The 2021 No Goal Goal – Learn to Love Life’s Little Moments

I’m a very goal oriented person. I always have been, it will probably never change, and I’ve written so many posts about goals that I gave them their own page. For the most part, I consider it one of my greatest strengths. It’s helped me take on and overcome big challenges, spurred on by failure and unexpected obstacles. This is true not only in running, but also in my career and really life in general.

My main goal for this year, though, is to focus less on goals. Sure, I still firmly believe in success through failure of stretch goals, and I have some big ones for 2021 that I’ll pursue wholeheartedly, but I don’t want those to completely overwhelm everything else in my life. Writing this out helped me think through what concrete steps I could take, and I decided to post it in case it’s useful to anyone else who feels they’re in the same situation.

Failure through success

One difficulty from being a stubbornly focused and irrationally driven person is the potential to steamroll anyone with a much more reasonable mindset. I’ve worked hard on communication and on listening to the goals of my wife and others who share the same lane on life’s highway, but I must admit that so far it’s been my own goals that have had the larger gravitational force on those around me. I’m incredibly fortunate to have the unwavering support of my wife and family. “Hey, how about we move across the ocean with 3 pre-schoolers so I can build out the 4 person startup I just co-founded? Great, now that we’re here how about I bike and run around the whole country and we have a 4th kid during a global pandemic? Ok super, now next…”

You said till death. That includes ultrarunning and international moves, right? Right…? Photo: Swank Photo Studio

The more easily overlooked difficulty is the risk of my goal-oriented mindset steamrolling me. I’ve realized that I have essentially lost the ability to just be – to just sit, and relax, and do nothing that makes progress towards one of those goals. It’s difficult for me to enjoy the day to day seemingly trivial experiences that make up the majority of life. This probably started as far back as grad school, when nearly every free minute that I wasn’t working I felt guilty that I wasn’t. It’s not how I want to live and not something that’s sustainable.

I want to enjoy every moment with my kids; I will never have them again. One day I want to be able to just sit, and do nothing, and be completely content and happy in it. Maybe I’ll actually read a book, or try out this Netflix and chill thing I keep hearing about.

Disconnect

Since leaving my nice safe corporate job with regular hours, I’ve been in leadership positions at startups and have had the incredible benefit of largely setting my own hours. I could show up mid morning in the office muddy from a run commute, or flex days around family trips and races.

Left: Office attire in 2013. Right: 2019. Right photo: Jim Rutherford

But that benefit comes with a terrible curse: my work hours have no bounds on timing and duration. Saturday morning? Sure, why not. 2 AM? Of course, that’s when all my best thinking happens. It’s like grad school: there’s rarely a specific time when I absolutely must be working but even more rare is the time when I don’t feel I should be working.

One reason I love long crazy things in remote places is because they force me to pull the plug. “Yeah, about that email… I was off on a mountain with negative 2 bars of service and a dead battery.” It’s also one of the few things that can fully mentally detach me. When I’m worried about not getting lost, cold, hungry, or giving in to the dozen body parts yelling at me to stop… that TPS report somehow completely disappears from thought. The effect lingers as well – once back in the real world it takes a while before I’m fully reabsorbed.

Can you hear me? Can you hear me now? No? Perfect. Photo: Grant Bischof

So I plan on forcing that upon myself more. Certain days of the week, certain hours of the day: no phone, no computer, no anything where anyone can message me or pull my thoughts elsewhere.

Be in the moment

Disconnecting and being physically present is simple. Being mentally engaged is something altogether different. It’s easy to be somewhere or with someone yet be completely preoccupied by something else: a problem at work, something in the news, an upcoming goal, or the cat picture that random guy on Twitter just posted. All of those things have their time and place, and some of them might even be more important. But they’ll still be there later, and not every moment will be. “Hold on son, I can’t help with that right now because people just stormed the capitol building and I need to read these updates now before you go to bed or else it will be an even bigger disaster.”

I was trying to take a picture of my son running in front of me, so it’s not *quite* as bad as it looks…
Photo: Dan Reichmann, MCRRC

I’m a master multi-tasker, which is a great way of saying I can do 4 things in an hour instead of 1 thing every 15 minutes. Sometimes that’s useful, but not everything can be spread out over that hour. Some moments, some of the best and most irretrievable, might only last 15 minutes.

Whatever it is I’m doing, it will have my attention. Wherever I am, there I will be.

Just say no

Of course there’s a limit to how much we can prioritize. There’s usually a choice between doing a few things well or many things poorly. I could target 50 races a year, but then I would never perform at my best. I plan on saying no to a lot more responsibilities, including podcasts, sponsor requests, and tasks at work.

I’ll still do podcasts, but I’ll likely stick with people I know or ones I’ve done before – not because I know them but because they know me. They’re more likely to have insightful non-repetitive questions.

I’ll still work with my sponsors, but I’m well beyond the point where I have any interest in essentially selling social media posts (alongside small pieces of my soul) for gear. My sponsor engagement will focus on product feedback and testing (hopefully using those products to succeed in some big challenges), and on leveraging our combined platforms for positive change within the sport and beyond. My posts will be personal and my own voice. That might mean my benefits aren’t as good, and I might miss some opportunities altogether, but it’s entirely worth it to me.

I’ve been fortunate to work with some great sponsors in ultrarunning, who value my input not only on gear but on corporate values and broader impacts. This will be my 5th year with La Sportiva and Ultimate Direction. Photo: PH Balance Photography

This doesn’t all mean that I’ll cut myself off or go live under a rock. There are many important and urgent issues right now and I hope that I can help in some small way with my time, resources, and skills. I might even make more non-running blog posts.

So I’ll aim for more, by doing fewer things. Opportunity costs are unavoidable.

Ignore the noise

The big choices are usually easy to recognize, but oftentimes it’s the little things that kill. A few minutes here, a few minutes there, and it can all add up to hours lost.

I’ve placed a great deal of emphasis on eliminating noise over the last 5 years. I work, I spend time with family, and I run. That’s basically it. I have no other hobbies, no social activities, I don’t watch TV, and I gave up video games years ago when the twins were born. My scrolling on social media is already extremely limited (sorry for all the Facebook birthdays I’ve missed), but I plan on restricting that even more. It won’t be my main news source, a chat room, or a distraction.

That doesn’t mean those choices are best for everyone. They might be terrible for some. But there is significant value in deciding what’s personally meaningful and truly of value.

I’ve used running as a means of escape for years now, but lately I’ve found it extremely rewarding to focus a few times a week on using it as a time to consciously relax and let my mind drift rather than continuing to think about noise and distractions from the day. Photo: PH Balance Photography

I’ll continue my own usual social media posts for those who are interested or genuinely get something from them, but also for me. Like this one, they’re often very useful to me for gathering and articulating my own thoughts.

I’ll more carefully consider the value that everything brings and weigh its cost against the pursuit of my goals, the support of a good cause, or just sitting and relaxing – being truly in the moment, disconnecting to recharge, and enjoying the day to day experiences of life.

Building on 2020

I think many people would like to forget 2020, but often our bad times can form a strongest foundation. Focusing on the bright side, I was extremely fortunate in 2020. My family and I are in good health, we welcomed a daughter into the world, the startup I’m at actually grew, and I’ve spent more time at home with my family than ever.

I was still able to complete 3 of the 4 running goals I had before the pandemic struck (win The Spine, break the Pennine Way record, and complete The Grand Round). The 4th was canceled (Barkley), but I did manage 5 loops around Frozen Head. To hear more about those, here are some 2020 podcasts. A lot of podcasts.

But other than those few big events, life has been rather monotonous. Every day is the same and it’s easy to feel like a hamster on a wheel, something I think a lot of people probably relate to at the moment. No matter when we get back to normal, or whether we ever fully get there, I hope I can be more intentional about enjoying those day to day moments.

I’m still not sure if this picture is cute or frightening, but this is what 2021 looks like for us. Photo: Natalie Stephens Photography

11 thoughts on “The 2021 No Goal Goal – Learn to Love Life’s Little Moments

  • January 22, 2021 at 8:25 am
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    Good for you! Great goals for 2021. Hope you can meet your goal and be in the moment with family and not overrun but goal expectations. Congratulations on the new daughter. We are expecting in March.

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    • January 22, 2021 at 3:36 pm
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      Thank you, and all the best for your new arrival in March! Congratulations

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      • March 7, 2021 at 11:32 am
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        Thank you John and good luck to you in 2021

        Reply
  • January 22, 2021 at 9:47 am
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    Really enjoyed reading this . Thank you for sharing your goal and this has left me lots to think about as well .

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    • January 22, 2021 at 3:36 pm
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      Thank you I’m really glad you enjoyed it. Have a great weekend!

      Reply
  • January 22, 2021 at 1:43 pm
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    Glad for you (and your amazing wife and adorable kiddos). Life changes, things change, WE change. Hopefully, we grow and evolve. Kudos for taking the time to assess and adjust to live your one life according to your values and priorities. I look forward to reading your non-running posts as much or more as your running posts. Best to you and all the family in this shiny new year.

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    • January 22, 2021 at 3:37 pm
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      Thanks so much, and all the best to you for the new year as well!

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    • January 24, 2021 at 9:35 am
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      Yes someone else pointed me to that as well. Thank you, it looks quite interesting!

      Reply
  • January 25, 2021 at 5:27 pm
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    Well said John! Looking forward to your (reduced) always genuine social media posts. Also, since you have had 4 kids, I think you already know how to “netflix and chill”, just, you know, without the netflix I suppose 😉

    Reply
    • January 26, 2021 at 2:50 pm
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      I think maybe you mean without the chill part. 😅 Thank you, and all the best!

      Reply

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