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The best goal is no goal

November 27, 2011 Leave a comment

“With the past, I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

The idea of having concrete, achievable goals seem to be deeply ingrained in our culture. I know I lived with goals for many years, and in fact a big part of my writings here on Zen Habits are about how to set and achieve goals.

These days, however, I live without goals, for the most part. It’s absolutely liberating, and contrary to what you might have been taught, it absolutely doesn’t mean you stop achieving things.

It means you stop letting yourself be limited by goals.

Consider this common belief: “You’ll never get anywhere unless you know where you’re going.” This seems so common sensical, and yet it’s obviously not true if you stop to think about it. Conduct a simple experiment: go outside and walk in a random direction, and feel free to change directions randomly. After 20 minutes, an hour … you’ll be somewhere! It’s just that you didn’t know you were going to end up there.

And there’s the rub: you have to open your mind to going places you never expected to go. If you live without goals, you’ll explore new territory. You’ll learn some unexpected things. You’ll end up in surprising places. That’s the beauty of this philosophy, but it’s also a difficult transition.

Today, I live mostly without goals. Now and then I start coming up with a goal, but I’m letting them go. Living without goals hasn’t ever been an actual goal of mine … it’s just something I’m learning that I enjoy more, that is incredibly freeing, that works with the lifestyle of following my passion that I’ve developed.

The problem with goals

In the past, I’d set a goal or three for the year, and then sub-goals for each month. Then I’d figure out what action steps to take each week and each day, and try to focus my day on those steps.

Unfortunately, it never, ever works out this neatly. You all know this. You know you need to work on an action step, and you try to keep the end goal in mind to motivate yourself. But this action step might be something you dread, and so you procrastinate. You do other work, or you check email or Facebook, or you goof off.

And so your weekly goals and monthly goals get pushed back or side-tracked, and you get discouraged because you have no discipline. And goals are too hard to achieve. So now what? Well, you review your goals and reset them. You create a new set of sub-goals and action plans. You know where you’re going, because you have goals!

Of course, you don’t actually end up getting there. Sometimes you achieve the goal and then you feel amazing. But most of the time you don’t achieve them and you blame it on yourself.

Here’s the secret: the problem isn’t you, it’s the system! Goals as a system are set up for failure.

Even when you do things exactly right, it’s not ideal. Here’s why: you are extremely limited in your actions. When you don’t feel like doing something, you have to force yourself to do it. Your path is chosen, so you don’t have room to explore new territory. You have to follow the plan, even when you’re passionate about something else.

Some goal systems are more flexible, but nothing is as flexible as having no goals.

How it works

So what does a life without goals look like? In practice, it’s very different than one with goals.

You don’t set a goal for the year, nor for the month, nor for the week or day. You don’t obsess about tracking, or actionable steps. You don’t even need a to-do list, though it doesn’t hurt to write down reminders if you like.

What do you do, then? Lay around on the couch all day, sleeping and watching TV and eating Ho-Hos? No, you simply do. You find something you’re passionate about, and do it. Just because you don’t have goals doesn’t mean you do nothing — you can create, you can produce, you can follow your passion.

And in practice, this is a wonderful thing: you wake up and do what you’re passionate about. For me, that’s usually blogging, but it can be writing a novel or an ebook or my next book or creating a course to help others or connecting with incredible people or spending time with my wife or playing with my kids. There’s no limit, because I’m free.

In the end, I usually end up achieving more than if I had goals, because I’m always doing something I’m excited about. But whether I achieve or not isn’t the point at all: all that matters is that I’m doing what I love, always.

I end up in places that are wonderful, surprising, great. I just didn’t know I would get there when I started.

Quick questions

Question from a reader: Isn’t having no goals a goal?

Quick answer: It can be a goal, or you can learn to do it along the journey, by exploring new methods. I’m always learning new things (like having no goals) without setting out to learn them in the first place.

Another question from a reader: So how do you make a living?

Answer: Passionately! Again, not having goals doesn’t mean you stop doing things. In fact, I do many things, all the time, but I do them because I love doing them.

Tips for living without goals

I am not going to give you a how-to manual for living without goals — that would be absurd. I can’t teach you what to do — you need to find your own path.

But I can share some things I’ve learned, in hopes that it will help you:

  • Start small. You don’t need to drastically overhaul your life in order to learn to live without goals. Just go a few hours without predetermined goals or actions. Follow your passion for those hours. Even an hour will do.
  • Grow. As you get better at this, start allowing yourself to be free for longer periods — half a day or a whole day or several days. Eventually you’ll feel confident enough to give up on certain goals and just do what you love.
  • Not just work. Giving up goals works in any area of your life. Take health and fitness: I used to have specific fitness goals, from losing weight or bodyfat to running a marathon to increasing my squat. Not anymore: now I just do it because I love it, and I have no idea where that will take me. It works brilliantly, because I always enjoy myself.
  • Let go of plans. Plans are not really different than goals. They set you on a predetermined path. But it’s incredibly difficult to let go of living with plans, especially if you’re a meticulous planner like I am. So allow yourself to plan, when you feel you need to, but slowly feel free to let go of this habit.
  • Don’t worry about mistakes. If you start setting goals, that’s OK. There are no mistakes on this journey — it’s just a learning experience. If you live without goals and end up failing, ask yourself if it’s really a failure. You only fail if you don’t get to where you wanted to go — but if you don’t have a destination in mind, there’s no failure.
  • It’s all good. No matter what path you find, no matter where you end up, it’s beautiful. There is no bad path, no bad destination. It’s only different, and different is wonderful. Don’t judge, but experience.

And finally

Always remember: the journey is all. The destination is beside the point.

‘A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.’ ~Lao Tzu

Categories: Perfection

Create Time to Change Your Life

November 26, 2011 Leave a comment

When I decided to change my life a little over 5 years ago, I had a very common problem: I didn’t have the time.

I wanted to exercise and find time for my family and eat healthier (instead of the fast-food junk I’d been eating) and read more and write and be more productive and increase my income.

Unfortunately there are only 24 hours in a day, and we sleep for about 8 of them. Subtract the hours we spend eating (3), showering and dressing and fixing up (1), cleaning and running errands (1), driving (2), working (8) … and you’re left with an hour or two at most. Often less.

Eventually I figured out how to do all the things I wanted to do. I’veachieved all of that and more, and in fact I have more leisure time now than ever. But first I had to figure out the fundamental problem: how could I find the time to change my life?

I know many of you face the same problem — you’ve told me as much. So I thought I’d share some of what I did in the beginning, in hopes that it’ll help.

The First Step

You must make a commitment. You have to decide that you really want to make a change, and that it’s more important than almost anything else.

For me, only my family was more important — and in fact I was making these change for my family as well as for myself. So these changes I was making were really my top priority in life.

It has to be that urgent for you. Think of this not as “improving your life” but saving it. The changes I made saved my life — I am so much healthier, my marriage is better, my relationships with my kids have improved, I am happier rather than depressed.

If you don’t feel you’re saving your life then you won’t make the tough changes needed.

Next Steps

Once I made the mental commitment, I took small steps to give myself a little wiggle room to breathe and move:

  • Cut out TV. I watched less TV than ever before (eventually I watched none, though now I watch a few shows a week over the Internet). For many people this one change will free up a couple hours or more.
  • Read less junk. I used to read a lot of things on the Internet that were just entertainment. Same with magazines. I cut that stuff out early so I could focus on what was more important.
  • Go out less. I used to go to a lot of movies and to dinner and drinking. I cut that out (mostly) for awhile, to make time.
  • Wake earlier. Not everyone is going to do this but it was a good step for me. I found that I had more time exercising and working in the morning before anyone woke up — the world was quiet and at peace and without interruptions. (Read more.)

In general, find the things that eat up your time that are less important than the changes you want to make. That’s almost everything except the things you need to live — work and eating and stuff like that. Cut back on them where you can.

Simplify Commitments

I had a lot of commitments in my life — I coached soccer, was on the PTA board, served on a lot of committees at work, had social commitments as well, worked on a number of projects.

Slowly I cut them out. They seemed important but in truth none of them were as important as the life I wanted to create, the changes I wanted to make. Lots of things are important — but which are the absolute most important? Make a decision.

If you are having trouble making a decision, try an experiment. Cut out a commitment just for a little while. See whether you suffer from cutting it out, or whether you like the extra time.

If you’re worried about offending people, don’t. Send an email or make a phone call and explain that you’d love to keep doing the commitment but you just don’t have the time and don’t want to half-ass it. The person might try to talk you into staying but be firm — respect yourself and your time and the changes you’re trying to make.

Here’s a secret: the people and organizations you’ve been helping or working with will live. They will go on doing what they were doing without you, and (omg!) they will survive without you. Your departure will not cause the world to collapse. Let go of the guilt.

Streamline Your Life

Eventually I made many other changes, including:

  • Making bills and savings and debt payments automatic. I set everything up online so that I wouldn’t have to run errands or spend time making payments. This put my debt reduction on automatic, and I got out of debt. (Read more.)
  • Streamlining errands. I tried to cut as many errands out of my life as possible. Often that meant changing my life in some way but I adjusted and things became simpler. I cleaned as I went so I didn’t have a lot of cleaning to do on weekends. I did the few errands I had all at once to save running around.
  • Work less. I would set limits to how much I could work, forcing myself to pick the important tasks and to get those tasks done on time. I learned which tasks needed to be done and which could be dropped. I became much more effective and worked less.
  • Say no. When people asked me to do stuff that was important to them but not to me, I learned to politely decline. Instead I focused on what was important to me.

Slowly I learned to simplify. I simplified my daily routines, my work, my social life, my possessions, my chores, my wardrobe. It took time but it has been more than worth the effort: life is so much better now that I’ve created the time to do what I want to do.

Categories: Perfection

How to Start

November 26, 2011 Leave a comment

‘There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth…not going all the way, and not starting.’ ~Buddha

How do you start something new?

Whether it’s beginning an exercise program, getting going with a task you want to complete, or creating a new business or product from scratch — how do you get started?

It’s one of the most intimidating things. It’s the lack of starting that kills most tasks and projects.

Procrastination is putting off the start. Your new venture gets put off because the start is too hard.

How I Started

When I started Zen Habits, I had no idea how to start. I looked at other blogs and it was intimidating what they’d accomplished: not only thousands of readers but hundreds of articles, a killer blog design, their own domain name, all kinds of services and ebooks and T-shirts and other things going on.

I couldn’t do all that — I had a job (two actually) and a family with six kids. So I skipped it all and did one thing: I chose a random name that felt right, and created a free account on blogger.

That was incredibly easy, and I felt great.

Then I did one more thing: I did a short post reflecting on some things I’d been doing. Basically just a journal entry. I was out in the world for the first time!

This was my start. It wasn’t hard — in fact, so easy I couldn’t refuse to start. Eventually I did all the things everyone else did, but that came later. At the start, I did just one thing, and then another.

Start a Task

If you read my Un-Procrastination ebook, you know how easy it was to read. Short chapters, easy reading, you could be done in a short amount of time. I purposely made it easy, so you wouldn’t procrastinate.

But then someone said, “It’s easier to read the book than implement it!”

Too true. Unless you make it even easier to get started.

How do you start on a task when you’re procrastinating because it’s too hard? You make it super easy.

First, pick a task. Is that too hard? Randomly choose one, to make it easy on yourself.

If you’ve picked a task and it seems too hard to get started, make it even easier: just do one minute. If that’s too hard, just do 20 seconds. That’s so easy you can’t say no.

Whatever the task, if you’re procrastinating, make it easier. The key is to just get started. If you want to go beyond the 20 seconds, keep going. If not, do another 20 seconds after you’ve taken a break and wiped the hard-earned sweat off your brow.

Start a Habit

How do you start a habit? Some people have no trouble starting — it’s the sticking-to-it that’s hard. But others have been wanting to do something for years and just can’t get into it.

Either way, you want to start as easy as possible.

Starting is the key to a habit. If you don’t start, you won’t ever make it a habit. So make it as easy as possible. Want to exercise? Just lace up your shoes and get out the door. Even just 5 minutes is all you need.

What if you want to do much more, because you’re excited? Don’t. Start as simply as possible. Why? Because the sticking-to-it is made much, much easier if you are doing a tiny habit. Try forming the habit of running for 30 minutes a day, and then try the habit of 5 minutes of running a day. Which do you stick with longer? I can already tell you the answer: the easy one.

If you want a habit to stick, start so incredibly simply that you can’t fail. Later, you can iterate on the habit until it’s at the level you really want. But start easy.

Start a New Venture

You’re finally ready to channel your powerful creative energy into a new project. Not just an ordinary work project, but one that will be a new venture for you — one that will start a new business, a new life, and make your mark upon this dense earth.

But you’re putting it off. There’s too much to be done, and you’re already busy. It’s intimidating to get started.

Start as simply as humanly possible. How simple can you make this new business? How simple can you make the product? Make it even simpler.

Let your new business or product do just one thing. And then make it do less of that one thing. Sure, later you can iterate and add a feature or two, but as you get started, do as little as possible.

You won’t be able to fail to start, and in the start is everything. It is where new worlds are created, new journeys begun, new lives born.

‘There are two kinds of people, those who finish what they start and so on.’ ~Robert Byrne

Categories: Perfection

How to Finish

November 26, 2011 Leave a comment

There are two kinds of people, those who finish what they start and so on.’ ~Robert Byrne

The early draft of this post sat in my system for about a week. How’s that for irony?

Many of us are good at starting things — it’s the finishing that we need help with.

The truth is, it might seem funny that my post on “How to Finish” sat unfinished for 7 days, but I’m actually decent at finishing. I start a whole bunch of articles and books, and let those ideas germinate. When I’m ready to focus on them, I get them to done pretty easily.

How? Many people wrote in to ask me to write a post called “How to Finish” after I wrote about How to Start. Reader Anthony Zullo, for example, asked:

“You know when you get to the middle of a project, like a novel and start to lose motivation. Well, how do you develop that motivation after you’re half way up the hill but not yet walking downhill yet?”

I don’t have all the answers, but I’ll gladly share what works for me.

Motivation

For me, finishing is all about motivation. If you’re having a difficult time finishing, it’s best to look closely at why you want to finish in the first place.

If the task or project isn’t something you want to do, consider the consequences of dropping it. I’ve done this often and it’s a relief when I finally drop something I didn’t really want to do in the first place.

If you really do want to do the task/project, ask why. What do you get out of it? Do you love doing it? Is there some benefit you’ll get? Visualize that — it might get you going.

If you need more motivation, find a way to give yourself some public accountability. Set a deadline, do a blog post, tweet about finishing. A little positive public pressure can be a good thing.

Get Moving

Make it ridiculously easy to get started. Make the task so small, so easy, you can’t say no — make it just 1 minute long, for example, or even just 20 seconds.

Use the same tip for finishing: break your task into tiny little mini-steps, and just get started on each one by making them so easy you can’t *not* do it. And keep doing that, repeatedly, until you’re done.

It’s that simple. If you can’t write a whole chapter of your book or report, just write a paragraph or two. Take a walk around for a minute, then write another paragraph or two. Keep doing this until you’re done.

Then go out and tell the world you finished. It’s awesome.

Categories: Perfection

Tired of Being Tired

November 26, 2011 Leave a comment

‘A man grows most tired while standing still.’ ~Chinese proverb

It’s tough being tired all day. I’ve had days like this, when I’m struggling through the day and don’t have the energy to tackle anything that matters.

Hell, I’ve had years like this.

When you’re tired, not much seems appealing. Life is dulled, and you don’t get much accomplished. Worst, you don’t have the energy to change the situation.

These days I don’t have many days like this, but when I do, I rest. We have gotten good at ignoring our body’s signals — much of our lives is training our minds to pretend our bodies aren’t tired, so we can be more productive.

This is wrong. It ends up in burnout and less production, because we inevitably run out of energy. Listen to your body — your long-term health and sanity depend on it.

Why We’re Tired

Mostly we’re tired because we don’t rest enough. Yeah, I know: duh, Leo. But if it’s so obvious, why do we ignore it?

The Spanish famously have siestas. When I get tired, so do I. It’s a luxury not everyone can afford, but even when I had a day job I would find ways to sneak into a back room and take a power nap of 20 minutes.

We don’t rest enough. It’s not as important as other things: waking early, getting stuff done, attending to a thousand meetings, being sucked into the world of online connections and reading, god-forsaken television.

So we cut rest in favor of these other things that are much more important, and then wonder why our energy levels are low.

But there’s more. If you’re like me, you drink coffee in the morning. You might drink more later in the morning, to keep yourself energized. By the time afternoon rolls around, you’re in caffeine withdrawal. This is often why people are sapped by mid-afternoon.

We also run ourselves too fast, like a sprint, when life is much longer than a sprint. Try it: go outside and sprint all-out for two minutes. Stop, breathe for a sec, then sprint again. See how long you can keep that up — most can’t go very long. Our days are like a series of sprints.

Note: Sometimes chronic fatigue can be a sign of deeper problems. For athletes, it’s often a sign of overtraining. For others, it could be a sign of depression or other medical issues. If it’s a continuing problem, I’d recommend getting checked out, just in case.

How to Get Started When You’re Too Tired to Start

My first suggestion is to take a nap. If you’re too tired to take other steps, taking a nap is easy. If you can’t take a nap, at the very least disconnect from digital devices. Computers and smartphones are powerful tools, but being on them for too long tires us out.

Disconnect, get outside, take a walk. Cancel an appointment or two if you can. Stretch. Massage your shoulders. Close your eyes for a few minutes. Breathe.

These are small things you can do right away, and they will help you become more rested.

More Solutions

Once you’ve taken the first steps, you’ll be a bit more rested and can take a few more steps:

1. Sleep more at night. If you’re not getting at least 7 hours of sleep, you’re probably getting too little. Lots of people need a full 8 hours, and some need more. Go to bed earlier — the Internet will be fine without you. I like to read before bed (a book, not websites) as a ritual

that helps me sleep. It takes awhile before your sleeping patterns change. If you have insomnia.

2. Take stretch breaks. We sit for too long at the computer, sapping energy. Get up, stretch, every 20-25 minutes. Walk around for a minute or five. Move in any way you can — do pushups, squats, lunges, jump up and down, do a dance. Get the blood circulating.

3. Exercise regularly. You needed me to tell you to exercise, I’m sure. But it’s amazing how even a little exercise can help you to feel more energized throughout the day. A huge workout session can leave you exhausted — in which case you should rest — but shorter workouts leave you physically just a bit tired, but mentally you feel amazing.

4. Cut back the caffeine. If you go cold turkey with caffeine, you’ll really have no energy. But cutting back a little at a time, while doing some of the things mentioned here, won’t be bad. And you’ll skip the afternoon withdrawal, which can ruin half your day. If you feel tired from drinking less caffeine, take a short nap.

5. Be less busy. Seriously, we’re too busy these days. Cut back on commitments, put space between things, allow yourself to have a slower pace. Your energy levels will thank you.

6. Focus. While most people multitask, in truth that’s mental juggling. And there’s only so much you can do in a day. As most of you know, I advocate single-tasing — it’s basically doing one thing at a time, and being fully present while doing that task. This really transforms anything you do, from work tasks to conversations to chores like washing the dishes. It’s less tiring, mentally, and it can make anything you do more enjoyable. Life is less tiring when you single-task.

7. Hydrate. This is actually a huge factor that most people don’t realize is making them tired. Drink water throughout the day. You don’t really need 8 glasses of water (we get some in food and other drinks), but drinking more water doesn’t hurt. Your pee should be a light yellow if you’re well hydrated (not clear, definitely not dark yellow).

8. Freshen up. Sometimes a quick, cold shower in the afternoon or evening can be refreshing. Or change your socks. If you’re sweaty, a fresh outfit also helps. Wash your face. You’ll feel brand-new.

9. Work on something you’re excited about. If you’re passionate about something, you’ll feel energized. If you don’t really care about your work, you’ll be dragging.

10. Work with interesting people. If you work with other people who are passionate about something, you’ll feel more excited about the work you do. It’s incredible to work with a partner or group of people who care about what they’re doing, who are fired up. If you don’t have that, seek it out.

11. Learn what makes life effortless. We thrash about in the water all day, making the swim exhausting. Instead of working against the world, learn to glide. I write about this more in my new book, The Effortless Life, which comes out next week. More soon!

‘A lot of people are tired around here, but I’m not sure they’re ready to lie down, stretch out and fall asleep.’ ~Jim Jones

Categories: Perfection

Start Slow

November 26, 2011 Leave a comment

If there is any one indication that life is best lived slowly , it’s that          among all of the busyness, racing to fulfill tasks and rushing to complete  goals, there is one race that nobody wants to finish first: the race of life   itself.

Our culture has a mild obsession with racing — not racing for the sake of sport or simple competition, but racing through many aspects of our lives, so as to fulfill a sense of productivity.

When conquer sprawling to-do lists we hopes that we will feelaccomplished.

But “productivity” is a false-comfort.

When I remember back to my college days, I recall seeing fellow classmates who were so obsessive about fulfilling the idea that they needed to be constantly working, racing, striving and even sufferingthat they would spend as much time as humanly possibly within the confines of the campus library.

It’s not that they didn’t have work to do or need to accomplish assignments (they did).

But what I realized was that it was almost an obsessive-compulsion to simply reside — as if subconsciously reinforcing a feeling that they were being “productive,” and obliging a widely-shared notion by our culture that said, “if you aren’t constantly working, you are falling behind.”

Do you do the same?

Outside of a collegiate environment, as adults we still largely obsess to fulfill the idea that living in a constant state of unrelenting work is good.

The obsession is a quiet, subconscious, subtle cultural meme that we all inherently understand as members of our society.

And so we spend a significant portion of our lives tirelessly racing to an imaginary finish under the guise of “productivity” — only to realize that the finish line never comes.

Before long, we forget that life itself is about experiencing the journey — not racing to the finish.

And considering that take so many measures to prolong the length of our lives and increase the quality of them, wouldn’t it logically follow that we ought to slow down each and every day, and escape this senseless “race” mentality?

Start Slow

I’m as much a victim of the “race” mentality as anyone else. But what I have discovered is that the pace and quality of my days are largely dictated by how I start my days each morning.

When I wake up, part of me feels obsessively compelled to “dive in” to my work and to-do lists.However, each morning I strive to quell those feelings by starting slow.

  • I will go for a run or immerse myself in nature.
  • I’ll do an hour of slow yoga.
  • I will practice mindful breathing while accomplishing a short t’ai chi or qigong routine.
  • I’ll read a chapter or two of a good book.

Starting slow is less about what you do, but beginning the day in accordance with a sense of inner peace, patience, and contentment.

And, don’t get me wrong: starting slow can feel like an agonizing affair on some mornings.

Our self-imposed demands to constantly work, strive and race feel like an overwhelming addiction — and all we want to do is quell those subconscious demons in our heads that tell us that slowness, quietness, and simple “being” are wrong.

However, every morning that I choose to “start slow,” something amazing happens.

I am calm, relaxed, and balanced throughout the day. Each moment feels like a gift, and not merely an “opportunity” to accomplish goals or fulfill tasks — as if sand in an hour glass that needs to be consumed by “racing.”

When I start slow, I am naturally more productive — and feel more accomplished by the day’s end.

How to Start Slow

Here’s how you can start to begin your days slowly:

  • Write a list 5 activities, hobbies, or practices.
  • Choose activities that are positive, constructive and/or healthy.
  • Try one for every weekday morning of next week.
  • Wake up earlier or go to bed sooner to best ensure you have plenty of time and energy to experience the moment.
  • Focus on patience, pace, and calmness when you “start slow” each morning.

Starting slow paces each day in accordance with a natural internal balance: a meaningful peace within that resonates with our human core, and denies the obsessive addiction to the race.

Life itself is not a race. Nobody wins by finishing first. We all strive to live as long as we possibly can.

And when we make the little effort to “start slow” each morning, we remember to dedicate ourselves to the journey of life itself — and not the race to reach its finish.

Categories: Perfection