Stephan Joppich

Don't set goals in 2023

publishedabout 2 months ago
4 min read

This newsletter is a meditation on living a more intentional, fulfilled life.
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Today: The problem with goals and a simpler alternative

Hey there!

Although I stopped setting New Year's resolutions a few years ago, I've been thinking about goals lately. See, the theory of goals is promising: Simply define where you are right now and where you want to get. Then, decide how you're going to get there. Maybe sprinkle in a deadline. Easy-peasy.

Except... it doesn't work.

Depending on the source you look at, 80% of New Year's resolutions fail by February. And mind you: this is despite all the 30-day challenges and motivational cues that usher us every January. A funny example is the uber-popular 30-day challenge by Yoga With Adriene (one of the most popular yoga channels on YouTube). Her views dropped from 2 million on Day 1 of the challenge to 200K on Day 25. That's a 90% decrease.

But why is that?

The problem, I think, is this: we radically overestimate how much we should do, and underestimate how much we can do. We tell ourselves, “It’s going to be different this year.” Or, “This time I’ll really commit.” But this grand commitment presupposes a groundbreaking, cosmic change. And well, the harsh truth about meaningful change is that it takes time. A lot of time. Typically, a 30-day challenge is too much too fast. Trying to accelerate the process inorganically will only fuel frustration.

But perhaps the biggest irony of goals is their reward. Just consider: what would happen if you reached that goal you've so desperately craved? What if you completed that challenge? Then what? You might think that you'll feel accomplished. And sure, you probably will for a few days. But then, the mind starts craving new problems to solve. The goalposts shift. The treadmill reboots.

Put differently: goals focus our attention on reaching ever-rising milestones, while distracting us from enjoying the process.

The more I think about it, the more I question the legitimacy of goals. Looking back, setting goals has never helped me make meaningful progress. Quite the opposite: it was only when I let go of challenges, benchmarks, and ambition that change carved out its course.

So, here's an alternative idea I've found particularly useful.

Idea: A better way to deal with goals/resolutions

My favorite alternative to setting overblown goals is defining a theme.

Now, what the hell is a theme? It’s a concise, well-chosen word that becomes the compass for your year -- or any season of your life. The theme's simplicity works in your favor: Every time you struggle with a decision you don’t need to think back to your overwhelming list of SMART goals. You can simply recall your one-word theme and make the choice that matters.

Last year, my theme was "discovery." And you know what's funny? I kind of forgot about it after a few months. Life just started to happen. Events flashed before my eyes. But as I looked back on the past 12 months, it seemed I subconsciously incorporated my theme into all the important decisions I made. I discovered the digital nomad lifestyle by living in Porto. I returned to Germany, built my website, and traveled through Northern Europe. And finally, I moved to Munich to go back to university. Discovery was ever-present -- I discovered new places, opportunities, and, most importantly: a little bit of myself.

That’s the power of having a theme. It guides your path like a shining star in the sky. Always staring at it would distract you from all the other things in life (and cause a lot of neck pain). But the fact that it's an ever-present signpost is soothing.

Of course, your theme needn't last for an entire year. After any chosen time, you can reexamine your theme by looking at the places you left behind, the people you met, and the things you accomplished. Eventually, you can ask yourself, “Do I still want to follow this direction? Or is there a better alternative?”

This year, my theme is "direct." As in: directing my attention to the things that matter, becoming more direct in my actions, and -- well, directing my directions. That is, becoming conscious of what I really want.

What are your thoughts? Do you have a theme? Do goals work for you? I'd love to hear from you.

Content: How to set a theme

In the newsletter I sent out a year ago, I laid out the process of setting a theme that I still follow today. Re-reading it, I cringed at my writing. (I was still writing under my pen name back then.) But anyway, I thought you'd find it useful:

Something to think about

A beautiful quote I found in the library near my university:

"Books are simply thick letters to friends."

I try to keep that in mind not just as I read books, but also as I'm taking baby steps to writing my own book(s). Writing is made by people for people. It's a quest for being understood. Feeling more connected.

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Until next time,


PS: I do realize I'm not sending these out on Thursdays anymore. I'm in a slow rhythm and only want to breach your inbox when I feel like my words add value to your life. That said, I'm thinking about re-branding the newsletter. So: do you have any suggestions? Is there a topic you'd like to hear more of -- like minimalism, philosophy, loneliness, or book summaries? Let me know! I appreciate every response.

As always, thanks for reading.