Setting Goals For The Present, Not The Future

Image courtesy of Wili Hybrid

When you set goals for yourself, do you picture the benefits you’ll receive in a year, five years, ten years? Do you struggle on day by day in activities you don’t particularly enjoy – or actively dislike – because you want to reach a target some day in the distant future?

You might want to rethink your approach to goals, and goal-setting.

I’ve been reading Steve Pavlina’s Personal Development for Smart People, and one of his recommendations that stood out for me was this:

“Understand that you can only take action in the present moment, and you can only enjoy your results in the present as well. You can’t accomplish or experience anything in the past or future because you’re never there”. (Chapter 3, Personal Development for Smart People.)

When Happiness Tomorrow Means Misery Today

How often do you try to root your happiness in achieving some future state? Here are some examples showing how goal-setting can go awry:

  • A father wants to spend time with his children, so works long hours to build up savings that he hopes will be enough for him to take a career break in a few years. Meanwhile, the children rarely see him on weekdays, as they’re in bed long before he’s home from the office.
  • An overweight woman wants to drop 30lbs. She goes on a rigid diet that involves eating foods she dislikes, because she’s convinced that she’ll be happy once she’s lost the weight.
  • A student decides to major in law (despite finding it dry and boring) because he believes that a law career will allow him to retire young and pursue his real passion – art.

How to Set Goals to Improve Your Life NOW

I’m not suggesting that you should give up altogether on setting longer-term goals. Nor am I saying that there’ll never be any moments of struggle or difficulty on your path towards something that makes you truly fulfilled. But you do need to consider whether your goal is making you happy, or miserable.

There are no guarantees about the future. You could spent years working your way up the career ladder in a job you hate – only to be laid off due to economic issues far beyond your control. (And indeed, this has been the sad experience of many people in recent months.) You could half-starve yourself on a fad diet, only to put all the weight back on when you finally give up. It’s silly to make yourself miserable in the present-day reality … the only reality which exists … in the hopes of being happy in the future.

So with that in mind, why not examine some of your current goals? You might not need to drop them altogether, just change the way you think about them. Here are the questions you could ask yourself:

  1. Does this goal improve my day-to-day life?
  2. If so, in what ways?
  3. If not, can I modify the goal so that it does?

If a goal is making you actively miserable, and you can’t change it, then it’s probably a very good idea to rip it up and free yourself from it.

To give you some ideas on how to apply this to your goals, here are some concrete examples of ditching or changing goals.

1. Quitting NaNoWriMo

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people attempt to write a novel during the month of November – you can read more about this at NaNoWriMo. I and my boyfriend took part last year and enjoyed the experience. He was going to go for it again this year, but after the first day, he found that:

  1. The goal was making him unhappy and stressed (so definitely wasn’t improving his present reality).
  2. He wasn’t even very attached to having the end outcome (a 50,000 word novel).
  3. There was nothing that would have made the goal enjoyable for him.

Very wisely, he decided to quit there and then!

There’s absolutely no sense in sticking to a goal that’s making you unhappy just because you feel you “should”. You have to be especially firm and strong-minded about this when peer pressure is involved. For you, that might mean:

  • You quit your diet. Just because all your friends are on diets doesn’t mean you need to be.
  • You quit writing your blog. Just because you know lots of bloggers doesn’t mean you have to be one too.
  • You drop out of college. Just because your friends or relatives are at college doesn’t mean it’s right for you.

2. Blogging Inspiration

There are well over a hundred million blogs out there, and you’re reading one of them. 😉 Like many other people all over the world, I’ve had a few blogs of my own. One of my latest is Alpha Student, and I have ambitious aims for it. But the goal of building it into a popular blog has pay-offs in the future, not necessarily in the present. I managed to rekindle my enthusiasm by focusing on what I got out of it on a day-to-day basis, instead of concentrating on my future hopes:

  1. Although I don’t have a big readership yet, I’m grateful for the readers I do have!
  2. I like writing on student topics (as I’m a post-graduate student myself), so I’ve focused on writing articles that I really enjoy researching.
  3. I modified an aspect of the goal that was making me stressed – posting a new article every day – to post three or four times a week instead.

Some long-term goals just need a little tweaking so that you can enjoy them in the present. For you, that might mean:

  • You focus on eating for energy and good health, not on dieting.
  • You write a novel that you enjoy working on, rather than worrying about whether it’ll find a market.
  • You switch your major at college to something you love, rather than something you think will make you rich in the future.

Finally, always remember the power of the present moment:

“If your goals look great on paper but don’t fill you with desire and motivation when you focus on them, they’re worthless. … Focus your attention on goals that inspire and motivate you right now, since the present moment is the only place you have any real power.” (Chapter 3, Personal Development from Smart People)

How can you shift your goals, or shift your perspective on your goals, so that they’re improving your present-day reality?

Ali is a postgraduate student and professional writer. She runs Alpha Student (grab the RSS feed), a blog which aims to help students get the most of their time at university.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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