How to set goals that don’t make you miserable

Goals matter because they give you something to aim for. And you need something to aim for in order to make life worth living. Life is difficult no matter what, so you need to do things to make it worthwhile. But not all goals are equal. You have choices you need to make, and your choices determine whether you as a person are living up to the stark facts about the difficulties of life.

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” .

Friedrich Nietzsche

How to set meaningful goals: create hierarchies

Start by picking the most important things you can accomplish in your life, then work your way towards setting smaller and smaller goals that serve your larger ones.

Example: how a high-school student sets their life goals

Here is how a high-school student might build a goal hierarchy by picking the largest goal he can and working backwards.

  1. I want to do the most possible to remove suffering in the world
  2. I will have a successful international non-profit that will completely eradicate malaria with nets and treatments, which is a high-priority initiative to save lives
  3. The non-profit will start in Nigeria before moving to other countries
  4. Getting the non-profit started will necessitate me getting connections in the business world, so I can get enough funding to keep going
  5. So I’ll have to go to university, get a business degree and work in a field like consulting or investment banking to get the connections and skills I need
  6. I will apply to business school to get this done by the end of the month

You can still have multiple goals

You don’t have to have a perfect pyramid of goals. It’s inevitable that not everything has to be connected to one another, so don’t worry.

Why you should pick the highest goal possible

It allows you to deal with the trade-offs on smaller goals

You have limited time and resources. And likewise, you have a lot of related goals that you want to get done. So if you have a larger goal you need to achieve, then that’s the priority.

If you have some larger goal to obtain, you can see which other disparate goals get to take priority at any given time.

You feel the movement towards your goals at different levels

If you have your goals arranged into a stack, for every task you complete you’ll feel the progress at different levels towards your highest goals. Because the smallest tasks connect to your immediate goals, which connect to your medium-term and long-term goals.

Even the most mundane tasks have a special motivation behind them

To accomplish goals, you have to hit smaller, related goals that connect to your larger overarching goal. And these tasks are often mundane and normally don’t feel like they have some sort of inherent reward in them. But when you get a sense of how they relate to the larger goal you’re trying to achieve, they get a special feeling behind them because it’s as if you’re serving the larger goal. It’s training your mind to get dopamine flowing as you’ll be focused on your larger goals while doing mundane work. 

A great example of how mundane tasks can have a special motivation behind them is practising religion. If you’re a Christian priest, you’ll have various tasks that may be boring if you strip away the religious context, such as passing out bread and wine to a bunch of people over a long period of time. But these tasks have a special purpose behind them because they connect to the larger goal of serving a god and helping people’s eternal souls.

How to set goals for yourself

Start by picking your highest goals first and work backward

Pick your most noble goal. As in, pick the goals that are most worth reaching in your whole life. Then figure out all of the milestones you need to get there, which are smaller, more manageable goals.

Balance the tangible goals with ideals

You have certain vague values such as making the world better, reducing suffering, and leaving a legacy. These values are good ways to view the world. But what they lack is direction. So it’s important to take a step down in your goal stack and pick a tangible mission that fulfils most, if not all of your values.

Arrange goals into a stack

You should be able to roughly arrange your goals into a stack, with the most impactful, long-term goals at the top, followed by smaller goals that feed into them. 

Reconcile your desires with your goals

Ray Dalio, creator of Principles and the hedge fund Bridgewater sums it up perfectly:

“Decide what you really want in life by reconciling your goals and your desires. What will ultimately fulfill you are things that feel right at both levels, as both desires and goals.”

Desires are things that we want that fulfill us in the near term, like if you have the desire for unhealthy but good tasting food. Whereas goals are typically longer-term and require you to invest time now for a goal in the future. So the sweet spot is to pick goals that can fulfill both ends, meaning your desires feed into your goals

Define failure in clear terms

If you don’t measure what failure looks like, you won’t know whether you’re making progress or not. And if you don’t know whether you’re making progress, you can be in the wrong direction and not know it and even get into a downwards spiral.

Great goals are explicit about the trade-offs they are taking

Picking a goal means you are also saying no to doing other things because goals mean you are optimizing something at the expense of something else. So being explicit about what these trade-offs are and what you’re saying no to is very important. Some examples:

  1. How investors usually express their deployment to a company in terms of trading money for time. A company can do a lot more things quickly if they have the money, to pursue a greater goal such as being a category winner in a company
  2. Working hard in the present so that you can take a break in the future. People in their 20’s sometimes allocate most of their time working, which means trading their youth and time spent savoring life, in order to make more money now which can be used to invest in their future

How to set team-wide and company-wide goals

Take a big problem in the world and justify why it’s worth solving

Big goals are inspirational, such as trying to prevent or slow down climate change. This type of goal is about as high as you can go when you’re aiming, and it helps justify the company’s existence.

Set the company’s mission as solving a branch of the bigger problem

Now let’s get realistic. It’s not possible for any single company to solve a big problem like climate change, at least at the current scale of even the largest companies in the world. So to make the company’s goals possible, they must solve a branch of the larger issue. Luckily, large problems have lots of sub-problems to tackle so there’s no shortage of inspiring problems to choose from.

Refine the goal with a tangible north star

For a company to grow quickly, it needs to be constrained by a tangible north star that signals to all employees on what they’re working towards, regardless of their status or position within the company.

Examples of great company north star goals

Tesla’s north star goal


“to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass-market electric cars to market as soon as possible”

Google’s north star goal


“Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

How to know if you set a great company-wide goal

Is the goal actionable?

Tesla and Google’s north star goals are great because every person in the organization has an easy litmus test for any action that they’re doing. For instance with Tesla, everyone can ask themselves for each action or goal they’re working towards, whether or not they’re doing something to move the company towards sustainable transport.

Is the goal worthwhile?

Picking worthwhile goals is inherently subjective since what’s considered “worthwhile” is always up for debate. Since goals are usually difficult to achieve regardless of scale, there is a knack for people to seek big goals to work towards to justify the investment.

Is it possible to optimize the goal?

There should be a part of the goal that defines success clearly, or in a way that you can tease out easily. For Google, the optimization goal is organizing all of the world’s information usefully. And for Tesla, the optimization goal is to reduce the critical path toward bringing compelling mass-market cars to the market.


It’s hard to know even where to start when you’re setting your goals, despite them being so important. So start with the biggest goals you can accomplish and then figure out the other, related goals you need to accomplish. Go from vague to specific with your goals, as you’ll be able to paint a clearer picture the smaller and closer in time it is. Arrange your goals into a stack, so you’ll know how everything you do lines up with your other, greater goals. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *