Why I Don’t Set Goals for Myself Anymore

September 18, 2023
This story took place in Scotland

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve blamed my neuroses on arbitrary reasons. I’m just a bit of a control freak, type A, a Virgo, a perfectionist. Throughout my youth, I dedicated huge amounts of time to setting goals for myself, ranging from academic to professional to personal. I would plan out the minutiae of these goals, and hold myself to rigid standards in order to achieve them. 

Whilst I think it’s absolutely okay to have ambition and put plans in place to propel yourself forward in life, there can come a time where too much fascination with this might become obsessively unhealthy. 

Having a bit of a personal epiphany during the Covid-19 pandemic seems to be quite a universal experience. For me, lockdown struck as I left school and stepped back from some significant volunteering responsibilities, in anticipation of heading off to University come Autumn. As a self-confessed overachieving teen, this was the first time I had actually stopped to breathe in years. I had completely burnt myself out.

It was also one of the first times that my plans were completely outwith my control. There was nothing I could do to determine my school grades, for example, with exams cancelled. I’d had goals fail and plans be interrupted in the past, but it was generally caused by something I was able to overcome on my own. The pandemic was a huge reality check for me in reminding myself that, often, things are simply out of my hands. It was really hard to come to terms with. 

Since this time, I’ve had more things not go my way. Sometimes for reasons outwith my control, but sometimes down to my own fault. It’s horrible to fail at something, no matter how much of an optimist you are. It is true, however, that you can learn a great deal from failure. You let yourself have a wee cry, and then you realise that it is not, indeed, the end of the world or the end of your chance at success in life. You pick yourself up, and you move on. 

People change. We fall out of love with passions, growing out of old interests and settling into new ones. It is, to be blunt, a little silly to hold yourself to something planned out by you from several years ago. Some of my aspirations from five years ago are still very near to my heart, but others now feel so far removed from my person it’s almost laughable. That’s not to say past me was naive or misguided, it’s just that present me has grown and changed, so why shouldn’t her plans as well? To some reading this, that might seem obvious, but to others, the notion of changing a plan or goal, particularly one you have already spent time and effort working towards, might seem terribly scary. I know some people will feel that way because that’s how I did, so if that is indeed you, please know it can be a brave and positive thing to do.

I’ve been forced to accept that my goals might be interrupted. I might fail to meet them. They might become impossible to achieve, and they might become impractical to achieve. I might even decide they aren’t something I want to pursue anymore. Despite my slow understanding of these things, I was still innately fixated on fulfilling these ambitious plans which I had devised for myself. Why?

With careful reflection, I began to realise that my tendency to meticulously plan out my life wasn’t a personality quirk, but rather an anxious need for control due to some unstable life experiences. By giving into this, I wasn’t addressing my mental health issues head on, and was instead exacerbating them.

My fixation on personal development was, somewhat ironically, detrimental to myself in retrospect. As a teen, I missed out on countless social experiences to study, volunteer, or fulfill other obligations. I became so obsessed with meeting my personal goals that I felt anxious about them all the time. I held myself to impossibly high standards and would feel disappointed with anything less than my highest achievement, which ultimately set me up for failure in my eyes nearly every time. Small errors felt like major, lifealtering catastrophes. I still don’t think I’ve fully un-learnt these attitudes, but I am proud to have gained a more balanced outlook.

I, of course, still have ‘goals’ of a sort. Perhaps a better title of this essay might have been ‘How I changed my relationship with goals’ or ‘Why I don’t hold myself to my goals anymore.. My ambitions now tend to be less defined. I try to think more generally and not get hung up on specifics. Instead of, for example, picking one particular career path and planning out every small step along the way, I might instead have a broad desire to feel fulfilled in a job which betters society. This allows me to be more flexible and casual as I hope to achieve my goal. I’m not fixated on a specific thing.

That’s also not to say I can’t want to achieve more particular aims. Sure, I might want to apply for a specific programme, as another example. However, instead of becoming obsessed with this singular programme, and doing everything I can think of to ensure I am accepted into it, I will instead complete the application form and accept that it is out of my hands. If I don’t achieve it, there will be other opportunities. It also doesn’t say anything about my self-worth. If I am accepted. that isn’t because I am worth more, just as I am not worth less if I am rejected. 

Since shifting my thinking, I have still made really positive and exciting achievements. I don’t need to neurotically stick to goals and plans I made to succeed. I can still meet my ambitions with a more positive, less intense attitude. In fact, this has made me more open to other opportunities, which I would have previously disregarded as outwith my plans. I also feel less overworked and burnt out, and have been able to dedicate more time to myself and my friends.

I don’t say any of this to infer that setting goals are bad for everyone. It’s deeply personal and different for each individual. As with most aspects of life, what works for one will not work for everyone else. I’m sure there are lots of people able to healthily dedicate themselves to personal goals in a well-balanced way. I might, one day, feel able to return to five-year-plans in a healthy way that doesn’t wreak havoc on my mental state and turn me into an anxious workaholic. For now, though, I’m glad to have reached a place where I can enjoy taking life as it comes and go with the flow.

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