Tasks vs. Goals

Before I delve into my point, let me say that I understand the importance of having goals. 90% of blogs, TEDs (whatever they are, I’m still not sure), podcasts, and other success oriented media will mention the importance of goals.

You can’t get anywhere until you know where you want to be. You need a focal point for your visualization.”

I get it! Thank you so much.

Yet I think this goal fetishism can sometimes throw a monkey wrench into the works of some people at certain times. I think it overlooks completely a whole different type of person, with a distinct type of wiring. And it may not surprise you to learn that, in theory, I consider myself one of these people. I call them, (for now) task oriented.

Obviously, goals and tasks are closely related, and in some ways contain aspects of one another. Finishing a task is a goal, and what is a goal but a series of tasks to be completed? But when we get into the metaphysical obsession with long or even medium term goals, things get a bit murky.

Here is a prime example.

I am a freelance writer, part time. I hope to be a full time freelance writer some day. At least that is one of my options. I won’t refuse an appealing nine to five job, but it will have to possesses certain characteristics. So I keep my eyes open. But whether it be a standard job or my freelance writing, I always hear, “what are your goals?

Well, my goals are to be able to make most of my living as a result of writing. I’m really good at it.

“What sort of writing? For whom? How many pieces do you want to write per year? What sort of ROI do you want? Do you have a career impact statement? An elevator pitch? What platform best suits your needs and who do you want to meet in those areas? What are your goals?”

Well, my goals are to be able to make most of my living as a result of writing. I’m really good at it.

In other words, there are countless ways to make a living that I would find acceptable. Even dozens within the writing world alone. I don’t even yet know all of the ways in which I could be happy in a career. It’s easier to know what I would be unhappy doing. I do have general goals; to make a living wage as a writer. To work in the arts. To be location independent in some fashion. Yet that isn’t enough for most gurus who insist I need to have those laser focus goals, so I can accomplish exactly what I want. And so that people can help me out.

I get beaten over the head with, “define your goals, define your goals, define your goals” so often that I get numb. Numb because despite having goals,  I don’t think I work in a goal centric fashion. I don’t ever really have an answer that is acceptable to most of my contemporaries to the question, “what are your career goals?” I mean, my career goals are to make use of any number of my talents in service to things I believe in, in a place that does not make me unhappy. As a result, I get a pretty standard reply to the uncommon requests for help I get.

“I can’t help you. I don’t know what your goals are.”

Well, maybe on the level others want them, I don’t know either. There is a fine line between focused goal setting, and boxing one’s self in, and I think for people like me the line is blurrier than for most.

That doesn’t mean I lack ambition or a work ethic. Nor do I wish to just float through life, waiting for things to happen for me. I am accused of such things, but they are not true. But with so much out there that could potentially leave me satisfied, and me having been given so little chance to stretch my talents in life, I don’t see as how I could possibly have the type of specific goals that people talk about. I try to describe through this blog and other media what I can do and what I am about. And I want to find a place in this world that will allow me to engage in such thing. Such is my version of a goal setting.

But to most? This is goal setting;

“I want to use my expertise as a marketing guru and linguistics specialist to gain employment as a digitally based distance working community manager for a predominantly Jungian oriented mental health facility, geared towards troubled youth.”

And you mean to say you haven’t included in that goal statement which precise pair of underwear you will wear on the first day at said job? Where is the detail??

I just don’t think I am wired to to be that goal oriented. I don’t know at this exact minute if I want to be a content writer or a copy writer. I haven’t chosen beyond a shadow of a doubt what subject, if any, I want my writing to focus upon. I really don’t know if I have a “specialty”. I write, damn you. I am a writer. And I write damn well. And I can prove it. And if you hire me to write whatever it is you need an excellent writer for, I will adapt and apply my skills to that task.

I’m task oriented. Why does there always have to be such a far reaching, meticulously detailed goal, summed up by the god-awful elevator pitch, in order to achieve something? A great deal of achievement takes place in the midst of accomplishing a task for me, and I would much rather be given a list of ten things I have to accomplish that week, and then be allowed to engage my resourcefulness and ingenuity to get them done.

I want specific tasks to do. And I will earn your trust through doing them quickly and efficiently, before the deadline. I am less trustworthy because I do not have the very nature of what I want my life to be condensed down into a little thirty-second speech? Does the fact that I don’t lay out a specific goal for the trajectory of my next five or ten years really indicate I would not be a good employee? I fear for many, it does.

I go back to my writing. I can’t predict in what precise fashion I will be most useful, or get the most satisfaction. I know I write. Everything beyond that is what I call false gravy. It’s micromanaging the future. And while I see the benefit in doing some of it, I think I lose when I am judged, assisted, or defined based on my ability to do so. Because I really am no good at micromanaging the future. Sometimes the present is all I can handle. So I’d rather be judged for what I am trying to do now, not the fancy ways in which I describe how I’d like some theoretical future to unfold for me.

When did being goal oriented become synonymous with talent?

Clear results of predetermined tasks. That is how I like to begin. Perhaps how I need to begin. And it is tasks that I seek to clarify, not goals. I will make my own decisions, and I will certainly do the heavy lifting myself. But I, like anyone, require some help in setting course. Unlike many others though I don’t want or need help in setting goals, or developing a five year plan. I need help in pinpointing the specific tasks I need to accomplish in order to get closer to the life I want. The life I talk about and write about. The life I share with all of you. The life I hope some of you can, over time, help me realize.

Yet I am Too XYZ for goal setting with a high, lifetime arc in most cases. I just think the future is too nebulous and fluid, and my history too full of sudden changes and surprises for me to work in concrete, no matter how useful it may be to some. Instead, I’d rather define the general principles of my life, and ask people to help me determine the smaller tasks that need to be undertaken in order for me to get closer to same.

I know that sounds like “tell me what to do”. And it could be seen that way. I prefer to look at it as “show me what to do,” since the conscious choice to do it will be my own. As will all of the creativity, work, time, energy and accomplishment.

Along the way I will have a better idea perhaps of what my ultimate goal is. Maybe after being led towards certain useful tasks, I can begin to more clearly work out my goals, as so many of you define the term.  But for now, tasks take precedence over goals in my mind.

Do you ever feel swamped, or pressured, by a micro-goal oriented society?


  1. I think you hit on a good point – when people become too goal-focused, they lose the intrinsic value of what they are doing and focus on the extrinsic factors. Most writers don't want to be published just to say they've been published – but identifying that as a goal is one way of measuring and monitoring your progress and development as a writer.

    However, to the people who truly love to write – for writing, and struggling to figure out ideas and think through new topics – being published is only the beginning. They're back to the books, the tasks, and the daily grind the minute after the book hits the presses.

    Goals can be useful to keep you on track, to figure out the bigger picture, and to tell others a story about who you are. Goals help people understand you – because they condense a very complicated person (you) into a narrative that makes it easier to understand WHY it is you do what you do. But, because they are sound bites, they are inevitably very inaccurate – they don't represent the nuances of your personality and interests in full.

    I don't think goals are bad things – it's a tool that you can use to your advantage – but you're also right, being too goals-oriented can actually make it hard to see the big picture. Which is what goals are supposed to do in the first place.

  2. Excellent point. I don't intend to scrap goals. I just think people sometimes place too much emphasis on them at the wrong times.

  3. You know, you set goals, and then your day happens. Goals change, life changes.

    The important thing is not to beat yourself up if you don't make your goals. At least you set them. You can always try again tomorrow.

    And if you're looking for more freelance writing work, have you heard of “http://allofcraigs.com”? You can search all of craigslist for writing gigs.


  4. One of those rare posts someone else wrote about themselves which could have been about me!

    I sometimes envy people who have very specific goals, but for me every target also implies a whole bunch of options I have closed off.

  5. A good point, Pete. I sometime fear the same thing. I know I cannot do everything, and that we all have to focus sometimes, but goal setting to the extreme, like a ten year plan or something, seems to limit one's options.

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