Futile Goals and Deadly Distractions

Futile goals can be seductive, but they invariably keep us from reaching our full potential. Identify them and eliminate them for a more fulfilling life.

There are aspects of both our culture and our nature that lure us towards the dark side, towards empty pursuits that distract us from our deeper purpose. We are drawn, as they say, like a moth to a flame…

The sad reality is that many, many people burn up their lives on pursuits that promise so much but deliver so little.

An addiction to distraction is the end of your creative production.Robin Scharma

See Waste in Futile Goals

If the goals we have are worthless, any success we have in achieving them is just a waste of time and resource. As Stephen Covey once said:

If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.Stephen R. Covey

Unfortunately, many of the life goals that are most common in our society are the goals that are least valuable in helping us maximise our potential.

Know Your Enemy

Some of the most common of these empty pursuits include:

  1. Possessions
  2. Pleasure
  3. Power
  4. Prestige

Of course, none of these things is a bad thing in itself:

  1. A certain number of possessions – such as the tools of your trade – are a necessity.
  2. Taking pleasure in what we do, who we are who we’re with is a normal and healthy way to live.
  3. Developing self-control and being responsible for your life is a worthwhile pursuit.
  4. Receiving praise for a job well done is perfectly fine.

The problem comes, however, when any of these things becomes a primary goal rather than a consequence of a more fundamental goal. For example, you may need to own tools because you need them to do your job. In this case the possessions serve a purpose beyond themselves. However, if you own the latest gadget to impress other people, then that gadget has become a drain on your life rather than a true benefit. The gadget serves a social function rather than meeting a real need.

Understand Why We’re Fooled

There are several reasons why these pursuits appear so attractive:

Cultural Appeal

I’ve already touched on the fact that for many of us, the cultural norm is to place a high value on possessions, pleasure, power and prestige. From the cradle we’ve been indoctrinated to believe that owning more stuff will make us happy, that success is measured by position and that having fun at the weekend is a reward for our labours during the week.

The real problem with these messages is not that they aren’t true, but that there is a grain of truth in them. So often, the messages of our culture are half-truths, and as such they are worse than outright lies. For example, there certainly are benefits to owning your own home, but there are also drawbacks. Owning a home is a worthwhile goal if a rational assessment of the pros and cons leads you to the conclusion that it would beneficial to do so. On the other hand, home-ownership isn’t desirable if your reasons are primarily social or emotional: because your parents think it is the right thing to do, or because you gain kudos from owning that big property up on the hill.

Practical Appeal

A second reason that these aims are attractive is because they appear to deliver results. Buying a new shirt could well help you feel better about yourself, at least in the short term. Unfortunately, the highs don’t last. More often than not, making a second purchase fails to deliver the same high as the first. As the returns diminish, you have to invest increasing amounts of time and energy chasing another high. What appeared to work in the past may not always work in the future – but by then, our habits of thinking and behaviour may be difficult to unlearn.

Emotional Appeal

Perhaps the main reason that these goals seem to be attractive is because they appeal to our emotions. Our emotions are often a more powerful force that we realise, and have a surprisingly powerful influence over the decisions we make. If we’re experiencing an emotional deficit, we often look to possessions, pleasure, power and prestige to redress the balance.

For example, consider someone whose self-esteem needs bolstering. It is easy to see how buying a new gadget, enjoying a good meal or receiving a promotion might make that person feel better. And whilst there is nothing wrong with any of these things in their own right, that person has a real problem if their self-esteem is dependent on external events rather than a deep sense of self worth.

Unfortunately, it is far easier to see other people falling into these traps than it is to see ourselves doing so. Truth be told, however, I’m more vulnerable in this area than I generally like to admit.

See Your Faulty Values

These reasons and others lead us to developing faulty value systems where we focus on the promise of these things rather than their results. We learn to focus on:

  • The things that we own over the person we’re becoming
  • Things that are easy rather than things that are effective
  • Control over things and others rather than mastery of self
  • How we appear rather than who we are
  • The things we consume rather than the things we produce
  • … and so on.

Overcome the Distractions

So, how do we overcome these distractions? I don’t have all the answers, but some of the things that help me include:

Become Self-Aware

Becoming aware of the power of these distractions is a powerful first step in overcoming their lure. Indeed, it is sometimes enough simply to acknowledge the reality of a seduction in order to overcome it. At the same time, however, understanding the power of a thing doesn’t always diminish that power. It is all too easy for us to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re in control of our own appetites when, in fact, they are still guiding our actions.

Reprogram Your Habits

It is impossible to think two opposing thoughts at the same time or to travel in two opposite directions simultaneously. By intentionally thinking and acting in ways that oppose these distractions we can make inroads into overcoming our attraction to them. For example, instead of nurturing a desire for more stuff by browsing the Argos catalogue or going window shopping, take time to

  • Be thankful for what you already have
  • Maintain the things you already own
  • Practice generosity
  • Serve those less fortunate than yourself
  • Develop your value rather than accumulating more stuff
  • Read more about simplicity and minimalism

Develop Your Mission

Every one of us has a purpose beyond owning things, becoming rich and famous or receiving accolades. When we develop this mission, we drive these secondary concerns into their appropriate place.

Personally, I am persuaded that my mission in life stems from a recognition of God’s rightful place in my life. I believe that he is the ultimate source of my security, significance and self-worth. When I allow him to be my master, everything else falls into place. By embracing his mission for my life, I overcome my tendency to look for value, importance and confidence elsewhere.

We’re on a mission from God. Elwood (The Blues Brothers)

Seek Help

None of us can do this on our own. If you really want to overcome the distractions that keep you from achieving your best, recruit friends and family who can help you stay on track. As I mentioned earlier, it is much easier for other people to see the areas where you’re fooling yourself, so asking a few trusted friends to help you focus on what really matters may be just the thing you need to keep you from getting burned.