Goal setting for the goal-less

I want to start this post off by saying straight up that I’m not a life coach, motivational speaker or anything like that. I don’t think I have all the answers. However I found myself facing a problem and developed a solution for it and so I thought I would share it here.

I’ve always thought I was quite good at solving problems and achieving goals. If I have a goal and fail to achieve it, its more likely that I became disinterested in the goal than quit due to failure. However recently I found myself in the unusual position of not having any goals. I mean sure there were still things I wanted to achieve but no, “get you out of bed in the morning” type goals. The internet is full of videos about how to be motivated, how to achieve anything you want etc, but what happens when you don’t know what you want? Whats the use in being motivated with no direction to point the motivation at.

In the past I found myself in this position and I kind of just bimbled about getting on with my day to day life until I happened upon something that interested me. But this time I found it harder to accept just going through the motions, I definitely like to have something to aim at. So anyway, with the preamble out the way, let me get into what I have began doing to solve this situation.

The goal tree

The first thing I did was sit down and  try to make a list of things I thought I might like. Lets call them potential goals. When doing this I tried to make sure I followed the following rules…

  • Don’t be bound by limits. If you think you might like it, write it down. If its a yacht, living on mars, whatever. The point is, don’t let thoughts such as you’ll never be able to do that stop you writing it down. Not because i’m going to go all life coach on you and tell you that you can achieve anything, but because its just part of the process.
  • Don’t worry about the how, just the what. Similar to the above, don’t even begin thinking about how you could achieve these goals yet, it doesn’t matter, just write it down.
  • Don’t worry about the why, just the what. Again, if a goal pops into your head and you start questioning the worth-whileness of it, put it out of your head and write it down anyway.

So you might be thinking already, well what’s the point in writing down a bunch of goals that are probably unachievable, unrealistic or pointless? Well we will get to that in a moment, but basically we’re just creating some raw materials here from which to forge your true goals.

As an example, and at the risk of exposing my inner brain to all 6 of my blog readers, here’s the list I created…


That took me about 5 minutes to think up that list and I’m sure you’ll agree some are way more likely than others. And if I sat for longer I could think up more but as it was to turn out, it really didn’t matter, it is way more than enough to start. As you’ll see in a moment just the very first goal turned out to be the root of a goal tree that branched off in many directions.

I took the first goal “work from home” and thought about it for a moment. I came up with 4 questions that I thought I should ask myself about each of the goals in my list. The 4 questions were…

  1. Can I be more specific?
  2. Is this an end goal? Or is it just a means to an end?
  3. Why do you want this?
  4. Is this something new or is it an improvement on something that you already have.

The reasoning for these questions is as follows. I wanted the goal to be specific, so in the case of a very vague goal it would prompt me to think more precisely about what exactly it is I wanted. I wanted to know if this was an end goal or a means to an end. If it was an end goal I could go on to ask the final two questions. If it was just a means to an end, then you ask what end? And then that, or they, become your new goals to replace the old one. I’ll show this in practice in a moment if that’s confusing.

The final 2 questions. Why do you want this, this is your time to think about why you really want it, what are your motivations. Are they misguided, foolish, or just false? Have you been lying to yourself about what you want. Who knows. And the final question, is this something new or an improvement on something you already have. The purpose of this question is just to make it clear how near or far you may already be to your goal. If its something completely new there may be some ways to go, but if its just an improvement of what you already have, you may be able to move towards it incrementally.

The most important thing when asking these questions of yourself is that you are 100% totally honest. If you don’t know the answer, spend some time thinking about it. I’ve spend a good few hours on this process already and it’s still ongoing for me, and it’s been a huge shock to me to realize how little I actually know about what I really want. Bloody adverts!

So lets see it in practice…

The first root!

The first potential goal (root) was “work from home” and so the first thing I did was ask myself the 4 questions about working from home…

Can you be more specific: I currently work in the office and I’d like to work remotely from home, some or all of the time.

Is this an end goal? Or a means to an end?: I wouldn’t say it’s an end goal because the actual act of working at home is nothing special. The attraction for this is being able to sleep longer, drive less and work in an environment of my own choosing.

Why do you want this?:  The potential to choose my own hours is very appealing. Being able to sleep longer as I don’t like being tired and specifically not getting up early.

Is this something completely new, or an improvement on an existing thing?: The act of working from home is completely new.

The first branches

So I realized a few things when answering these 4 questions for this first goal. The first is that at any time when writing down your thoughts and answers to the 4 questions, sub-goals might pop up. At this point I realize it’s almost pointless to continue to answer the other questions because what you have essentially done is distill the goal that you thought of quickly into a more truer goal. In the case above; the goal of working from home, when properly thought about, broke down into the sub-goals of sleeping more, driving less and working in an environment of my own choosing.

What I had essentially done when saying to myself that I wanted to work from home was assume I already knew the best way to achieve the real goals I listed above.

The other thing I realized is that this tree could grow quite large, and writing it down on paper alone, or on word or whatever, wasn’t going to be enough to organize these thoughts and so I create a tree in excel…


So from here I took these 3 goals and once again asked the same 4 questions. Focusing just on the first goal of sleeping more led me down a path that took me this conclusion…


You can see this can become quite a long drawn out process. Below I’ll show a picture of the entire thing so far but just focusing on this bit for a moment notice that from my original goal I wrote down when brainstorming I’ve ended up getting to the truth of the goal, at least partly so far, and realized that what I actually want is to not be tired and not wake up early. And examining those statements more closely I realize that actually what I want is to have more energy, have less things that I HAVE to do and be able to set no alarm or at the very least have a potential 9 hours sleep every night.

From here I can sit down and think about the best ways to achieve those goals. Maybe it’ll turn out the best way to have more energy and not have to set an alarm really is to work from home, but now i’m working from the truth outwards, instead of aiming towards a goal that may or may not fulfill those true goals.

Just to give an idea how big this can get, from my one goal of working from home, I am still working on the tree and so far it looks like below. Once its complete I can move onto the next one.




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