In yesterday’s Monday Motivation email (get on that list here), rather than providing my own advice, I asked for your input. I wanted to know what my readers are struggling with so that I could serve you better. Today’s post is a response to the most common reply that I got: feeling directionless and lacking goals.
(Thank you so much to everyone who responded! I’ll be addressing as many questions as I can in the coming weeks.)
One of my main focuses on this blog is strategies for setting goals and then achieving those goals. These posts typically revolve around the assumption that you know what you want to achieve—that when I say “think of a goal,” something comes to mind.
But what if nothing comes to mind? What about those times where I’m here talking about how to get to your goals, and you’re still thinking, “But I don’t know what I want. I tried some things, they didn’t work out, and I don’t know where I want to go. Nothing seems right for me.”
I’m here talking about a why, but you don’t yet have a what.
Before we can set goals and figure out how to get there, we need to have a chat about figuring out what you even want your goals to be. We’ve got to talk about finding passions and choosing a direction.
If you’re currently feeling overwhelmed, directionless, bored, and uninspired, this is the post for you.
Before we get into this, I strongly recommend reading a few of my other posts. These will give you a good place to start and set up some background as we head into the rest of the article:
This is normal
First of all, what you’re feeling is normal. Especially if you’re in your teens or twenties like many of my readers are, it’s almost expected to feel directionless some or much of the time. The early decades of our lives are full of trial and error. They’re confusing and messy and a time of mild chaos while we figure out what’s going on.
This won’t last forever.
I’ve felt like this. Sometimes I still feel like this. My friends have felt like this, as has my 21-year-old brother. Even if you’re past your twenties, this is a common feeling.
Accepting that you aren’t alone and that you can move through this is a great place to start.
Less thinking, more doing
A common misconception about finding goals is that it’s done entirely through thought—that if you spend enough time thinking and planning and considering new ideas, you’ll come out the other side full of passion, inspiration, and direction.
Finding goals is an active process. You’re going to have to go out and try things.
Around the time that I graduated from college, I thought I had it all figured out. I was headed to a cushy job as a developer where I’d make enough money to support myself and my fiance. I’d work my way up the ranks until I retired (assuming people still get to retire in the future), and spend my evenings and weekends working on things that I like doing.
That was before I actually started my fancy new job. Turns out, I hated it.
But I had no way of knowing that I’d hate it until I had actually spent a few months living that life and doing the thing that I had been planning to do.
No amount of planning and daydreaming will tell you where you want to be, what you like to do, and what your goals should be.
Don’t worry if considering new goals doesn’t spark inspiration in you because the way you think accomplishing a goal will make you feel and the real results of that goal are rarely the same. Humans are pretty terrible at figuring out what will make us happy.
You can’t think yourself into success. You can’t think your way into a direction. You can’t think yourself into finding a passion.
Your new goal: try stuff
That’s it. I’ve set your first big goal for you.
Rather than continuing to think your way into a solution, get out of your feelings. The best way to get out of your feelings is to act. Action gives you something new and immediate to focus on.
Along the way, you’ll stumble across things that you want to try or explore in more depth, and eventually, you’ll find something that you want to stick with, but don't concern yourself with that too much now. Focus on trying new things.
You don’t know how something will make you feel until you’ve done it. You won’t know what you really enjoy doing until you’ve tried it. You can’t know that something is right for you until you’ve experienced it yourself.
To find a direction, find a passion, you have to get out there and try things.
Society sometimes shames people in their twenties for going through “phases” or bouncing around between jobs, but these aren’t bad things. It’s perfectly okay to try something on for a few months or years to see if it fits you and then let it go when you realize it doesn’t.
November is right around the corner. There are 2 months left in 2019 (assuming you’re reading this shortly after it’s published). In those two months, commit to trying a certain number of new things. Depending on your schedule, this could be three new things or it could be thirty new things.
What stuff should I try?
Let your brain run wild. Brainstorm a list of activities that seem intriguing. If nothing comes to mind, consider the things that your friends enjoy and put those on the list.
You could even see if your friends are interested in sharing their passions with you (hint: they probably are). Get your fit friend to bring you to the gym. Plan a painting night with your artsy friend. See if your friend who loves to cook would be down to cook dinner together. Many people love sharing their passions and you might find something that you love too!
Starting out with activities that will give you energy, motivation, balance, and improved health is a phenomenal first move. If you aren’t currently exercising regularly, meditating, eating clean, and getting sufficient sleep, these are great initial things to try.
They may not sound all that appealing in the moment, but in the long run, they’ll likely brighten your life and put you in a better mood. Along the way, you may even find other passions. Worst case scenario? Your health, mood, and energy levels all improve. That alone makes it much easier to find a direction.
What about my Why?
I’m glad you asked! If you’ve heard me say over and over that it’s essential to find your Why, you may wonder what your Why is supposed to be when your current goal is just to try as many new things as possible.
Your Why, at its most general, is to find passion and direction. Your goal is exploration, and why do people explore? To find new things. To see what’s out there.
Depending on where you are right now and what kinds of things you’ve decided to try, you could also include things like “to get out of a funk,” “to see where life takes me,” or “to create a better life,” in your Why.
Consider what you want. Likely, you want to have hobbies you enjoy, activities that you can share with friends, and self-care strategies that work. Trying new things is a great way to find all of these things, meaning they’re all part of your Why.
One of my pet peeves is when someone asks, “so what do you do?” as a way to get to know someone else.
We’ve tied our jobs so deeply to our sense of identity that it’s become the go-to question when you want to learn about someone else.
Your job doesn’t define you. If your job isn’t fulfilling and that bothers you, then yes, consider finding something new. But if you don’t mind working a job that pays the bills even if it isn’t a passion, that’s okay. Do what works for you.
Your direction doesn’t have to be tied to your career. Your career doesn’t have to be your passion. If you feel like you’re struggling because your job doesn’t bring you some deep sense of meaning, consider what you really value. Is making money for someone else truly important to you?
Focus on finding identity and passion outside of your career. Even if you do have a job that you love, tying your identity too closely to your job can be devastating if that job disappears.
Who you are doesn’t depend on what you contribute to society. It depends on what you care about, what you enjoy, and what you choose to identify with. None of that has to be your job.
But I’m already overwhelmed, and now you’re telling me to do even more stuff?
First I want you to consider how many hours each week you spend watching Netflix or scrolling aimlessly on your phone. Are you really telling me that you can’t use even half of those hours to try something that may change your life?
If you really, truly are actually that busy that you don’t have any time for anything new and you’re feeling directionless and passionless, that is a big red flag that means you need to take some things off of your plate.
More of your to do list is negotiable than you realize. Self-imposed tasks have the most flexibility and it’s okay to take a step back from them if you need more time and energy to devote to trying new things. Creating a schedule for my chores has also created more free time in my life.
You are allowed to step back and slow down. Remove the uninspiring things from your to do list, remove the non-necessities, and remove all of those things that you’re hoping to get around to one day (or move them to a different list). This will make room for the new things that you’re about to try.
But I don’t want to
I’m here telling you to just get out there and try new things. Great in theory, but in reality, it might not be that easy. It might make you anxious. Maybe you feel you’d be happier sitting at home doing nothing (refer to The Happiness Paradox). You just don’t want to.
I feel you. Most of the time when I am content sitting in my apartment, I’d rather not go do something. An object at rest stays at rest and all that, right? From your stagnant state, it seems more enjoyable to continue not doing anything.
But I can tell you from experience that most of the time, it takes getting out and doing the thing before you really start enjoying it. If I only left my house for the things that I feel really excited about, I wouldn’t do much. But the bulk of the time, once you’re out there, you’ll feel excited about it.
Push yourself out the door and go try the thing. You’ll be glad that you did.
If you start out feeling like you’ve got to figure everything out all at once, you’re going to overwhelm yourself.
Finding direction is a process. Your aim isn’t to try a few new activities and suddenly end up with a life-changing passion that you work on day in and day out for the next fifty years. Your aim is just to try something new. That’s the goal.
You don’t have to figure out your entire life right now. Even if it seems like the people around you know what they’re doing, they don’t. They may think they have a plan, but no one knows when a wrench will be thrown in the plans that totally messes everything up.
Practice going with the flow. Try new things and let the world take you where it wants to for a bit. Start small and do some exploring. You don’t need to figure it all out right now. In fact, you don’t ever need to figure it all out—no one does, and no one can.
Action is key
I want to wrap this up by emphasizing one last time that the solution here is taking action—trying new things.
You’ve got to get out and explore. Your passions aren’t going to come to you in a dream. You likely won’t fall in love with something the first time that you try it.
Don’t pressure yourself to figure out exactly what you want. Focus on trying new things. Don’t worry about goal setting and planning until something starts to stick. It’s okay to spend years or decades exploring.
If something does stand out to you, then come back and set a specific goal. You’ll know when you’re there. Until then, explore.
This experience—this process—is part of your growth as a person. It’s not something to be rushed through. It’s a time to explore and experience the world so that you can get to know yourself.
And I’ll let you in on a secret: even the people who think they know what they want end up changing their plans all the time.
I do want to throw one final note in here: Feeling passionless, especially about things that you used to really enjoy, can be a sign of depression. If you’re really struggling to get out and try new things and can’t find fun in any of it, reach out to a therapist.