For the Love of the Game


Last week, I wrote one of my favorite articles ever for Nerd Fitness.

I discussed my love of looking at life through the eyes of a gamer.  I explained how I love to build levels and identify elite players to emulate them.

Research has shown that humans derive happiness from progress.  We gain satisfaction from reaching goals, receiving rewards, and seeing that we have moved in the right direction…towards our “goal,” whether that goal be fitness related or career related.

These are the reasons why:

  • We love leveling up characters in World of Warcraft to the point of obsession
  • I let out a primal yell whenever I hit a new personal best on handstands or deadlifts.
  • I get excited every time my phone tells me a new upgrade is complete in Clash of Clans.

Goals and progress can help us become better people.

However, there is more to this story and more to this life than just setting goals.  In fact, I’ve come to learn that goals can actually negatively affect us!  

Can goals be bad?  What about games without beginnings and ends?  

If we don’t have goals, what are we supposed to do instead?

Can we find a healthy balance between the two?

If not goals, then what?


Although I’m a huge fan of goal setting, research and personal experiences have shown me there are other really important factors when it comes to happiness and success. 

We all know that properly structured goals can give us a path to follow for life improvement.  However, if we’re not careful, we can spend ALL of our time working on goals, doing things that help us get to the next level, and never taking the time to appreciate the accomplishments of the things we just did!

On top of that, any time not spent time working on a goal is time wasted, right!?

This is something I struggle with greatly, whether it’s improving myself physically, mentally, or working hard on bettering the Nerd Fitness Rebellion.  There’s always something to be done, and always someway I can spend my free time that levels me up. And that’s good. That’s great!

But I also have to remind myself: “Tomorrow is no guarantee.”

I could get hit by a bus today! I could discover that my life is drastically altered or something could go horribly wrong. Kind of morbid, I know, but I don’t mean it that way.  I just mean that we have to remind ourselves that we have a finite amount of time on this planet, and it’s important to remind ourselves to live life today, not just live for tomorrow.

Last week, I interviewed my friend Leo Babauta of the uber popular ZenHabits for The Nerd Fitness Academy, and we had a great discussion about his concept of “not having goals.”

Leo has been able to lose a tremendous amount of weight,radically overhaul his diet, quit smoking, build a business, and even run a 50-mile ultramarathon, while also raising six children.

Does that sound like the accomplishments of a guy that doesn’t have any goals?

So, how does Leo get anything done?  In his own words:

You don’t set a goal for the year, nor for the month, nor for the week or day. You don’t obsess about tracking, or actionable steps. You don’t even need a to-do list, though it doesn’t hurt to write down reminders if you like.

What do you do, then? Lay around on the couch all day, sleeping and watching TV and eating Ho-Hos? No, you simply do. You find something you’re passionate about, and do it. It doesn’t mean you do nothing — you can create, you can produce, you can follow your passion.

You wake up (or after work) and do what you’re passionate about. For me, that’s usually blogging, but it can be writing a novel or an eBook or creating a course to help others or connecting with incredible people or spending time with my wife or playing with my kids. There’s no limit, because I’m free.

And there’s the rub: you have to open your mind to going places you never expected to go. If you live without goals, you’ll explore new territory. You’ll learn some unexpected things. You’ll end up in surprising places. That’s the beauty of this philosophy, but it’s also a difficult transition.

Some food for thought: When was the last time you actually accomplished all of the goals you set out for yourself in a year?  

Heck, how about the last time you crossed off all 30 things on your daily check list!?  

Life gets in the way, jobs get lost, kids have to come home sick from school, new roadblocks emerge, you get a flat tire and then your spare is flat (like me two nights ago), and those goals get pushed back or abandoned. 

When you don’t accomplish everything on your list, you feel like a failure because there are things left undone!  So, not only did you not follow through, but you didn’t get to where you wanted to be, and instead you are just a cotton-headed ninny muggins.  

Lastly, there’s always the issue that comes with actually accomplishing your goals.  Whether it’s obtaining that six-pack flat stomach, reaching a certain goal weight, or making a certain amount of money, buying a new car, we quickly adjust and make this accomplished goal our new norm.

Suddenly we’re asking, “That was it? Why am I not as happy as I thought I would be?  Oh crap, what do I do now?”

Now, I hear what you’re saying: “Steve, you’ve spent five years writing about setting proper goals and the importance of accomplishing them…what the Hell are you doing to me?!”

Don’t worry, my dear Rebel friend, I got you covered.  ALONG with goals, I feel like there are two other crucial pieces to this equation that are missing.

I present you with those two two philosophies…NOW!

Put your faith in the process

Open Box

Instead of setting goals and all of this long term planning, what if you put your faith in your day-to-day activities instead?

My buddy James Clear recently wrote a fantastic article about this very subject.  Here’s the challenge: Instead of setting goals that may or may not come true months/years from now, focus on your daily practices and trust that those daily practices will steer you in the right direction.

We oftentimes let our big goals overwhelm us.  We see that giant mountain looming and choose to not start, when in reality we should be putting one foot in front of the other.

Here’s how you can trust the process rather than the planning:

  • Instead of saying “I’m going to lose 20 pounds,” and thus feeling like a failure when you ONLY lose 15 pounds, say “I’m going to eat one healthy meal every day” and let your weight work itself out.
  • Instead of saying “I’m going to become a published author,” and getting so overwhelmed that we never start, how about “I’m going to write just 500 words a day, everyday.”  365 days later, you’ve written 182,500 words, enough to fill 3 books.
  • Instead of saying “I’m going to get healthy,” or “I’m gonna get to 10% body fat,” you say “I’m going to exercise for X minutes every other day.”

Goals can paralyze us.

Goals can disappoint us when they are not met.  

Instead, why not put the focus on the processes that you live by every day?  Focus all of your energy and willpower on the daily habits you’re building, and let the cards fall where they may.

If puzzle piece #1 is “proper goal setting,” and puzzle piece #2 is “using processes,” then what is our final Triforce piece?

Be present


When was the last time you did something purely for the enjoyment of it?

I remember spending HOURS playing the fishing game in the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time:

There have been some incredible games that have come out recently that don’t keep score; these games that allow you to zone out and just enjoy it: games like Flower and flOw.

These titles are more of an experience and an art form than game.   

Not looking ahead to the future, but purely enjoying the activity and nothing else.  We can find this in our exercise, our work, our hobbies, and spending time with our friends.  It’s those moments when we look at the clock and wonder how it got so late.  These moments exist when we are in the zone.

Here are some examples getting in that zone and being immersed in the present:

  • Take up a hobby, even if you suck at it.  To quote my buddy Rog, “Embrace the suck.”  I love to play the piano/guitar and sing.  I’m mediocre at one, horrible at the other, and I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.  That being said, I spend at least 15 minutes every day playing some instrument because it makes me happy.  I can’t wait to suck at the violin next!
  • Enjoy your time with friends and family.  Friends and family are two of the most important things on this planet.  Do you eat dinner while checking your iPhone and reading email?  Or do you have an actual conversation with those at your dinner table?
  • Read a book purely for enjoyment.  I make sure I alternate my thought-provoking level-up books (currently Antifragile) with fun fiction (The Warded Man series).  
  • When was the last time you just did NOTHING? James Altucher, one of like four bloggers I actually read religiously, writes about how important it can be sometimes to do nothing.
  • PLAY.  All work and no play makes Jack a Dull Boy (Also, no beer and no TV make Homer something something, but that’s beside the point).  If you spend all of your time working and stressing yourself out with goals, you can get burned out.  Even worse, you can zone out and realize that you’ve spent a decade living life like a countdown rather than enjoying it! So, spend time acting like a kid.  Go play on a playground!  Don’t worry about sets, and reps, and progress. Just go play. Swing from trees, roll around with your dog or kid in the backyard.

TL:DR: Find the activities that make you feel alive and people who make you lose track of time. 

Enjoying the life that you are CURRENTLY living.  Right now. That moment? It’s already gone. It just happened.

I feel like Dark Helmet at this point:

“When will then be now? NOW!”

Tomorrow is no guarantee!  Spend some time each day doing the things you love, with the people you love, and be thankful that you get that opportunity.  There are billions and billions of people who have already passed away that don’t get that chance.

Don’t squander it.

A balance in the force


Just as there needs to be balance in the Force to bring peace to the galaxy, we too need to have a balance in our lives that gives us the best chance to say, “good game” on that game-over screen, whenever it may come.

When somebody asks “Did you enjoy your story?” I want you to say “HELL YES.”

So how do we get there? In this nerd’s humble opinion, a combination of goals and being present gives you the best chance to succeed in your journey to a healthier body, a fulfilling career, and a life worth living.

Think about it in terms of your workout: the goal is to reach that point where we actively enjoy the activity we are completing.  We’re not punishing ourselves with exercise to reach a far-off goal, but rather enjoying our time doing what we’re doing.  We get to zone out and just focus on the activity, not the end goal that it will get us closer too.  Now, as a fun side effect of us doing this fun but challenging activity with regularity? We also happen to get closer to our fitness/physique goals.
I know this balance is important, which is why I make sure to devote at least a portion of each day to each:  

  • Goals can be important.  If you are in a bad job, unhealthy, in a crappy relationship, or want to accomplish great things, goals can help you steer yourself in the right direction.  I definitely have goals for my time on this earth, and have turned my life into a video game to accomplish them.  Goals speak to me, as do accomplishments, levels, and rewards. I lay out why in my life as a gamer article.  I devote a portion of my day to taking small steps of progress on these goals.
  • Put your faith in the process.  Each month, I pick a new habit to build, and I follow my hard hat challenge procedures to make it happen.  Last month, I built the habit of handstands, and this month I’m building the habit of meditation (just 2 minutes every morning with   A small portion of my day is dedicated to these habits, as I know in the long run they make me a better, more well rounded person.  I have no goals with these habits other than to just do them each day, and put faith in the fact that my life will improve just by doing them regularly.
  • Be present.  I follow my “productivity hacks” to get my goals and habits done as efficiently as possible so that I can free up my personal time to spend doing things I enjoy: whether it’s learning a new skill, playing a new musical instrument, playing a video game (currently ACIV for me!), eating dinner with friends or your family (no electronics at the table!), reading books, or simply doing nothing.  Sometimes, moments of nothing allow you to be dangerously efficient when you ARE working.

What do you think:  Are goals important?  Can they be detrimental?  How do you balance goals with enjoying each day?

I’d love to continue the discussion in the comments below.



photo source: Kroejsanka: Play on Beach, Kalexanderson: Balancing Stormtrooper, Paxon Woelber: On Mountain, Kalexanderson: Stormtrooper Box, Corscri Daje Tutti, jpmath: Nintendo

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40 thoughts on “For the Love of the Game

  1. I started doing yoga twenty years ago. I can’t even remember *why* I started, and don’t remember having any specific goals. However, by making it a habit and trusting in the process, at age 48 I am stronger and more flexible than I was as a teenager. I also still wear the same size I did in college.
    Goals are important, but once we have defined a truly, personally, meaningful goal, it’s all about the process. One perfect workout does not make a person fit; one perfect meal does not deliver great nutrition. Process, habit, persistence.

  2. This is a really good post. I’ve been trying to figure out how to balance goal setting with my need for nothing. When I say need for nothing, I mean that I can’t function very well without at least a few hours of “nothing,” nothing being general leisure time that is completely unstructured and I can do with it whatever I desire. Good to know that fun can lead to success without having to stress about meeting goals.

  3. This is one area in that I think that I differ from most in that I like to set unrealistic goals, often knowing at the time that I will most likely never get there but for me it works as motivation. I think that I thrive more on the challenge than the end results.
    For me if a goal is too attainable then I dont get the motivation/inspiration to push myself. EG with my cycing, i currently commute 10km each way to and from work. But I wanted to do longer rides. I set a mini goal of 60km in a singleride which on my first ride after I set the goal I rode 35km easily and didnt feel any motivation for the goal at all.
    However I also have a goal of riding 5000km for 2014 (I only rode 2500 in 2013). Due to weather and other life interuptions I dont expect that I will achieve it but im sure as anything highly motivated to ride on those days that I really just want to jump in the car.

  4. I kinda follow this already, actually, though it is nice to see it in writing. I have goals, I want the 6-pack abs, to do a pistol squat, etc, but I don’t stress about meeting them. There isn’t a timeline for me and frankly it can be hard to get to doing the things I need to do when I want to. Right now I’ve got two tasks going:
    1. I need to do some kind of physical activity every day, this can be as simple as stretching.
    2. I need to spend some time working on programming every day. I’m doing this in the form of a 180 day project where I work on something every day for 180 days, commit the work to github and do a blog post about it.

    I know I’ll reach my goals eventually, but I do get easily overwhelmed when I focus on them, so I’ve just stopped focusing on them.

  5. I love this article. Linking three important ways to have a good life into a cohesive whole. My attitudes to my goals and my NF 1st challenge is all about setting up processes. Tracking my stepcount to encourage moving everyday, setting up a regular exercise routine using the Basic Body Weight Workout and encouraging others with their processes.
    With the BBWW I can only do two sets at the moment, but I enjoy doing them and noticing the differences I feel in doing them. I know that I will expand the amount I am doing, but my focus is creating the habit. This article clearly outlines how I feel about goals, I just didn’t know how to articulate it effectively. Thankyou Steve

  6. I love these articles, and have been sharing them every week with my Facebook peeps. I really love this one, though: We get attached to the idea of progress at the expense of the feeling of achievement, and we suffer for it. It’s important, as you said above, to stop and smell the roses. Sure, the roses might smell like they’ve been pumping out decline pushups, but why not enjoy the road we’re on instead of stressing how many miles we need to hit?

    Thanks, Steve. My six weeks with the Rebellion have been such a powerful Force in my life!

  7. I’ve actually been doing progressless challenges for a while. It bums me out to not meet a goal while i’ve put in the effort. So i do effort based challennges mostly.

    Exercise a few times a week for example. But I also turn things around, instead of drinking less coke i drink more other stuff.

    For me this change came based on a talk with my psychiatrist. She said no one can determine the outcome just the input. So do not put yourself down for the outcome feel good about the effort you gave it.

  8. This is a great post and reflects my own struggles a bit with goals. What I find works best for me is a mix of both approaches. I find if I’m too fixated on goals my inner darth vader soon comes out and I lose my motivation and some bad habits start to re-emerge. If I focus on that kick-arse, ready to take on the world feeling I get when I eat and exercise well I maintain my motivation. It can feel a bit aimless at times, so a goal for a workout and some medium term goals help with my focus.

  9. Thanks for this! I’m a VERY goal oriented individual living with a VERY process oriented person. This has caused some unrest in our lives but this is a very insightful look at balancing and appreciating both approaches to life without letting either interfere with your motivation. Thanks for putting into words for us!

  10. I set a goal a little over two years ago to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Although I’ve yet to qualify (I’m getting closer), I’ve acquired a love for running (and core workouts) that I never had previously or never would have had without the goal. Even if I never make it, it’s been worth it. I think that’s what you’re getting at here.

    Another note: Last year I set a process goal, run 10 miles or more 50 times during the year, with no end goal to focus on. This goal was challenging and fun and I accomplished it while ENJOYING some of the best running of my life. I get what you’re saying, Steve. Thanks for the reminder and keep up the good work.

  11. I am so ready for the next warded man book to come out and game of thrones… *sigh* I am impatient. That said, I like this idea of taking time away from rigid end goals, and focusing on just enjoying the pieces of the process. Just doing.

  12. I’m a bit fan of James’s too and I found his article and this one really reassuring. I push myself in the gym all the time, or at least work out the best and hardest I can on any given day, but felt I was being made to feel guitly about then going home and doing nothing – watching some tv or reading. I felt like I *should* be doing something more ‘constructive’ but actually, we all need down time and some of the best quality time I’ve had is when I’ve done….erm…not much. My boyfriend has also got dogs (two beautiful, but stooopid dalmatians). Being with them all is when I feel at some of my happiest and like a kid. Does it involve a goal? Only that of being happy and avoiding stepping in poop in the park when it’s dark!

  13. I’ve read numerous posts over the last 4-6 weeks about “goal setting” but this is the best by far. Thank you for the time and effort that you put into it and be assured that I will be thinking about it often in my own goal setting endeavors.

  14. Thank you for opening this conversation.
    I’ve acutely felt this disjunction between the value goals have in direction-setting and the negative impacts they can have (self-deprecation when you fall short; the ‘what next?’ feeling when it’s checked off the list and normalized). I think the only solution to this conundrum is to use them for their good, and have perspective on them to mitigate their bad. I like the idea of process-focused goals, too – your goal is building a process, not obtaining some arbitrary milestone. Though those have their benefits too! This is so confusing!

  15. Very good post Steve. The discussion about the negative effects of goal setting was very helpful. I’m starting a business for the summer and trying to keep up the good fitness habits I already have. One of the most important things for goal setting is breaking goals down to easily attainable chunks so that you know you’re on the right track. Too many big goals just leads to paralysis without proper planning. I have also found that doing nothing can make working time much more efficient.

  16. Thanks for your blog that I get regularly. Balanced information on health, excerise and life, you do make me laugh a lot which is also good medicine. “Embrace the suck”, I like as life just suck’s some times

  17. Have you come across the theory that we should have systems not goals? The difference being a goal is “Lose 10 pounds” but a system is “I eat a healthy lunch every day”. Both may achieve the same result ultimately, but with a system you win every time you eat a healthy lunch, you don’t have to wait till you’ve lost 10 pounds. Scott Adams (Dilbert creator) is a big advocate of this theory.

  18. Brilliant post.

    I do a bit of both (goals and process), but fitness-wise I actually tend to “just” follow the process and adapting as I go. There are rarely any real stalls or plateaus – instead there’s slow, almost glacial progress. Not really that glacial if viewed from month-to-month, but it can be hard to keep that perspective sometimes.

    There’s also something to be said for momentum: once you get off your behind and start writing/lifting/practicing it’s a lot easier to keep going. The hardest part is, more often than not, just beginning. In my opinion, that’s the greatest benefit of a process-oriented mindset.

  19. Recently, I’ve been thinking very often about the issue you are tackling in this article: how can I balance my need of setting goals with my desire of living joyfully every day? The wise approach is to understand that goals have nothing to do with happiness: the wise purpose is finding happiness here and now. On the contrary we often grow up thinking that we will be happy when we’ll accomplish a goal (a graduation, a family, financial stability).
    Since I left this idea (goals=happiness) – and the transition took me lot of time – I could come back to my dreams and inspirations with a more wise and detached state of mind: and that proves to be much more effective to realise them!

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