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How Letting Go of Your Goals Can Make You a Happier Person

“No valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.” ~Alan Watts

When I started kicking chairs at work, I knew things had gone too far.

I didn’t kick things when other people were around, and I thought it was the perfect way to release my anger. I could lash out with as much fury as I wanted, but I didn’t hurt anyone.

Why did I start kicking chairs? I’ll explain in a minute. But the truth was, I was hiding a bigger problem: I’ve spent much of my life hating myself.

When I was eight or nine years old, my mom asked if I was okay. She had heard me sobbing in the shower.

I told her I was furious at myself because I hadn’t been writing in my journal. I had skipped a few days, and a few days had turned into a few weeks, and now I was too far behind to catch up.

I was miserable. At nine years old, my life held no purpose because I hadn’t written in my journal for a month.

My mom comforted me, but I repeated the mistake countless times.

In my teens, I crafted a set of rules to lead me to perfection.

My plan was a sixteen-page document with eighty-four rules for the New Year. It included everything from a plan to improve my handwriting to why I would never use sarcasm or ask for seconds at dinner.

Focusing on specific rules would have made a few goals more manageable, but by January 3rd, I realized I couldn’t keep up with all eighty-four. So I blamed myself. I felt like a worthless human being who couldn’t do anything.

It only grew worse after someone broke my heart.

I spent years wondering where I had gone wrong. The person I wanted in my life refused to be with me, and I couldn’t figure out how I had messed up.

The answer, it always seemed, was that I wasn’t perfect enough. To appease the gnawing pain, I’d create a new list of goals.

I decided to build a body that would win me love. I spent ten hours a week lifting weights. I ate 4,000 calories a day for months to build muscle and then starved myself on 500 calories a day when I decided I didn’t look lean enough.

I spent $500 on new clothes in one shopping trip, only to find I was the same person inside, just in different fabric.

I earned a perfect 4.0 GPA in college and a well-paying job afterward. I immediately started working towards a new career, hoping the allure of accomplishment would make myself more appealing.

None of the changes made a difference.

When my extreme measures backfired, I bullied myself even more.

I was a failure at relationships because I was a failure at becoming perfect because I was a failure at everything.

It shouldn’t surprise you that a few years later, I realized I was unhappy. I wanted to become a happy person. I wanted to be cheerful.

So naturally, I created a goal of becoming happier. I measured my happiness each day and tracked my progress.

But when looming anger crippled that happiness, I became ruthless with myself again. I wasn’t happy because I could never be happy. I was a loser at even the most basic of human emotions.

And so I started kicking chairs.

My life had become a cycle. A cycle of feeling like a failure, setting unreachable goals, missing those goals, and feeling like an even greater failure.

But the solution had been with me the whole time.

The solution was to let go.

That wasn’t one of the solutions. Letting go was the only solution. It just took me years to realize it.

The few times I chose to let go, I accepted my faults and felt whole again.

Now I live like that all the time. I allow myself not to meet my goals or even to break them.

To clarify, I still work to achieve things. But instead of dozens of lofty goals, I have two or three I’m confident I can meet. They are simple, and if they don’t happen, I will be okay. They don’t define my life.

By letting go of my goals, I am growing more. I am becoming a better person and goals are guiding me—not controlling me.

If I start to feel overwhelmed, I know I need to let go a bit more.

I’ve found these three strategies the most helpful when letting go of your goals.

1. Let go of your goals all the way.

You must first write every goal. Every single one.

All the silly, absurd, unrealistic, and idealistic goals you’ve ever imagined. Then consciously let go of them all.

Imagine what your life would be like without those goals. If you never accomplished any of them. Come to peace with that idea.

Only then should you add back in the few most important.

Too many people delete goals, only to think of them for months to come. They decide they don’t have time to read more. But they spend hours wondering about the books they are interested in, how it would feel to read them, and what they would tell friends about them.

Pondering half-hearted goals will cause as much strife as overcommitting yourself.

If I choose to let go of a goal, it receives 0 percent of my mental energy. If I focus on a goal, I give it 100 percent of my mental energy. That simple.

2. Let go of your impatience.

A slow accomplishment is still an accomplishment.

I tend to overcommit. If I want to become better at something, I’ll decide I need to spend an hour or two on it each day.

The problem is I can’t maintain that schedule and I give up, disappointed and discouraged.

I’ve found I work best when I ask myself the likelihood of taking that action step every day for the next month. If I’m less than 90% sure I can do it, it won’t happen.

Instead, I take a small action step each day, something I’m 90 percent sure I can do.

Yes, I want to work out six times a week. But I’ll meet the same goals working out three times a week. It will just take longer.

Yes, I want to practice guitar an hour every day, but I also know that’s too much time. If I try to practice for 5 minutes, though, I’m 99% sure I’ll be able to do it. If I practice more that day, I’ll feel good, instead of beating myself up when I play for 50 minutes instead of 60.

3. Let go during your morning routine.

At the beginning of each day, I review what I accomplished the day before.

My criterion used to be how much I did. Did I succeed with each goal? I usually found myself lacking.

Now my criterion is different. Was the day fulfilling? Did I do things that added to my life, even if none of them involved a goal? If so, then the day was a success.

Whereas most days began with me berating myself for failing at my goals, now I spend my mornings being grateful for the enchanting things I did yesterday.

When you change the way you measure your life, your life changes.

In my morning routine, I also spend some time planning what I want to do that day and making sure I am doing the right things. Any task that isn’t important, I let go. It just isn’t necessary.

The day is better that way, and I’m more productive, too.

Since coming to terms with my goals and letting many of them go, I am a much happier and fulfilled person.

Instead of hating who I am, I’ve come to accept myself and my accomplishments. I’ve let go of the goals that held me back and now let the important things push me forward.

I don’t need a measurement to know I’m happier this way.

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About Stephen Roe

Stephen Roe writes at Thoughtful Growth, where he helps thoughtful people take control of their goals and live a better life. Stephen teaches how to use your individual strengths to grow into a better self. Use your morning routine to become happier with his free guide “Habit-Forming Morning Routines.”

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  • Venny New

    That’s beautiful man. You grabbed me with the quote. I like Alan Watts & I like you have chosen 3 major key points which I think are very appropriate as well. I have noticed the same thing. Basically, when I try to rush things, I get overwhelmed. When I choose to let go and take it a step at a time, it goes on and on, even if it is slow, I still make progress.
    Well done.

    Venny

  • Ash

    SO much of this was familiar to me…I must say I really needed to read this today! Thank you for sharing what you have learned and how…I will definitely be working at incorporating this concept of slowing down and letting go – I spend too much wasted time upset with myself for not meeting very high expectations for myself! Thank you again for sharing.

  • Siddharth Karunakaran

    Hey there, please stop beating yourself up so hard over everything. I guess you have already done that but I was really concerned when I read your article. All the best for your future!

  • Hi Siddharth, don’t worry about me. I wrote this article from a much better place. 🙂

    Thank you so much!

  • Thanks so much, Ash! Glad it was helpful to you. I think too many of us get overwhelmed with the high goals we set for ourselves and end up discouraged. Glad to know I could help.

  • Hi Venny, thanks so much for the kind words. That’s become my new mode of living–take it slow and gentle, and don’t force yourself to rush into something.

  • Bullyinglte

    Hi Stephen, I definitely hear you on the perfectionism issue. You have some very strong perception ideas here and your emotions definitely come out in your writing. One thing I have discovered as a reformed self-esteem draining perfectionist is that goals are important, but it’s the level of expectation of your goal that you might consider. For example, I shared on my blog my story of the importance of setting realistic goals to where you are in life (http://bullyingrecovery.org/2016/10/03/how-setting-goals-changed-my-life/). For example, I wanted to get exercise and set a goal to run a 5k race. Since I hadn’t been exercising, the goal was just to do it, not to do it in a certain amount of time. That was my difference. I always expected an “A” in class as well, but then learned to accept just passing and being satisfied I did my best. Another lesson I learned on this same path is that happiness and sadness come together. You can’t expect one without the other and both are fleeting. I have learned to live with contentment of my life and place in the world. I hope you discover all yours as well. Thanks for sharing.

  • Roger

    Hi Stephen, thankyou so much for this post, this is so similar to my story. The anger was also my wake up call. You write such wise words, thankyou.

  • Thank you, Roger. Glad my article could help. I truly believe that the anger and frustration we often develop towards their goals is one of the main reasons we don’t reach them.

  • What a great article. Thank you Stephen. This is such a tricky one for me as well. I’m a ‘doer’ I like to set goals, write lists and get things done – which is good but can also be harmful. I no longer hang my self worth on my ‘accomplishments’. I’m good no matter what and I’ve found that actually helps me navigate through the ups and downs of accomplishment. Thank you again for sharing your truth. It really resonates : )

  • Sparrow

    What a great read! I can definitely empathize quite specifically with setting the goal of trying to be happy and having that goal, most ironically, turn into a massive source of frustration and personal anguish.

    Sometimes I am able to realize that what I’m upset about doesn’t actually matter and then simply let it go with a great sense of relief. However, it’s amusing (after the fact) how slowly, and even rarely, I remember that everything is fine and all this stress I’ve cooked up is nonsensical and without purpose.

    I also think a large part of obsessive goal setting stems from a desire to feel in control of things, which is of course rooted in feelings of insecurity and being powerless of other aspects in our life. I find it helps to look inward and search for what is REALLY bothering me. There’s almost always something there. For me, it’s usually the fear that I’m not good enough, that no one could really love the deeply flawed and unfortunately scarred woman that I am.

  • In college, I used to get drunk and wander into town, trying to get jumped and shot (like a kid from my school had a few years prior). On one occasion, I passed out in an alley way where the police found me. They drove me home. I cried by way home, telling them how badly I wanted to hurt myself. They told me “You should see a therapist.”

    We have a lot in common Stephen.

    When you said to let go fully, then add back the important ones, this makes sense to me. Even if I don’t achieve, as a human being, I am still worthy.

    I appreciate you my friend.

  • Sdckekcskdc

    Please help me.
    How do I let go of the fear and worry, the heartache of someone I love so dearly. I love them so much, and they make me so happy. But there is so much unnecessary fear and worry, it’s like a pit in my gut thats dragging me down.
    If anyone reads this, please help. How can let the fear around her go? I love her. It’ll all be okay, but I still worry.

  • Okokokokokokok

    Wow…thank-you for those words, they really resonated with me :))) and yes, you are good enough, so dont worry, smile 🙂 you sound like an amazing person 🙂

  • Sarah

    How are you doing now? I’m sorry you felt so desperate a month ago…