying, "I'm going to exercise for 30 minutes four mornings a week," you could just simply decide to exercise when given an opportunity. Sometimes that may be in the morning, and sometimes that will be in the afternoon. At times you might feel like an hour run and on other occasions you might rather do a 20 minute workout video.

If you truly value something, it will find expression in your activity — with or without goals.

Let Goals Flow From Your Values

I'm a person who seeks to conform my life with my faith. Thus, honoring God is one of my values. Sometimes I never know how that will express itself at any given time. However, there could easily be a knock at the door or a chance meeting that causes me to do something in light of my faith.

While goals narrow your view, values broaden them. Values allow you to ask if an unpredicted event conforms to your values. How would a person who values family respond in this situation? How would a person who values faith respond in this situation?

Does This Mean You Shouldn't Set Specific Productivity Goals?

The answer depends on your temperament. In life, events often conflict with your goals. That could lead to frustration and disappointment. If you have a habit of failing at goals and the emotional results are negative, then try skipping goals entirely. This might not be a lifelong change, but an experiment in value-oriented living.

As an example, let's return to a discussion about fitness.

A goal says that you'll exercise for 30 minutes every morning at 7 a.m.  

While you can value health and fitness, you can also decide that an unexpected activity should trump your workout schedule. As an example, when I'm traveling with family, I often don't exercise.  


During family travels, you're likely out of your normal schedule. With two values (spending time with family and fitness), you may need to decide to do only one of the two. One of the problems with goals is that they can often conflict with each other, forcing you to do too much or causing you to feel guilty. However, value-based decisions recognize the fluidity of life and allow you to make an adjustment based on your circumstances. 

Goals work in a rigid life context, but they provide less value when your life is full of change, transition, and pattern-less living.

Instead of setting new goals in 2013, try evaluating your values, and live a value-focused life instead of a goal-driven life.

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Trade Goals for Values

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