Why You Should Take Your Goals Less Seriously (No, Really)

A strategist considers all options, especially the counterintuitive ones.

This article is worth the 3,000 word journey.

Look at it this way: If you disagree, you’ll probably take your goals even more seriously (which you’d naturally believe to be a good thing). But if you agree, you might come away with a life-changing perspective. Either way, you win.

Logic says: “If you want to get something, then the harder you try to get it, and the more serious you take that pursuit, the more likely you are to find success.”

By default, we think that intense, serious dedication to an end goal is paramount to success. But could it actually be a detriment to success for many personality types? Uh, yeah. 

The Problem With “Important Goals”

Let’s be honest. If you skip your workout today, you’ll be fine. Nothing terrible will happen tomorrow if you decline the stair climber today. And yet, when you look down at your belly, you feel immense pressure to slim down ASAP. So we have a kind of incongruence in which a relatively non-vital task seems like an all-important one all at the same time. So what do we do? We escalate the task’s urgency and seriousness to match our general desire to get in shape. We tell ourselves that WE MUST DO THE STAIR CLIMBER TODAY OR… UM… THE SHIRE WILL BURN. YEAH… THAT. SAVE FRODO!

Then, another part of us objects: “Sorry Frodo, but I’d rather save the Shire tomorrow.”

I’m a laid-back guy. I don’t like drama, deadlines, and pressure. And I’ve realized that these short-term, knee-jerk, Shire-burning escalations seem to distance me from the goals they’re meant to bring me towards.

It makes sense. Our lives have plenty of stress already, and now we are willfully adding stressful goals?

Perhaps this explains why so many people procrastinate and fail to make progress on their goals. We do as we’re told and frame our goals as urgent and dead serious pursuits, and then we get to our free time, feel like we need to relax, and say, “Meh, I’ll do the serious stuff tomorrow. Besides, I know the Shire won’t really burn down if I skip the stair climber today. Gandalf will save it.”

High Pressure Shooting

The game-winning shot is an exciting, high pressure situation. While I cherish the opportunity to shoot it, I don’t have shoot it—I get to choose whether to shoot, drive, or pass, based on what the defense is doing. This freedom is a critical part of the fun factor. But with goal pursuit, high pressure desires are combined with an obligation to do related goals. This effectively removes your sense of choice. You feel must get in shape, and to get that result you feel that you must exercise for 45 minutes. NOW. Not fun.

Obligatory, high-pressure situations are disempowering and dehumanizing.

Part of the fun in basketball is reacting to the defense and trying to make the right play. It’s just as satisfying to make a great pass to a cutting teammate for a score as it is to score a basket yourself. If every game went the same way, people wouldn’t play because it’d be boring. It’s fun to play and watch because you never know what will happen, like when 5’9″ Nate Robinson blocked 7’4″ Yao Ming, or when Tracy McGrady scored 13 points in 33 seconds in an improbable comeback.

How can we make goal pursuit more fun and get better results? Well, we can’t continue to force ourselves to do difficult things as if we’re a piece of software. We need a sense of freedom, power, and control to thrive.

The Joy of Pressure-Free Goal Pursuit

There’s another way to think about your goals, and it goes against everything you’ve ever been told, but it might change your life. What if going to the gym had no strings attached to it? What if this activity didn’t have the nagging burden and stress of improving your health and weight? 

What if, when you thought about exercise, it was weightless and neutral and interesting, like popping a grape into your mouth? What if it wasn’t this serious, important thing that your doctor ordered you to do and you didn’t have a quota to meet? You could just show up in this room with machines and heavy things and use your body and quit whenever.

What if you treated exercise like a sport? You enter the gym, survey the equipment, your energy levels, your motivation, and decide what your next move is. Doesn’t that seem more appealing than robotically going through the first of five workouts you have to do this week in order to get a result?

It’s not as far fetched an idea as you might think. I’ve had such experiences working out and writing. Just yesterday, I ended up playing 1-on-1 at the gym and then doing abs. I didn’t know I’d be doing that going in. That’s just how it developed, and I didn’t feel like going. I’ve had some of my most grueling workouts this way (and by making it a game, as I’ll write about later).

Can a typically-stressful, overbearing goal can become relatively easy and stress-free? Yes, and here’s why you should try it before you discount it.

The Intensity Theory Is A Lie

The intensity theory: Higher-intensity thinking will translate to higher-intensity action, producing better results.

If you run someone over with your car and kill them, whether or not it was intensely purposeful or absent-mindedly accidental doesn’t matter to them, because they’re dead either way. The same result can come from two motives of different intensities.

A less morbid example? Sure.

You can get the same (or better) results in your goals with a low-pressure, relaxed mindset as compared to a high-pressure, stressful mindset.

I will play basketball so hard for so long that my calf muscles cramp up from extreme fatigue and basically quit working. They reach the point of physical failure! I will play to the point that I get “cotton mouth,” despite drinking water. This extreme exertion happens despite me enjoying every second of it and seeing it as a fun game. Other times, I’ve wanted to get in shape to the point of making a fist and banging on the wall, and still did nothing. I’ve experienced the exact opposite of the above “intensity theory” many times in my life.

Humans perform best when they’re relaxed. Whether it’s sex, sports, or work, a relaxed mind consistently equates to superior performance. Those who perform well in high pressure situations in sports do so by staying calm. They’re said to have “ice in their veins,” seemingly immune from the heat/pressure of the situation.

You can work out just as intensely by seeing it as a playful challenge or game as you can by seeing it as your very important and serious ticket to beating depression, losing weight, and being happier. This concept applies to other goals, too, but fitness is the most relatable example for most people.

There’s something about the freedom of choice in low-pressure situations that empowers us to make good choices. When we feel obligated to do things, however, it saps our enjoyment of things and our sense of autonomy/freedom. The more difficult the objective, the more trapped we’ll feel by having to do it. And since we can always choose to not pursue our goals, that’s what we tend to do when we feel pressured and obligated to improve our lives.

It was at my most serious that I made the least progress in fitness.

Why? I didn’t feel like conquering the world every single day, and yet, that’s the level I had to rise to if I wanted to do anything. But when I took it less seriously—something that’s apparent in the fact that I only aimed to do a single push-up per day—I got into the best shape of my life.

When my goal became a joke, I was able to make progress on even my worst days. And that was no joke. That changed my life!

I finally went to the gym consistently and have continued to do so for four years since the one push-up days. Now, a bad week for me is only going to the gym twice. That used to be a home run week for me back when I was “serious” about exercising.

So where did we get this idea that goals must be taken seriously if it just doesn’t work? Surely there’s a reason that everyone thinks goal pursuit needs to be serious and intense. 

When Outliers Are Used As Models

Here’s the elephant in the room: some people thrive with the intense, serious view of goal pursuit.

You know the people. They get up at 4 AM to work out, follow a minute-by-minute schedule, and accomplish more before noon than most of us do in a week. But these people are not like all people. Few people have that innate, unending, semi-robotic drive to do and achieve. But since such machine-people do exist and they get the most things done, they become the models the rest of us try to emulate. 

Leonardo DiCaprio is one of my favorite actors—he’s extremely talented and very successful. Since Leonardo has succeeded as an actor, and we all want success in however we define it, should we all strive to become actors? Clearly not, as that’s only one specific path to success that caters to his particular talents, not necessarily ours. 

Just because some people got their beach body through intense and serious goal pursuit, doesn’t mean it’s the only or best way. And yet, that’s the assumption. People seem to unanimously agree that you have to want your goals more, take them more seriously, and get your motivational fix before you eat breakfast to have any amount of success. In fact, I bet I’m literally the only person you’ve ever heard saying the opposite, that you need to take your goals less seriously to have more success with them.

The reasoning behind my point of view comes from experiencing this myself, seeing others experience this with Mini Habits (250k+ copies sold in 17 languages), understanding human nature, and seeing real-world results (not fantasyland projections).

Why Might Not-So-Serious, Playful Goals Be Superior?

  1. Most people are not infinitely productive machines. They have off days. They feel lazy sometimes. They get tired. Serious goals ask us to be Superman all the time, which leads to many “zero” days in which we do nothing of importance. Less serious goals relax our internal demands, making any amount of progress acceptable and yet, importantly, progress is still fully scalable to Superman level if we’re up for it!
  2. Goals are usually pursued in people’s free time. What two things do people like to do in their free time? Play and/or relax. Serious goals don’t fit that description, making them wholly unappealing and stressful, and thus requiring gobs of willpower to accomplish, if they’re accomplished at all. 
  3. People are stressed out. They don’t want more stress. Intense goal pursuit is willfully adding additional stress to your life. Goals framed playfully can actually relieve stress. We’re not talking about giving up your dreams to have less stress. We’re talking about the same activities with different perspectives.
  4. When you remove stressful quotas, you are free to maximize your current ability rather than trying to reach your romanticized arbitrary goals. For example, if you’re tired, you might only exercise for three minutes, which is infinitely better than the zero minutes you’d get if you required 30 minutes of exercise.

Now, some people might read this and think, “This is weak. You’re just afraid of failure. You won’t get anywhere because you don’t aim high enough.” This is shortsighted and frankly, idiotic, considering I and many others have already “gotten places” with these humble and laughable goals. If you see yourself as the constant, then true strength is found in strategy. I believe we can all change, but not through “trying harder,” through better strategy (trying smarter).

It’s those who take their goals too seriously who fear failure because their chosen construct of failure is actually scary. If you set your goals up as the most important thing in the world, failure is devastating, so the pressure and stakes are high. As discussed previously, the pressure may increase your resistance to action, making failure more likely. Even a single day of failure in such a high-stakes situation feels scary and devastating to your sense of self-worth, which can quickly spiral out of control and send you backwards.

When you elevate the importance (and size) of your goal, you also elevate the fear, risk, and pain of failure.

Failure is not some glamorous thing, either, it’s a negative thing that can happen when you’re trying to win. If given a choice, we will choose success every time. And we do have a choice!

Importantly, we get to define what success and failure are to us.

I can decide that doing 3,539 push-ups per day is success and anything less is failure. I’ll be failing constantly in that scenario, but it’s my choice to define that line.

I can also decide that doing one push-up a day or more is success, and doing zero is failure. I’ll be succeeding constantly in that scenario, and hey, constant success sounds good! That’s how I got into the best shape of my life. Constant success is good. It’s how you build momentum.

We want the intensity theory to be true because it’s all we’ve known, but all it ends up doing is increasing our resistance, making us scared of failure, and taking away all the small- and medium-sized opportunities for progress. 

Before even considering what an activity actually entails, we may feel stressed about something just because we feel a strong obligation to do it. We feel paralyzing pressure and obligation, and yet, we’re probably talking about pretty tame things like eating a salad, reading a book, moving around in a gym, or writing some words. These tasks aren’t hard. We’re making them hard psychologically!

So what’s the solution to all of this? The right perspective can be captured in a single phrase. 

“I’ll Just _____”

The humble phrase “I’ll just [insert action here]” is a potent weapon. I consider it the atom bomb of personal development in terms of power. It destroys resistance, not through brute force, but through clever framing. A soothing, casual, and nonchalant vibe is baked into it, making once-intimidating tasks seem rather easy.

You can’t take anything too seriously when you shrug your shoulders and say, “I’ll just _____.” It’s not “I’d better work out today or I’m going to get even fatter and never get the body I want.” It’s “I’ll just put my shorts on and head to the gym.” Maybe when you arrive, “I’ll just do a set on that machine.” How carefree and simple!

“I’ll Just ____” is not tied to results, it’s not predicated on working out a minimum of 45 minutes. It’s just saying, “I’m going to show up and see if I can make some progress. I’ll do my best and that’s enough!” You have to embody the phrase as you say it. You can’t merely say it and wait for the floaty Avatar things to come whisk you to the promised land. You have to embrace the mindset behind it. Be casual. Feel casual. Take down the seriousness several notches and Just. Show. Up.

Then the magic happens. When you begin the activity, your mind may actually shift from casual to more serious and motivated. If it does, don’t be alarmed. This won’t be the stressful kind of serious, it’ll be the motivated “watch out, world” kind of serious because you see yourself currently succeeding, and that’s pretty freaking exciting. And you’ll be like, “Holy @$@$! Stephen was right. This works. I’m here!” Watch your language. There could be kids reading this.

Even though you approached the gym as casually as a stoner approaches well, everything, you’re now there. Once there, you can use the same technique to get started. Once you’re in action, your dreams are no longer a burden of everything you haven’t become, they’re your turbo engine.

I implore you to rethink your approach to goal setting and getting. The default method is stressful, overwhelming, and demoralizing when you fail. The casual approach enables you to explore better ways of living without the burden and self-judgment. Be driven by freedom and power, not arbitrary obligation.

The most practical way to take your goals less seriously is to have funny, easy goals… like Mini Habits! One push-up per day? Ha! Pull one weed in the garden? It’ll be done in 10 seconds! Play one song on the piano? Too easy! I’m already onto the next song! Who said this stuff was hard? (It doesn’t have to be.)

Even if you have already been practicing mini habits, this mindset can help them be more effective for you (and its application is broader than Mini Habits). Don’t say “Ugh, I need to do push-ups” until you’ve tried “I’ll just do a push-up. Easy!”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to show up at the gym. I’m sore and tired and yeah, a little bit hungover from that Merlot last night—a combo that has sidelined me 98% of the time in the past—but I feel no pressure now. I feel like the Genie from Aladdin when he was freed.

Before I wrote this, I was stressed out that I wasn’t working out enough. I struggled to motivate or will myself to the gym, hadn’t gone in several days (unusual for me), and the pressure to do more and more (to catch up) kept building. It’s different now. This is better. I’ve recalibrated and remembered what got me into the shape I’m in now. It wasn’t impressive, serious, or inspiring. It was one push-up per day. It was hilarious.

My new mini habit is to show up every day at a gym with this casual, not-so-serious mindset. That leads into one of life’s most important lessons. I think we’ve all experienced this: when you show up, good things happen.

I hope this perspective will help you show up more often. Share it with others so they can show up more, too.

Note: I’ve worked out 4 days in a row since I started writing this. They were relatively intense workouts, too, even though they didn’t have to be. Once I got down there and got moving, my motivation quadrupled (it’s hard to measure, but ehhh). Previously, I was in a funk because exercising was a big deal. It was important and I felt like I had to curl Venus and bench press Jupiter.

Take your goals less seriously and you will instantly decrease the resistance you feel to doing them. 

Don’t overthink this sentence, but by taking your goals less seriously, in a way, you’re taking them more seriously.

(photos by West Point, Christopher ChanMartijn Nijenhuis)

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