How to create success without setting goals

Making resolutions and setting big goals are expected when the year comes to a close and a new one is set to begin. Nearly half of Americans usually make New Year’s resolutions. But less than 10 percent actually achieve them. And goal-setting, at any time of the year, often involves lofty aspirations and ambitious to-dos that don’t necessarily serve you well.

While goal-setting is meant to move you in the desired direction, it can do the opposite. It frequently fuels anxiety and heightens stress in a way that interferes with real progress. An outcome-based goal is a milestone, benchmark or metric that is not always met and, even when met, doesn’t always provide a deep sense of meaning.

If you hate setting goals or don’t find them particularly helpful, try a different approach that focuses on what you control and what drives you in the present.

This internally-oriented approach involves three main components:

1. Clarify your purpose 

Start by determining your top priorities, core values, and BIG WHY behind what you do and want to do.

Ask yourself what positive feelings you want to derive from the life you lead and create. Pick one to three defining words or themes to shape your year (or a shorter time period, such as 3 months or 6 months, if you prefer).

In 2006, my word was Adventure. It led me to jump out of an airplane and tandem skydive, say yes to more social events, and go rock climbing on a cliff.

In 2016, my word was Fluidity. I honed a work-life mix that involved doing extended work in the morning; playing/chatting with my toddler, responding to phone calls and emails, running errands, and working in short bursts during the day; enjoying family time over dinner; doing focused work after my kid went to bed; and then reflecting, planning and winding down.

When you define how you want to act in life and relate to others, you can make conscious choices and take deliberate action that align with your heartfelt wishes. You keep what’s vital to you and your environment and clear out the non-essentials.

“Success is a feeling; it’s not necessarily an accumulation.” – Simon Senek, author of Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.

“Stay anchored to the desired feeling, and open to the form in which it manifests.” – Danielle La Porte in The Desire Map: A Guide to Creating Goals with Soul.

2. Focus on the process

Develop systems that do not rely on willpower to get the right things done. Be curious about what works and what doesn’t, build healthy habits, and develop routines and schedules that keep you on track no matter what. Concentrate on daily progress, instead of accomplishing the big goal.

Let go of limiting beliefs about what you should do and not do. I would not have started my own law firm, at the time that I did, if I held on to the belief that being successful meant having a brick-and-mortar office, hiring a full-time staff, and having more clients than I could personally handle. By building a remotely-run law practice from the ground up, I have a profitable business that gives me the freedom and flexibility to set my agenda, carefully choose clients and turn down cases, and work only on issues that interest me.

If you own a business, you cannot control how many products you sell or how many new clients you get in a month. But you can control how you engage with your community, treat existing customers, deliver and design a work product, respond to inquiries, and market your business.

Realize there are many paths to get to an ideal state. There’s no shame in choosing the easiest and quickest path (although taking a tough and long one is okay, too.)

If you’re a chronic multitasker who wants to develop mindfulness, you may start with mindful eating, instead of a formal meditation practice. Chew your food 30 times before you swallow. Pay attention to the taste, smell, look and texture. Notice when you get hungry and how full you feel before, during and after you eat. Think about the origins of what you ingest and digest.

It’s rare to achieve life-changing goals in the time frame and in the way that you plan. Commit to an effective process and take deliberate actions that naturally lead to positive, long-term results. Drop your fixation on specific outcomes and stay open to exploring new opportunities and shifting gears.

“Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do.” – Scott Adams, creator of the syndicated Dilbert cartoons and author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life.

3. Be kind to yourself

Above all, practice self-compassion. An internally-oriented approach to creating success doesn’t mean you will experience magical bliss and no anxiety or stress.

You will face shifting priorities, conflicting values and competing commitments that generate a sense of incompleteness and even guilt. You come back to the present, stop punishing yourself for things left undone, and acknowledge the actions you did take.

When your intentions fall through, don’t just throw up your hands and call yourself a failure. Decide whether you really want to do or create this thing. And if you do, roll up your sleeves. And. GET. TO. WORK.

Know that whether the important step is taken or the end goal is achieved, you are enough. Completing the marathon, building a sustainable business, launching your podcast, and raising a self-reliant child are all spectacular objectives. But failure to achieve them does not take away from your personal worth and individual contributions.

Radical self-acceptance is more effective than grand self-loathing. Acceptance is not the same as tolerating and putting up with crap. It is being aware of what is within your control and what is not. Acceptance doesn’t mean you will never change or change things for the better, but rather that the change comes from a healthier, stronger, and more grounded place.

“As you learn self-acceptance, realize that it is always available to you, and you can have it no matter what you do. You can learn, create interesting things, make connections with others, with self-acceptance at the center of that.” – Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits. 

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Goal-setting can be a very useful planning tool for achieving what you seek. But an outcome-based mindset is not necessary to creating success. When you can be with yourself unconditionally and fully appreciate where you’re at, you’re more likely to make choices and act in accordance with what you truly want. Only then do you have genuine success.


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Photo by: Andrew Stawarz