How to Set Stoic Goals
by Rob Thompson
For many years goals fixated me. I’ve long been a planner and a goal setter. 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.
I’ve been learning a different way over the last few years. It’s a radical shift in thinking and doing, to a freer-flowing mode of being. I’ve realized two things:
- Goals (wanting to improve) are not consistent with contentment (being happy with where you are).
- Goals are not necessary (I thought they were for a long time, but they’re not).
To illustrate these points, take a typical day:
I wake and have a goal to exercise for a fixed period of time. Some days I hit my goal and I allow myself to feel good as I drive to work. If I woke later than planned and didn’t hit my exercise goal, I drove to work feeling bad. Once in my car, I have a goal to get to my job by a certain time. At work, goal achievement links to every activity. After work I go to the supermarket. I have a goal of buying everything on my shopping list. Across the whole day I try to walk far and long enough to hit a 10 000 step goal. I try to get eight hours sleep. In other words, I’m attempting to hit a goal even when I’m not conscious! During my evening meditation, I reflect back and decide if the day was a success or not. Areas for improvement revolve around the question, did I meet all of my goals or not?
So it’s fair to say that almost every activity we do has a purpose, a goal in mind. Do you define success as achieving similar goals? But what would happen if we gave up on goals? Could you still be a success? What would a life without goals be like?
Realise this: We often think goals are necessary to achieve something, but in reality they’re not.
Goals, as I define them, are something that has a set outcome … but why is that outcome the only good outcome? There are many, many great outcomes, and having a focus on one is too limiting.
Goals are completely made up, with not a lot of information about what will happen in the future as we work on them. We invent them, out of some fantasy of how we want the future to go, but in truth they’re not realistic. And we can’t predict or control how the future will go, so setting goals is a useless activity.
Without any specific goals you have to work out what success means for you, then ask if this definition is acceptable or not. What’s the point in chasing a goal, if when you get there you realise that it wasn’t what you wanted in the first place?
What does success look like?
I’ve realised that there are lots of ways of deciding what success looks like without goals. For example, if you want to run a marathon in less than 4 hours and cross the finish line in 3:59 you can say you were successful. Or you could say you were successful if you completed a marathon, the time being irrelevant. Or success could be that you tried to complete a marathon, regardless of if you finish or not. In all these scenarios you’ve tried your best, and whatever happens you’ve been a success. What more can you do than your best? Celebrate this effort, you deserve it.
If success for you is setting a goal and then achieving it, despite what life throws at you, then prepare yourself to deal with the negative feelings if you don’t perform to your desired level. On the other hand, if success is about doing your best then you will never fail and you can be happy with what you have done. By adopting this approach then you can deal with the uncertainty of life. Oliver Burkeman writes in his book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking:What motivates our investment in goals and planning for the future, much of the time, isn’t any sober recognition of the virtues of preparation and looking ahead. Rather, it’s something much more emotional: how deeply uncomfortable we are made by feelings of uncertainty. Faced with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future — not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present.
The Stoic Reserve Clause
So goals are attempts to deal with the discomfort of uncertainty. Why not embrace this uncertainty instead? To the Stoics acknowledging uncertainty became known as a “reserve clause” (exceptio). They combined intention and action together. From Seneca:The Sage does not change his decision, if everything remains entirely what it was when he took it …. Elsewhere, however, he undertakes everything “with a reserve clause” … in his most steadfast decisions, he allows for uncertain events.
The safest policy is rarely to tempt [Fortune], though to keep her always in mind and to trust her in nothing. Thus: “I shall sail unless something happens”; and “I shall become praetor unless something prevents me”, and “My business will be successful unless something interferes”. That is why we say that nothing happens to a wise man against his expectations.
Marcus advises us:Do not disturb yourself by picturing your life as a whole; do not assemble in your mind the many and varied troubles which have some to you in the past and will come again in the future.
Also:Try to move men by persuasion; yet act against their will if the principles of justice so direct. But if someone uses force to obstruct you, then take a different line; resign yourself without a pang, and turn the obstacle into an opportunity for the exercise of some other virtue. Your attempt was always subject to reservations, remember; you were not aiming at the impossible. At what, then? Simply at making the attempt itself. In this you succeeded; and with that the object of your existence is attained.
The Stoic understands that there are events outside of his control which affect actions and intentions. Even when you do things exactly right, it’s not ideal. Here’s why: you are 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. Define success before you start on any activity and also work out what success will mean to you. There are choices. Success can be meeting the targets set, or effort, or both.
So how does it work? Well, to be honest, there’s no one way. But it goes a little something like this:
There are shades of grey and different levels and stages of success. Learn to accept that because you have made an effort this is more important than criticising yourself for not reaching total success. Once you do this then you can wake every day and feel a sense of gratitude. Grateful that you’re alive.
Then ask, “What do I feel like doing today?” At this point there are no constraints, but the question is important.
Start working on an activity you’re excited about, have fun doing it. Is that thing you’re doing a destination, a goal? Well, in some ways, yes, but it’s not fixed. There’s no set plan, and the destination doesn’t matter as much as the process, the journey.
An understandable mistake is to focus on results instead of the journey that achieves the results. The more time you spend in the journey itself, the more beneficial the results. The more time you spend focused on the results, the more negative the results.
As time passes you might shift as you go, depending on the flow of ideas. Working with others who might have ideas you didn’t foresee, on things that happen along the way. You couldn’t have predicted these things when you got started. So you have to adapt — no plan can predict all this, no goal would be adequate to the task.
You might even completely shift, if something new comes up, if a new opportunity presents itself. You let go of your idea of what today was going to be, because these ideas of what should be are lightly held. They mean nothing; the important thing is the flow.
No destination or goal matters if they are all good. Each step along the way, then, becomes the destination, and is exactly where you should be. Goals are a big illusion that our society believes in. You learn to be flexible instead of fixed. Learn to be good at change and uncertainty, instead of fearing it. And try your best while acknowledging what is outside of your control. If you can do this then there is no failure.
When we fixate on goals, we shut ourselves off to new opportunities that open up in different directions. These are opportunities that we couldn’t have foreseen when we started out. But because we’re fixated on the goal, we don’t allow ourselves to go in this new direction.
When we fail to reach this fantasy outcome (which is often), we feel bad. But if we let go of the fantasy, we can just enjoy the work.
When we fixate on achieving a future outcome, we are not looking at where we are, nor are we happy with where we are. We can’t be, because we are looking at the future goal, and this is what motivates us (not enjoying the moment).
When we have a future-oriented mindset, it doesn’t end if/when we achieve the goal. We achieve the goal, then immediately look to the next goal.
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
How do you measure success? Do you use the reserve clause idea? Are you a goal setter, or not? Please leave a comment below.
Rob Thompson lives in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK. A couple of years ago he realised that he had fewer years ahead of him than behind him. This forced him to reflect on the meaning in his life. He started to question just what matters. In coming to terms with “himself” he realised that a large body of work could help. After some reading and reflection he found Stoic philosophy to make most sense. He maintains a blog, Prokopton.com which sets out to use this ancient wisdom in a practical way. By writing on Prokopton.com he hopes to keep himself accountable. He want to track his progress, construct a coherent world-view and give something back to wider community.