Goalless Practice

by Brian on August 8, 2013 in Goal Setting,Winning

In my previous post I wrote about why people often fail at achieving goals. I talked about how it’s not just a matter of setting better goals and sticking to them, but there might actually be something inherently flawed about “setting goals” itself.

In work and business people are often taught to set goals like this: You want to make money? Okay, how much, specifically? And by when?

In health and weight loss people are often taught to set goals like this: You want to lose weight? Okay, how much, specifically? And by when?

The problem with this type of goal setting is that it simply doesn’t work for 99% of people, and no you are probably not part of the 1% exception (neither am I). What really happens when you set goals this way is that you have the false illusion of a real plan, when really you’re just on a wing and a prayer–and setting yourself up for big disappointment. You move towards your goal under a tremendous amount of stress, flame out, and get discouraged from ever trying again.

Moreover, my observation is that highly successful people never get there by setting goals this way–even if they say they did (and/or try to sell that advice to you in a book).

If not by the magic of thinking big and the science of stretch goals, then how do the successful really succeed? I believe the answer lies in a concept called “Goalless Practice.”

What goalless practice looks like

In his must-read book Mastery, George Leonard talks about the importance of a concept called “Goalless Practice.” In short, you show up and practice something you enjoy for the sheer love of doing it without the intention of just using the activity as the means to a goal.

George develops an example of goalless practice from his own life–Aikido. For 3 days a week he showed up at his local dojo for practice. From time to time he would develop fascinations with certain techniques like rolls or throws and really work on honing them, gaining pleasure from his increased abilities. Every so often an opportunity for belt testing would come up and he would advance to the next rank. After some years of practicing this way, he achieved the rank of black belt.

But his Aikido practice was never about the goal of getting a black belt, it was about the love of Aikido and the intrinsic joy of mastering the art.

Note that he didn’t “commit” himself to going to practice because he thought he needed to in order to achieve a goal or be a good boy, he went to practice because he loved being there and it was where he wanted to be.

You’ve probably experienced goalless practice with a hobby. If you like to surf, garden, cook, game, or even just read about a topic you are interested in, then you often find yourself doing that activity regularly and compulsively. You may not be world class at it, but most likely you’ve still done it often enough that you’ve achieved a level of skill and knowledge of your hobby far beyond the average person or even casual dabbler.

Even a teenage girl who religiously keeps up on the latest celebrity gossip and displays impressively vast knowledge of who’s dating who and who did what could be considered the results of assiduous goalless practice.

A teenage boy practicing guitar loudly in his room doesn’t need to psych himself up for practice or run mental tricks to guilt himself into practicing because he has a goal he needs to achieve. He plays because he loves to play. Far from needing any external or goal motivation, it would (much to his parents’ chagrin) take the jaws of life to pry him away from his amp.

I’ve alluded to this phenomenon before in my post on the two types of motivation.

The Master’s Journey

Goalless practice is an essential part of what George Leonard called “The Master’s Journey.”

As you engage in goalless practice, you naturally begin to make tweaks to your practice.

If you practice Aikido you try to make your rolls just that much smoother. In business your impulsive tinkering leads you to improve the level of your product or service just a little bit more. If you’re into bettering personal relationships you notice new ways to smooth out the friction in your interactions.

Eventually you ask yourself, “how can I take this to the next level?”

And that’s when magic begins to happen.

Success builds on success. Your skills improve. Things that were previously impossible to you become possible and even easy for you. Eventually you reach a level that you couldn’t even have imagined, let alone set a goal for when you first started. Not necessarily because that level is so advanced, but often because it’s so different than anything you could have pictured in your beginner ignorance.

This is the point when Bill Gates says to himself, “hey, this computer software I’ve been tinkering with could be a real business model.” Arnold Schwarzenegger says to himself, “I love lifting weights and I’ve gotten pretty huge, maybe I should compete in Mr. Olympia.” Or even an enthusiast basket-weaver says, “I get so many compliments around town on my baskets, maybe I could turn this into a side income to help put my kids through college.”

And it all happens without the stress and uncertainty that come parcel and package with traditional goal setting.

Of course, goalless practice and the master’s journey need not necessarily result in some pinnacle of achievement. For example, I enjoy researching nutrition and fitness. I’m constantly tweaking my meal composition, meal timing, workouts, movement techniques, and reading about other subareas that I may never put into practice but enjoy knowing about. I go to bed at night thinking about it. I wake up Saturday morning reading about it. It’s a topic that obsesses me as any reader of this blog knows. I don’t make a dime from it (as of this post I make no money either directly or indirectly from this blog). Maybe someday I will, or maybe I won’t. And I’ll certainly never be an Olympic athlete.

But I don’t care. I pursue health, nutrition, and fitness for the sheer love of it.

Instead of setting huge dream future goals for yourself or goals that are really “get me out of a situation I don’t like goals”–as addressed in my previous post–instead identify areas of your life that you enjoy and ask yourself “how can I take what I’m already doing to the next level?”

Over my next few posts I’ll discuss how you can apply goalless practice to business, health & fitness, and interpersonal relationships.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Anastasia Geffe August 16, 2013 at 6:45 am

Hello Brian. I found your blog via DMOG. Your series on goal making is fascinating. I have always had a love of learning crafts for the sake of learning and the enjoyment of the practice. I am definitely going to keep your ideas in mind as I find myself making goals.


Rachel Garrett October 4, 2013 at 10:29 pm

Brian, great post! I am definitely going to check out _Mastery_. (I like Goeff Colvin’s book on a similar subject, something about why “talent” is a myth and it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert…which I can’t remember the title of at the moment.)

This is how I gain skills – doing what I love, then every so often reflecting on it and thinking consciously about how to take it to the next level.

Having a book on the subject will help me articulate to my boss why I should work on my development goals this way, rather than setting formal goals. 🙂


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