Can We Live Without Goals?

This post is inspired by a piece I found on Leo Babauta’s blog, zenhabits. I have reservations about this blog. (For one thing, the title is an oxymoron.) But Leo writes well and raises interesting questions.

Like: Can we live without goals?

In our culture, it’s widely held that there’s a direct link between achievements and goals. Leo denies this. He argues that we can achieve a lot without having goals. Just get up every morning and do something you’re passionate about, he says. The result is that:

 …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.

The Case Against Goals

Leo dislikes goals for two reasons.

First, goals are inflexible. They lock us into predetermined courses of action. We are no longer free to “explore new territory”—activities that lie outside our goals and their associated to-do lists.

Second, goals fuel procrastination. Inevitably, we find some items on our lists that we dread. So we procrastinate. We check email or log on to Facebook. We return to our lists of goals and to-do items and fiddle with them endlessly. We try to revise all our plans so that we can avoid doing the things we dread.

Meanwhile, Leo says, instead of setting goals and diddling with our lists, we could actually be doing something we love.

The Case Against the Case Against Goals

I resonate with Leo’s passion for living with passion. But I disagree with his case against goals.

The biggest one is that passion is an emotion. And, our emotions are fickle. Fleeting. Impermanent. What I feel passionate about today might bore me tomorrow.

There’s a saying that’s popular in Minnesota (where I live): “You don’t like the weather? No problem. Just wait five minutes and it will change.”

We can say the same thing about emotions.

In addition, one thing that creates a remarkable life is the ability to stay in action even when we don’t feel passion. My favorite example is the experience of raising children.

Did I feel passionate about changing diapers? No.

Did I feel passionate about getting up during the middle of the night to calm a crying child? No.

Did I feel passionate about dealing with surly teenagers? No.

Am I glad I raised children? Yes. Very much.

A good life is not just about passion, which is a pleasurable emotion. I prefer the perspective offered by Tal Ben-Shahar in his book Happier. He defines happiness as the “overall experience of pleasure and meaning.”

Pleasure (passion) is great when you have it. But some of the activities that create meaning in life—such as raising children—involve tasks that are not pleasant. In fact, some of them are fairly disgusting.

In addition, it’s not goals that fuel procrastination. Feelings fuel procrastination.

Procrastination is simply an emotional state—a feeling of aversion to a task. If you feel aversion to a task that creates meaning in your life, then it might be wise to accept your feelings and do it anyway.

Why? Because in the long run, that task might create value—meaning that lasts long after the passion fades.

Image by lululemon athletica, Flickr Creative Commons


  1. Good point, Judy. “Passion” might be something more than a pure feeling state. Maybe it can involve intellectual rigor, commitment, and consistent action as well.


  2. I do feel better when I set goals for myself. They don’t have to be hard, make-or-break goals, but rather intentions toward fulfillment of big overarching projects that I have come to embrace over time. Projects that distill my passions.

    It’s possible that Leo Babauta defines passion not as a feeling but as a combination of feeling and thought, that thing people mean when they say “follow your passion.” It’s a nice idea, that your passion is something you care deeply about, something that expresses your very soul, but it risks thinking that passion is hard and fast, set in stone.


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