Goals (and Resolutions) can ruin your life!

Happy New Year! Well, since it’s a new year maybe you’re thinking about New Year’s Resolutions. You may have Resolutions about health, wealth, relationships, stuff, whatever. Of course, a Resolution is just another form of a goal and you may well create other goals throughout the year.

There’s no question that goals are important. They’re the engine that powers the progress of the world. They’re what pushes you from point A to point B even when doing so is painfully difficult. They focus you, force you to plan, drive progress, and can change your life when they’re achieved.

Goals are great and everybody loves ‘em, right? I mean goals are almost as sanctified as baseball, motherhood, and apple pie. Enter any corporate headquarters or sports team locker room and you’ll likely hear or see memorable quotes about goals like…

Without goals, and plans to reach them, you are like a ship that has set sail with no destination. — Fitzhugh Dodson

Goals are dreams with deadlines. ― Diana Scharf

If you’re bored with life — you don’t get up every morning with a burning desire to do things — you don’t have enough goals. — Lou Holtz

Many people fail in life, not for lack of ability or brains or even courage but simply because they have never organized their energies around a goal. — Elbert Hubbard

If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy and inspires your hopes. — Andrew Carnegie

Success is the progressive realization of a worthy goal or ideal. — Earl Nightingale

All true, but, and this is a big BUT, goals can also ruin your life!

Bad goals

You may have heard that good goals are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, Time-related). So bad goals are un-SMART, correct? Yep, but that’s really what I’m talking about here.

I’m talking about goal choice – the things that you decide are worthy of a goal. Here in the good, ole U S of A we often pick materialistic goals like…

  • My goal is to make a minimum down-payment on a 5 bedroom, 5 bathroom house within the next 2 years.
  • My goal to lease a brand new Tesla this year.
  • My goal is to buy one new pair of shoes each month.
  • My goal is to travel for a month through Europe next year even if I have to fund the trip with credit cards.

These are all bad goals. Why? Well, for one thing, their not very Freaky Frugal. And for another thing, these goals are likely to make you unhappy in the long run because…

  • The big house comes with a big mortgage, high maintenance costs, and financial stress.
  • A Tesla is an expensive car and still just gets your from point A to point B like a much cheaper car. How much fun are those high lease payments going to be when the new car smell is gone and it becomes an older model? Buyers remorse, anyone?
  • After you have 10 pairs of shoes, the 11th pair is not likely to make you as happy as the 1st pair. And how many shoes can you wear at one time anyway?
  • The trip to Europe will be fun, but the credit card bills will cause more long-term stress than the trip is worth.

I’ve had my own bad goals. Right after I graduated MBA school and got a job, I had a goal of buying a PC as soon as possible with a bank loan. Back then, a PC cost $2,000 or $4,500 in today’s dollars. Fortunately, the bank denied my loan due to lack of credit history, so I dodged a debt bullet. I eventually bought a PC after Mrs. FF and I saved enough money to be able to afford it.

There’s no shortage of other types of bad goals. For example, check these goals out:

  • My goal is to get passed-out drunk this weekend. Let’s party!
  • My goal is to steal $1,000 before next week.

So bad goals can ruin your life which is kind of obvious. But good goals can ruin your life too!

Good goals, but with the wrong attitude

Of course, there are plenty of good, worthy goals:

  • My goal is to run the Boston Marathon next year. (Mrs. FF has been achieving this goal every year for awhile now.)
  • My goal is to FIRE by the time I’m 45.
  • My goal is to foster a child this year.
  • My goal is to find a better job within the next 6 months.
  • My goal is to be the first in my family to finish college.
  • My goal is to downsize and rent an apartment in downtown Philly this year.
  • My goal is to go to the University of Michigan after I finish High School.
  • My goal is to finish my MBA this year and find a high paying job.

These goals are great and the last three are actually some of my many past goals. So what can go wrong? The problem is you can approach goals with an attitude of I’ll only be happy when I complete my goal. That’s what I did, so my old goals morphed in my mind to become…

  • I’ll only be happy when I go to the University of Michigan after I finish High School.
  • I’ll only be happy when I finish my MBA this year and find a high paying job.

I call this shift in attitude the I’ll-Only-Be-Happy-When Disease and it can damage your life. In my case, I would finish one goal, be happy for a brief period and then move on to my next goal with the same disease. So I was only really happy for those brief periods of time right after completing a goal. Sound familiar?

Of course, there were times when I was relatively happy between goals. But overall I just wasn’t as happy as I could have been if I hadn’t been deferring my happiness until I accomplished some goal. What. A. Waste.

Mrs. FF used to tell me that it always seemed like I was searching for something. I thought that accomplishing the next goal would bring me the happiness and peace of mind that I was seeking, but it never really did. I learned the hard way that making your happiness conditional on any external factor is a recipe for misery.

I still have goals but now I substitute “It would be nice if” for the old disease so…

  • My goal is to go on a Mediterranean Cruise with Mrs. FF within the next 2 years.

Which used to become…

  • I’ll only be happy when I go on a Mediterranean Cruise with Mrs. FF within the next 2 years.

Now becomes…

  • It would be nice if I go on a Mediterranean Cruise with Mrs. FF within the next 2 years.

It’s a subtle but important shift in attitude. I’m not waiting for the goal in order to be happy.

And here’s something else. I’ve found no 100% cure for I’ll-Only-Be-Happy-When Disease, but a couple of years after I FIREd I found that it could be managed with daily or weekly doses of gratitude. I know, I know, the whole gratitude thing sounds cliche, but it works!

I can now appreciate little things more in the moment – the warm sun hitting my face, the beauty of the skyscrapers at dusk, drinking Pina Coladas and getting caught in the rain (wait, isn’t that a retarded song?). There’s more of a balance between the present and the future. I’m sometimes present in the present which is a big fat present to myself. 🙂

I can appreciate the big things too – I’m FIREd, live in a interesting downtown area, have fun activities I do, and I’m married to a great wife.

Final thoughts

Look, if you’re FIRE-aspiring or FIREd, I get that you’re probably very goal-oriented like me. No doubt that quality is very helpful as long as you have the right attitude towards your goals. Remember to take the time to appreciate your life right now and smell the proverbial roses.

Thanks for reading! What goals or resolutions do you have?

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  1. My goal is try and live life a little more “in the minute” this year. Of course, I make that resolution every year and then get caught up in the business of life. I really like the quote from Andrew Carnegie!

    Good luck with your resolutions!

    1. Dash2Retire – I could definitely use a LOT more of “in the minute” living!

      I find meditation helps me with mindfulness so I should do more of that.

  2. ah, the search for the elusive raison d’etre! we have the goal to continue matriculating the ball down the field. as a newly one full time job house a real goal is to figure out a fun and somewhat constructive use of all this damned free time we have now. gotta find a retirement hobby besides drinking wine, that would be worthwhile.

    1. Freddy – Yep, figuring out what do with your free time after you hit FI is not easy. It sounds easy, but I had to constantly challenge myself to try new things that felt moderately uncomfortable. Writing my blog is one of those things…

  3. University of Michigan? I thought we were friends, Mr. FF?!? Sigh… Alas… What’s a Spartan to do…?

    Excellent write-up. Funny too – I actually FORGOT what my resolutions were that I posted about late last month. That’s not embarrassing…

    Good luck in your preparation for the big marathon!!!

    1. Cubert – Ha! I almost went to Michigan State, but I got into University of Michigan at the last minute. Don’t worry – I have Spartan friends and I like Spartans. 🙂

  4. I like the shift in attitude in adjusting the goals. And appreciating the little things and letting yourself become immersed in them is definitely under-valued. That’s actually one of my resolutions; to stop, smell the roses, experience in greater depth the joys that I already have! 🙂

    1. SMM – I love your resolution!

      I find adding even a small daily dose of appreciation and gratitude really makes me feel better. I’m playing around with the idea of starting a Gratitude Journal to help.

  5. Nice! I hear some hints of Stoicism in this article. They are big advocates of internalizing all desires. Instead of wanting to win the tennis match, you want to do your best. Instead of wanting a high paying job, you want to do things that make you worthy of a high paying job.

    Also, a good Jim Rohn quote can help with the mindset. This isn’t exact but something like, “Set your goals not for what you will get, but for what it will make of you to achieve them”. It isn’t about actually running the Boston marathon, it is about training your body and mind to be able to run the Boston marathon. That way you get the dopamine hit each time you train instead of only when you accomplish your goal.

  6. Great post! I agree that too many people have goals that are tied to materialistic pursuits. I have found it much more rewarding to have goals tied to improving my and my SO’s quality of life (long term) — minimizing our possessions, freeing up time and space to enjoy life more, spending time on our favorite hobbies, getting together with friends, etc.

    1. Daniel – I agree 100%!

      It took me awhile to learn the lesson that stuff matters the least when it comes to happiness, but I did eventually learn. I was also surprised how much long-term relief I feel from getting rid of stuff and downsizing. Downsizing saves money and the relief is a bonus.

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