A Better Alternative to Resolutions and Goals

There are probably a lot of reasons your New Year’s resolutions aren’t going to plan this year.

But do they ever?

It’s funny how we make them even though they rarely stick.

Setting normal “goals” throughout the year isn’t much more effective…

Problems with Goals

Previous podcast guest, James Clear, wrote a great post highlighting the problems with goals but here are a few that I’ve experienced myself:

Reduce Current Happiness

“Oh, I’ll be happy when I hit FI! I’ll do all the things I’ve been planning to do after I reach FI!”

As I found out, happiness doesn’t just appear when you cross some arbitrary number on a screen.

When you reach the finish line but don’t experience the happiness you were expecting, you tend to just move the goalposts or create a new goal, thus further delaying your happiness even more.

Reduce Motivation

When you only focus on the big, intimidating finish line, it can be hard to stay motivated to get there.

“How am I going to run 26.2 miles when I can’t even run one mile without feeling awful?! Might as well quit now, I guess.”

Bad for Long-Term Progress

What happens after you acheive your goal?

Here’s my friend throwing away her running shoes in NYC after completing the New York City marathon:

Meeting the big goal of running a marathon felt like the miserable end of a long journey and she said she was never running again (I’m not sure she has).

A Personal Tale of Two Approaches

Back in 2017, I wanted to make progress on two different things…songwriting and fitness.

I approached each of those things differently though.

For songwriting, I declared at the 2017 Chautauqua that I was going to finish a song by March 31, 2017.

For fitness, I decided I just wanted to go to the gym 2-4 days a week for the rest of my life. I didn’t really care about benching a certain weight or putting on a certain amount of muscle mass…I just wanted to get healthy and stay healthy.

So here’s what happened with those two things…


I suffered through a few months of trying to write a song. I eventually wrote something that could be considered a song and then I finished that sort-of-song on March 31st, 2017…meeting my target and achieving my goal.

Immediately after though, I stopped writing music. I lost all motivation, since I no longer had the goal driving me, and I wasn’t enthusiastic about doing it again because the song I wrote wasn’t any good.

Since I was so focused on the finished product, I didn’t develop any good habits in the process so I had nothing to fall back on when the goal was finished.

It wasn’t until late 2019 that I’d start trying to write music again (with much more success this time, thankfully).


Contrast that with my fitness journey and it’s the complete opposite.

I continued going to the gym through 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 (until COVID shut them down) and I likely exceeded any goals or weight targets I would have set at the beginning, thanks to my consistency.

So What to Focus on Instead?

The best way I’ve found to make progress on the things that are important to me is to focus on mastery instead.

Mastery is simply making sure you can answer yes to the question, “Are you better today than you were yesterday?”

You’re not concerned with outcomes…you only care about putting the time in and making sure that time is spent effectively.

That’s why the Ultralearning Experiment was so beneficial – it made me determine the most important things to focus on and it forced me to spend time doing those things.

Doesn’t Delay Happiness

Unlike goals, mastery encourages you to enjoy the process.

You’re not delaying happiness until you accomplish something. You’re not putting all your hopes on some unpredictable future.

You’re just building a life around something important to you and you enjoy the benefits of making progress on that thing.

Especially Important for Early Retirees

Mastery is particularly important for people who achieve financial independence early in life.

If you leave your job in your 30s or 40s, you potentially have 60+ years of freedom in front of you so it makes sense to do things that you enjoy for a long time, rather than constantly achieving and replacing short-term goals.

Can Replace the Best Aspects of Your Job

In Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, he states that autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the three components of an enjoyable and fulfilling career/life.

Although early retirees gain a huge amount of autonomy after leaving work, sometimes they find that mastery and purpose are lacking from their post-employment life. And lacking in these two areas can often leads to unhappiness.

Focusing on mastery after early retirement can help you find those missing components and allow you to enjoy your autonomy even more.

As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states in his book, Flow:

Contrary to what we usually believe…the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

And here he is describing why early retirees could find themselves less happy after leaving their job:

On the job people feel skillful and challenged, and therefore feel more happy, strong, creative, and satisfied. In their free time people feel that there is generally not much to do and their skills are not being used, and therefore they tend to feel more sad, weak, dull, and dissatisfied.

So if you’re rushing to retire early because you think all your problems will be solved and happiness will instantly materialize, you may be disappointed.

Hugely Beneficial Shift in Mindset

I can attest to the positive impact the change of mindset from goals to mastery has had.

As I was finishing my album, I decided I wanted to write one more song for the album.

A goal like that would have crippled me in the past, especially considering I only had a month to get the song finished. But thanks to my experience over the previous months of just focusing on putting in the hours and letting the songs come as they may, I simply continued with my normal routine.

I put in as many hours as I could during that month and thankfully, a new song did emerge (for those who ordered the album, the last song on the album is the one I wrote during that final month).

I knew that the only thing I could control was the amount of time I worked and I also knew that a song would eventually come out of that work so I just trusted the process.

Although the goal of finishing a song helped focus my effort, keeping my attention on the habits of mastery (and allowing the song to be a by-product of the process) was maybe the biggest mental breakthrough I had during the whole project.

Five-Year Blocks

A few years ago, I filled in a Life Weeks spreadsheet from Wait But Why.

I found it again recently and I noticed something…

It’s amazing what you can accomplish in 5 years with slow but persistent progress.

Looking at my life, here’s what I focused on during those 5-year blocks and what I was able accomplish during that time…

15-20Education (or more honestly, Beer/Girls)Got into great school and got a degree in Computer Science
20-25CareerBuilt a successful career in software that allowed me to eventually achieve FI
25-30Grad SchoolFree Ivy League Degree
30-35Mad FientistBuilt a successful and profitable blog/podcast/business
35-40MusicWrote an album! And I still have a few years left so can’t wait to see what else happens :)

Playing Long Game Gives Better Chance of Success

Just like investing, it seems like you have a higher chance of success if you play the long game because you outlast the people looking for a quick win.

Here is the income/traffic graph for the Mad Fientist over the years:

People playing the short game would have quit in 2012, 2013, 2014, or 2015 and wouldn’t have been around to reap the benefits in years 2017-2019.

You can see that my focus shifted in 2019 to my new 5-year topic to master (i.e. music) but…

You Don’t Have to Stop After Five Years

That’s not to say you should stop and move on completely after five years.

After doing something for that long, you’ve no doubt developed habits that will allow you to easily continue, even while you start something new and more difficult.

The skills I picked up in college allowed me to continue learning throughout my life.

The computer-programming skills I learned during my career allowed me to build useful tools like the Travel Card Tool and the FI Laboratory for the Mad Fientist.

The writing skills I developed during grad school helped me present information more effectively here and elsewhere.

And everything I learned about online business/marketing with the Mad Fientist will now hopefully help me promote my new album more successfully.

Forget about FI

After saying that, what do I now think about the goal of FIRE?

I say you forget about it completely.

Instead, focus on mastering the relationship between Time, Money, and Happiness.

I put off my happiness until I hit FI and that was the wrong way to do it. Here’s how I was skewed in those pre-FI years:

I devoted most of my time to earning more money and I sacrificed my happiness so that I could save more money to hit FI quicker.

As I chatted to Ramit Sethi about recently, I think I’m still slightly skewed in the same way so I’m trying to find ways to use the money I accumulated to buy more time and increase our happiness.

Just like mastering other things, I feel like mastering this equation is going to be a lifelong pursuit so I plan to continue experimenting/tweaking/assessing indefinitely.

Not Going to Be Easy

Although focusing on mastery will likely yield better longterm results than focusing on goals, that’s not to say it’s easy.

Self Doubt

You’ll still have to push through crippling self doubt, as I’ve experienced many times over the past year.

Here are ways I found to make that easier…

Find Your Most-Productive Time of Day

I’ve found that evenings are awful for me so I don’t try to do anything creative or difficult in the evenings.

It seems like my confidence slowly drains away during the day so by the time the evening rolls around, I hate everything I produce.

Rather than fight that, I make sure to do my creative stuff early in the day and then I just relax in the evenings (or do easier tasks that don’t take willpower/confidence).

Understand Your Biases

I realize that I’m too harsh on myself so I now try to assume everything I make is 25-50% better than I think it is.

This became apparent when I heard one of my articles on the Optimal Finance Daily podcast.

The Optimal Finance Daily podcast takes popular blog posts and reads them out as a podcast episode.

When I first heard one of my blog posts being read by someone else, I enjoyed that post so much more (since it wasn’t my internal voice reading it).

It was a post I wasn’t that happy with when I posted it but when a guy with a British accent read it, I thought it was great!

That showed me I’m overly critical of my internal voice (which I’m sure is true for 98% of the population).

That realization now helps me publish things when I’m not feeling as confident.

Recognize Your Creative Cycle

I’ve realized that any time I create something, I go through the same cycle:

  • Initially really excited about an idea
  • Quickly become overwhelmed by what needs to be done to make the idea a reality
  • Make some progress and get really excited about idea again
  • Work feverishly and get close to being able to publish
  • Start obsessing about a million small details and eventually hate what I made (probably because I’m spending so much time obsessing about the minutia)
  • Get fed up and just publish it to be done with it
  • Feel initial relief at finally getting it out into the world
  • Get into a funk the next day, no matter what kind of feedback I receive (maybe because I’ve been working so hard and have been so focused, so the rubber band pings back in the opposite direction)
  • Weeks or months later, I look at what I produced and I’m surprised how good it is and how much I like it (despite hating it when I released it)

Knowing this about myself has made it a lot easier to publish things and it’s also made it easier getting through the post-publishing funk because I know it’ll pass and it’s just part of the process.

Realize You’ll Never Be Satified

Former US Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, said this about mastery…

Figure out for yourself what you want to be really good at, know that you’ll never really satisfy yourself that you’ve made it, and accept that that’s okay

I’d take it a step further though…

You shouldn’t just accept that it’s okay…you should be thankful it’s that way because that means it will provide you a lifetime of challenge and enjoyment!

At first, I was overwhelmed by everything I had to learn to make the kind of music I wanted to make.

After I starting looking at that as a blessing rather than an obstacle, I wasn’t as overwhelmed and intimidated and that allowed me to get to work and make progress.

If you reach financial independence in your 30s or 40s, you have a lot of years to fill up so embrace the challenges and be thankful you have something interesting and challenging to keep you occupied for the rest of your life.

Only Your Emotions Stand In Your Way

In the book, Mastery, by Robert Greene, he states:

The only real impediment to this is yourself and your emotions – boredom, panic, frustration, insecurity.”

He continues…

You cannot suppress such emotions – they are normal to the process and are experienced by everyone, including Masters. What you can do is have faith in the process. The boredom will go away once you enter the cycle. The panic disappears after repeated exposure. The frustration is a sign of progress – a signal that your mind is processing complexity and requires more practice. The insecurities will transform into their opposites when you gain mastery. Trusting this will all happen, you will allow the natural learning process to move forward, and everything else will fall into place.

As I’ve experienced, you just have to get to work, try to work on the most-impactful thing you can, and do it for as long as you can.

It really is effective.

The Alternative is Much Harder

And although pursuing mastery isn’t easy, the alternative is much more difficult.

As I experienced, not pursuing my music project during my career was the biggest source of my unhappiness during that time.

In his book, Finish, Jon Acuff says this about not pursuing the things that are important to you:

Goals you refuse to chase don’t disappear, they become ghosts that haunt you. Do you know why strangers rage at each other online and are so quick to be angry and offended these days? Because their passion has no other outlet…Many a troll was born from the heartache of a goal he dared not finish. Maybe a troll is just someone who lost to perfectionism so many times he gave up on his own goals and decided to tear down someone else’s.

Don’t let that happen to you.

As hard as it was writing my album last year, the year before not writing my album was much worse.

Two Worlds

Finally, I’ll leave you with the thing that’s been most helpful to me with pushing through these issues…

I first said this to myself a few years ago but I’ve used it many more times since then.

The first time was when my brother was staying with us in Edinburgh and I thought to myself, what’s the point of this music project?

I realized the reason I wanted to make music was so that I could have fun playing live music (preferably with my little brother).

Since he was staying with us, I figured there was no reason to wait!

So I programmed a music set into Ableton (complete with backing instruments, real-time vocal effects/manipulations, etc.) and we decided to head out to the park and become the first synth-pop buskers ever.

We painted our faces with black-light paint, loaded up a battery-powered synthesizer, midi controller, microphone, boombox, and a bookshelf to put it all on and we went out into the park on a Monday evening and played weird synth-pop songs to people walking home from work.

It was ridiculous and as we were getting ready to do it, I thought to myself, “What the hell are we doing? This is crazy. We can’t do this.”

But then I thought, there are two possible worlds…one where we do this and one where we don’t. Which world would I rather live in?

Well, I knew what the world was like where we didn’t do it because that was the world I’ve always lived in.

I didn’t know what the world is like where we did it but I really want to find out.

So we did it, it was a lot of fun, and we actually got an offer to play a Scottish music festival because of it!

During the show, someone slipped me a piece of paper with his email address on it and when I emailed him, he asked if we wanted to play the 2018 Kelburn Garden Party.

Sadly my brother had to go back to the States before the festival, so we couldn’t do it, but hopefully we’ll be able to once COVID gets taken care of.

Just shows what can happen when you put yourself out there!

So now, whenever I’m apprehensive about publishing or doing something new, I always think about those two worlds and I always choose the world where I do it. And so far, I’ve never regretted it.

How About You?

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

I agree.

So what are you going to work on? What are you going to try to master? What do you plan to focus on over the next 5+ years?

Let me know in the comments below!

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77 comments for “A Better Alternative to Resolutions and Goals

  1. J. Money
    January 12, 2021 at 7:09 am

    You are mad and I love it, haha…

    • The Mad Fientist
      January 13, 2021 at 5:05 am

      Haha, thanks J$! By the way, are you still rocking RSS? You got that comment in there before I even told anyone the post was published :)

  2. Michelle @ FrugalityandFreedom
    January 12, 2021 at 8:42 am

    Such a great post! I’m in week 1 of my own “one year of salsa” challenge. Despite taking beginner classes five years ago and being enamoured with the idea of getting further into it, I’ve always found reasons not to. Now committing to a PRICEY one year unlimited pass to a dance school 5 minutes from my door with daily classes, there’s no excuse* (pandemic-pending). Wish me luck. Planning on 200hrs this year.

    PS. I can totally picture stumbling across two random dudes playing synth in the Meadows too. Perfect Edinburgh if you ask me. :)

    • The Mad Fientist
      January 13, 2021 at 5:06 am

      Nice, good luck! And as a cheap person, I’ve found that putting money into something is a great way to motivate yourself to do it!

    • Dennis
      January 13, 2021 at 3:28 pm

      Salsa is Spanish for Sauce. You are about to meet saucy women. Do have FUN!

  3. Lauren H
    January 12, 2021 at 8:52 am

    Love it.

    I remember hearing Tony Robbins talking about happiness at a seminar when I was younger. It is still something tough to measure and hold onto. It’s so abstract. But I think being aware of our emotional state, checking in from time to time (perhaps not to the level of a “sensitive” Brendan Fraser in Bedazzled) is a good plan. It looks like you’re checking in with your state and identifying the cycles really well. And good advice for everyone. Knowing how much of the time we feel frustrated etc vs any other emotions can be a good indicator of pushing too hard or not giving ourselves enough of a break.

    I think taking the bull by the horns and doing the crazy things is what makes people happiest. There is something in the activities that are just for our own sheer joy that not everyone would want to do, or would understand that connects to the core of our being.

    There is an element of feeling a little foolish at the start, like when you were getting ready to perform in Edinburgh. It reminded me of Christmas 2019, we lit up our bikes with EL wire and wore EL wire covered Christmas outfits to cycle to look at the Christmas lights singing carols from a boom box. We probably looked ridiculous but it was so much fun.

    Even though the cycle ended with us getting drenched in sideways rain on the way home, I just remember what a good time it was. It’s a powerful feeling.

    Kid on a swing happy. Lovely to hear about your experience.

    • The Mad Fientist
      January 13, 2021 at 5:09 am

      Haha, nice! It’s great when you realize it doesn’t really matter what people think of you because then you can really start to have fun :)

  4. Backpack Finance
    January 12, 2021 at 8:54 am

    Love it. The concept of infinite vs finite goals is fascinating. It’s something I really didn’t understand when I was younger.

    The next 5 years I’m focusing on martial arts and writing. A year in so far and enjoying every second of it.


    • The Mad Fientist
      January 13, 2021 at 5:10 am

      That’s great you’re enjoying it so much!

  5. Sara
    January 12, 2021 at 9:06 am

    I couldn’t agree more about the importance of finding the right balance between time, money, and happiness. Like you, I am guilty of having prioritized money (by staying far too long in a job I hated and took all my time).

    I wish I had the courage to give that up sooner to follow my passions many years ago :)

    But every experience in life teaches us something!

    And I don’t like goals! Never did! I am with you on getting a little better every day.

    And thank you from the bottom of my heart! You are one of the few people that inspired me when I began my journey!

    • The Mad Fientist
      January 13, 2021 at 5:10 am

      Really glad to hear that :)

  6. Imaan O
    January 12, 2021 at 9:07 am

    Mad Fientist, I am grateful for you and the energy you put into this post.
    Today I turned 25, and I think about how blessed I am to have seen this many days.
    The thoughts you shared here are priceless and the timing couldn’t have been better.
    Some of my favorite bits to read were about the 5 Year Focus Blocks, Life Weeks (what a perspective shift!), and recognizing creativity cycles.
    I can’t wait to share this one!
    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    • The Mad Fientist
      January 13, 2021 at 5:11 am

      Glad it was helpful and happy birthday!

  7. LD
    January 12, 2021 at 9:19 am

    Good article, I’ve spent my entire life looking towards “someday.” I’ll have to think on your words and put them to work,

  8. Kyle Keifman
    January 12, 2021 at 9:35 am

    This post was really encouraging for me.

  9. Kristi
    January 12, 2021 at 9:39 am

    This was so helpful. I want to thank you for taking the time to write it. I’ve been following your blog since the beginning.

    • The Mad Fientist
      January 13, 2021 at 5:25 am

      Thanks for reading for so long!

  10. Emma
    January 12, 2021 at 9:53 am

    This post reminds me of the life coaching work I’ve done through the Academy for Coaching Excellence. Mastering Life’s Energies by Maria Nemeth (the course and/or the book) may be of interest to you and other readers of your blog. It helped me understand my Life’s Intentions and I can focus on those when I am feeling unfulfilled, frustrated, etc. For instance, one of my Life’s Intentions is to be a loving partner. It brings me tons of joy when I demonstrate that. So, I might ask myself “how might I demonstrate being a loving partner in physical reality?” take action, and experience the benefits. It is super fulfilling to master obstacles in order to demonstrate who we truly are at our core and share our gifts and contributions with the world.

    Thanks for sharing your tangible examples and learning with us!

  11. Sam W
    January 12, 2021 at 10:16 am

    I think your personal journey has been as interesting as your financial one. I’ve been really toying with figuring out when (financial and career ladder versus personal happiness) is the right time to ask for a 35 hour work week. I think 30 – 35 hours is probably ideal for me and would result in many more happy years working. The staycations of 2020 have shown me I really only want to shift the balance between office and hobby, not remove office entirely.

    Based on your recommendation, I’ve picked up the Ultralearning book. My project is designing and sewing my wardrobe. I’ve really enjoyed figuring out how to apply his lessons to the skills I want to learn. Thanks!

    • The Mad Fientist
      January 13, 2021 at 5:25 am

      Sounds like now is a good time to try out 35 hours (and then you can figure out if 30 would be better).

      Good luck with your Ultralearning!

  12. Olivia
    January 12, 2021 at 10:31 am

    This came at just the right time. I recently started a yoga teacher training with no particular goal in mind. I just want to get good at it and see what happens. That’s a new approach for me (I’m usually someone who does goal setting and lots of to do list writing), and I was just heading into a slump. This post perked me up again.

  13. Life Outside The Maze
    January 12, 2021 at 10:34 am

    Yeah man, great post. I am an insanely goal driven person. However, those goals have often really been gateways to behavioral change and development for me. When I worked toward financial independence and then accepted it, it changed over time not into a finish line but a change in several behaviors. After 3 years of being happy with my fair fitness level, I have in 2021 made a goal of a 3 month intense sort of workout to try for a beach body sort of thing. I will get there because that follow through is a behavior that I have developed but the bigger question is whether I will then throw away the running shoes like your friend and stop the crunches or it will prove the gateway to a more intense and long term fitness behavior. Either is ok to me in my expectations out of the endeavor :) In this way I kind of like goals as experiments

  14. Olivia
    January 12, 2021 at 10:38 am

    Some more thoughts: I’ve been engaging a lot with the practices of meditation and yoga. Those are teaching me a similar lesson to what you’re writing in this post. The word “practice” indicates that we need to engage with them regularly, full engaged, and then we’ll reap the benefits. It’s really the same with most things. Turning areas of life that we want to learn more about or get better at into practices – regular/daily habits, even in small and sometimes seemingly insignificant steps – leads us to mastery over time. They become part of who were are.

  15. Steve in Colorado
    January 12, 2021 at 10:43 am

    I guess I will disagree. I like setting reasonable goals and achieving them. I see it as a way of measuring progress. However, I don’t delay happiness either. I enjoy myself along the way.

  16. VB_241
    January 12, 2021 at 10:50 am

    Fantastic article. Still working on giving my creative endeavors a true go (my own personal cycle is just the first two steps of your cycle repeated endlessly), but this year I finally reached a “zen” state with my reading. I stopped caring about the raw number of books I read in a year and re-focused on the actual purpose of reading: to absorb and enjoy information. I re-read some old favorites, I took notes on self-help books, I gave up on books I wasn’t enjoying even if I was 60% through, etc. Lo and behold, I read about the same number of books as I do most years, and I didn’t have to plow through a bunch of crappy, ghostwritten, 150 page memoirs from comedians in December to get closer to an arbitrary goal I set at the beginning of the year.

    I’m not perfect just yet, but hopefully I’ll continue making progress. Good luck with your musical aspirations; just subscribed to your YouTube channel this AM. Maybe I’ll pick up some tips for when I start trying to learn to play synths in earnest :)

    • The Mad Fientist
      January 13, 2021 at 5:33 am

      It’s crazy what happens when you start tracking things, isn’t it? I started keeping track of the books I read a few years ago too and then I noticed I started picking shorter and shorter books to read because I wanted to increase the number I finished/tracked during the year. So stupid! I still track (just so I remember what I’ve read) but I don’t care about how many I read in a year anymore.

  17. Kyle
    January 12, 2021 at 10:54 am

    Ten years ago when I first heard about FIRE, it was the ‘RE’ part that drew me in, not because I hated my job, I actually find it challenging and enjoyable, but because I was frustrated with my lack of free time to pursue my interests. About five years ago, I stopped caring about the ‘RE’ and focused more on the ‘FI’. Even though I’m still a few years away from full FI, my wife and I have plenty of FU$. That security has increased our happiness (by reducing stress). These days, I don’t spend much time thinking about ‘FI’ or ‘RE’, but instead I’m more of a student of happiness and satisfaction. These kinds of posts are my jam, keep it up. It was the end goal that got me interested in FIRE, but now it’s the journey that has been the true reward so far.

  18. Dan G
    January 12, 2021 at 12:10 pm

    Great article!

    My 5-year plans are:

    Work towards FI. Fortunately, this one is mostly automated for us at this point. Just keep auto-transferring to savings and retirement accounts each month and don’t buy anything silly :)

    Learn Japanese. I’m using multiple SRS systems to do daily reviews of kanji, vocabulary, and grammar. I’d also like to pass some of the JLPT language certification tests at some point, but I haven’t solidified that milestone yet. Right now I’m just focused on building daily practice habits.

    Continue to advance my career by learning new technologies and frameworks. This one is a little open-ended, but my main focus is getting involved with some newer open-source software projects that are unrelated to my usual technology stack.

  19. oh_imaano
    January 12, 2021 at 12:41 pm

    Thankful for you and the energy you put into writing this piece !

  20. Crispy Doc
    January 12, 2021 at 12:43 pm


    I’m spending the day on the couch in the malaise of my second vaccine dose side effects, preparing to return my ER in LA and work a hot zone shift this weekend. COVID is making work feel like one continuous mass casualty scenario, and we are on the verge of demand outstripping supply for ICU beds across numerous hospitals. It’s a disaster, and everyone in the trenches is exhausted.

    In the eye of this public health hurricane, it’s truly a breath of fresh air to read your post and recall those arenas within my control, and the future that awaits where I can look forward to developing mastery of other skills.

    Grateful to you for making your struggles both public and exemplary for the rest of us. It takes courage to be vulnerable in these ways, and gives many of us something better to look forward to.



    • The Mad Fientist
      January 13, 2021 at 5:43 am

      Can’t even imagine what health care workers are going through during this so glad to hear you’re at least getting vaccinated, best of luck, and hopefully the surge starts to decrease as more and more people get the vaccine.

  21. Dominic
    January 12, 2021 at 12:48 pm

    Thanks Brandon!

    Two years ago I couldn’t even run a quarter mile without IT band pain, and I finished a 12 mile race a few months ago. Running is still tough, but I am really thankful and amazed that I progressed so much. I saw a physical therapist a few times and they helped identify where I had limited range of motion. Improving my form and mobility really helped me run faster and farther. I didn’t plan it either, just ran a little further every few weeks and signed up for races to keep myself accountable.

    • The Mad Fientist
      January 13, 2021 at 5:44 am

      Congratulations on making such good progress!

  22. Greg R
    January 12, 2021 at 1:03 pm

    Most of your posts resonate with me, but this has struck the strongest chord to date. My wife and I run a few content channels, a couple of which are growing nicely, but the one I care most about, Stake Your Wealth, is off to a very slow start. I even considered dropping it entirely. But your bit about your dreams haunting with you is spot on. It haunts me every week I didn’t work on it. What I’ve done to overcome this inertia is rethink how I approach the content production process so that it is much less of a hurdle. I’ve time-blocked a small portion of the week exclusively for working on content production and I’ve restructured my process to require far less micromanagement. The end result is that the content gets produced consistently without it taking up much of my weekly time budget, and more important, I get a wonderful rush of accomplishment without feeling overburdened.

  23. A
    January 12, 2021 at 1:08 pm

    This hits home, thanks for posting!

  24. Pam
    January 12, 2021 at 2:12 pm

    Thanks for your blogs. I like your attitude about doing new things. This year, and part of last, homeschooling is now a way of life. This is hard. It’s been a hard change. I was focused on the goal – getting the kids graduated. But now I can focus on the process. Giving them a solid education. What does that look like? But it won’t be a five year process.

  25. Adam @ Minafi
    January 12, 2021 at 2:55 pm

    Loving this! It sounds similar to what I’ve been learning myself in the 2 years since I FIRE’d. Having a number of clear projects that I enjoy spending time on has been key. There are times when something is my “primary project”, but it’s still possible to burn out and need to spend some time on something else. In those situations, I’ve just switched what I’m working on – from Minafi to learning Japanese to playing a video game to getting into running, skiing – or whatever.

    How has that worked for you when you’re mainly focusing on a single project? Do you feel like you underachieved for that day if your primary focus wasn’t moved forward?

    • The Mad Fientist
      January 13, 2021 at 5:47 am

      No, I try to cut myself some slack. On the days I have no motivation or have something fun to do or have other things I’m preoccupied with, I just accept it and try to get back on track the next day. I’ve found that it’s impossible to be 100% focused so I’m happy with 80% because you can still make a lot of progress that way.

  26. Kelly Fuette
    January 12, 2021 at 3:15 pm

    Wow, what a powerful article, thank you for sharing your wisdom! Thank you for being so open and authentic with your journey and being so self aware and accountable. I love that you figured out how to cultivate happiness now instead of attaching it to an expectation like FI or something else. I love that you choose your faith over your fear and use the two woorlds analogy, which is so fitting. I love your awareness of the power you have inside you, that when you focus on what you want and then choose the world you want to live in, your vision starts to become your reality. What you focus on increases. Thank you for sharing your insights with the world and for being brave and an inspiration to others! All the best to you and your album, your life and whatever your hands find to do.

    • The Mad Fientist
      January 13, 2021 at 5:49 am

      Glad you enjoyed it!

  27. Nelson
    January 12, 2021 at 3:43 pm

    There is a quote, paraphrased here, where someone asks a Hindu mystic how to find Nirvana. The answer was simply “absorption.” This is what mastery and flow are all about and lead to the elusive feeling of self actualization.

    I can’t wait till someone reads this article on a podcast. Really well done.

    • The Mad Fientist
      January 13, 2021 at 5:49 am

      Haha, thanks :)

  28. Debbie
    January 12, 2021 at 4:56 pm

    Your triangle of happiness, time, money seems hard to use to decide major decisions. I want equal portions of happiness, but in order to increase my happiness I’d have to put off FIRE by years. It’s hard to know the right balance. If I make myself happier by moving into the neighborhood I want to live/exercise/socialize in, then FIRE is significantly postponed.

    • The Mad Fientist
      January 13, 2021 at 5:52 am

      Yeah, that’s life. I don’t expect to ever get the perfect balance either so I’ll continue experimenting/tweaking until I get as close as possible (problem is, I’m constantly changing as a person so the goal posts are moving all the time so don’t expect to ever stop assessing/adjusting).

  29. R. Nathaniel
    January 12, 2021 at 6:05 pm

    Great article, very different to anything else I’ve read in this space before. I’m definitely in the situation where I’m currently more focused on the money side than happiness in order to achieve FI, and I worry that it won’t solve all my problems when I reach it. Mainly because I’m not sure what life looks like after it.
    Really like the idea of 5 year planning and still having goals even when you don’t need to work. Even in work, we all feel a great personal satisfaction and enjoyment when we deliver a good piece of work and feel intellectually challenged. I don’t want to lose that feeling completely.

  30. Simon T
    January 12, 2021 at 6:37 pm

    Fantastic lessons here! So important to emphasize the importance of maintaining a purpose for early retirees. Thanks for writing this!

  31. Jacob
    January 12, 2021 at 8:45 pm

    Loved it! Thanks for the thought provoking post. I needed this right now.

  32. David @ Filled With Money
    January 12, 2021 at 9:44 pm

    Focusing on mastery.. I like it. Passion doesn’t come from knowing how to do something. Passion comes from doing one thing and doing it really well. Self actualization is an underrated thing people seem to discount quite often. Too many people try to look for the result rather than the effort required to get there.

  33. R Yang
    January 12, 2021 at 10:14 pm

    It’s great to hear your stories about your experiences.

    Fortunately for me I’ve heard from so many individuals (yourself included) that helped me shape my goals in a way where I enjoy the journey more than the victory.

    As I’ve learned, I create goals that helps to set me in a certain direction (and I’ve refined my process over time). I further break down those goals into tangible weekly/monthly/yearly goals. This helps me set up a process for achieving my goals.

    And, if I stop enjoying those goals, I simply pivot or ditch them. If I’m not enjoying the journey anymore, why continue. And I 100% agree with you. I think achieving happiness outweighs money.

  34. Leonard Thornburg
    January 12, 2021 at 10:14 pm

    There is a lot of information in this post and I appreciate your personal insight. I prepared a 10 year plan for achieving my FI and got there in 5. I learned how to take long term goals and back into them with short term objectives. Along the way I found it’s important to ultimately break everything down into a daily strategy with routines that are consistent and doable. For me, the numbers needed to be specific and they don’t lie. The keys to the process for me were flexibility and patience. I had to hold myself accountable, which in turn provided me with the insight to adjust my process and my goals as needed. With a downside of hardcore demands, this process has built-in celebration and fun for meeting the many short term goals over time. Since then I have changed my FI goals twice in the last 3 years and tripled my results. Funny how all that works.

  35. R Yang
    January 12, 2021 at 10:15 pm

    It’s great to hear your stories about your experiences.

    Fortunately for me I’ve heard from so many individuals (yourself included) that helped me shape my goals in a way where I enjoy the journey more than the victory.

    As I’ve learned, I create goals that helps to set me in a certain direction (and I’ve refined my process over time). I further break down those goals into tangible weekly/monthly/yearly goals. This helps me set up a process for achieving my goals.

    And, if I stop enjoying those goals, I simply pivot or ditch them. If I’m not enjoying the journey anymore, why continue. And I 100% agree with you. I think achieving happiness outweighs money.

    Thanks for continuing to push out articles like these. They really help me understand that I’m heading in the right direction (I think).

  36. A Journey to FI
    January 12, 2021 at 11:24 pm

    Great post Brandon. I picked up quite a few book recommendations so I wrote them down to pick them up at the library. Also loved the quote about “working hard on work that is worth doing”. I see your point about goals and mastery but as long as they lead to changes in behaviors then who cares about semantics. I’m a big fan of SMART goals because I can hold myself accountable. That said, there has to be a bigger and profound motivation. A big goal for me in 2021 is as simple as drinking more water during the day. I’m currently creating a habit of drinking 2 glasses of water when I wake up, at lunch, and before I go to bed. It is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timing is irrelevant. I’m also trying to lose weight and have come up with a number that is reasonable … 10 lbs by end of Q1. I have other goals but these are the two that I’m excited about. Happy new year and congrats on the album.

  37. Kathy L
    January 13, 2021 at 12:04 am

    One of the most refreshing articles I read in a long time! Will re-read again and again.

  38. Jennifer
    January 13, 2021 at 11:08 am

    Lovely post. A good reminder (and one I needed) to find happiness along the way. Take care, Brandon.

  39. Joseph Gooch
    January 13, 2021 at 11:47 am

    Great article! I 100% relate to your struggle with devoting more time to music (commented on another post of yours and am excited to hear the new album) and I’ll definitely be saving this article to refer back to when I start to lose motivation or find myself getting back to that ineffective mindset. Keep up the good work!

  40. Rômulo
    January 13, 2021 at 12:25 pm

    Great article! After listening to the Ultra learning experiment podcast episode and reading Atomic Habits, I have been implementing these methods to study for an engineering licensure exam. Focusing on the small habits has been very effective so far. Thanks for producing great content and being open about your successes and failures!

  41. Melissa @travelingwalletroamer
    January 13, 2021 at 12:56 pm

    Look who’s back…. Back again…. Mad dentist is back…. Tell a friend… Look who’s back…. Look who’s back

    Great article. It so true. That is definitely one of the things I remember learning from you. It’s what not to do. Don’t give everything else up to reach FIRE.

    I remember you talking about how miserable you’d made yourself. Thank you for sharing those lessons learned. I try to stay focused on creating the life I want. I really like how you separated your focus by 5yr increments.

    Can’t wait to see what else is coming

  42. Akira
    January 13, 2021 at 2:22 pm

    You nailed it!

    I took a look back at my goals for 2020 and I was surprised to find that the ones I “accomplished” I had dropped. Even though I really had enthusiasm for them in the first place, now they no longer occupy my attention.

    You taught me that setting processes instead of goals is the way. Instead of learning to Kickflip, you should set a “goal” of practicing to skateboard twice a week. Then from there you tweak your habit until you enjoy the process itself- then the rewards and milestones are just gravy!

    Thank you so much!

  43. caren
    January 13, 2021 at 2:42 pm

    This is so well done and I really appreciate the reminder that it’s the process and not the destination where you find joy. I think we lose that so often in our pursuits.

    You just convinced me to teach yoga – a goal I’ve been denying for far too long because I had that “what’s the point?” mentality.

    Thank you!

  44. Jacob Higginbottom
    January 13, 2021 at 2:43 pm

    This such a great post Brandon for so many reasons but the main one being that you’re one of the few FIers who continually address the psychological components behind and related to FI. You’ve also impressed many by your honesty on the process and what post FI challenges exist. I have been trying to figure out where I fit in the landscape of FI, Life aspirations, happiness, etc and realized that there is a never ending depth to my personal dissatisfaction with myself if I choose to go there. Every day is a challenge but giving up is death. It’s especially hard today in the age of social media where you can tune out by watching everyone else brag about their accomplishments, sinking deeper and deeper into self doubt. I am 49 and essentially FI save for my choice of HCOL area. I am an architect by day and a fine artist by day…not night because I, like you, lose energy with the fading sun so I juggle the two. A former employer said he was concerned about my commitment to the firm because he had seen my art show advertised and questioned my commitment to his profits. That was at age 32 when my net worth had just crossed $160k. I asked him to give me a raise then…he told me to sell more paintings…an interesting thing happened, I started coming in later and later and using the sunshine to fuel my artwork every morning. I kept the job but only worked on what i wanted to. I think I started to “feel FI” way back then with only a small FU fund established. I took his advice and honored my artwork by painting bigger and charging more while only giving him the minimal value of the paycheck he refused to increase but built my portfolio of art and design. I inevitably left that job in a hurry as my art started to take off because I realized I still wanted respect in architecture. I landed an offer for a 30% increase from an owner who said he likes my artwork and wants creatives like that in his firm. I worked there for 10 years and realized the limits of time and energy. It’s been a juggle all my life balancing and I am almost worried that now, as I approach FI at 50 that my biggest risk is slipping into complacency. I recently took another design gig for 30% again increase but it takes all I have so that my paintings are suffering, as well as my friendships. I am so inspired by your story. Thank you for sharing it so openly

  45. Lisa
    January 13, 2021 at 3:56 pm

    I don’t know if you’ve heard of CGP Grey (American expat in the UK), but he had a video last January about setting themes instead of goals that sounds like something you’d like. So instead of “I’ll read 150 books this year” it would be “2021 is my year of reading”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVGuFdX5guE

    Personally, I’ve been using DuoLingo to study Spanish. I have no goal other than practicing every day. I’m up to 153 days, on weekends, vacations, holidays, while camping – every day. It has sometimes sucked, but I make myself do at least one module of some type each day, even if it’s only 5 minutes. And I often find that 5 minutes turns into 15 or 30, because it’s the idea of it that’s daunting and once I start, the momentum takes hold.

  46. Steph
    January 14, 2021 at 10:13 pm

    Thank you for a very good post. I’m about a year away from FI (I have a few ducks I need to corral and get into line) and the few friends and family I floated the idea to, have told me that I will be unhappily bored in a 6months and will beg for my job back in a year. (And I am quite terrified that they are right)

    I have personal things I want to achieve but no idea how to get there, and the perpetual self deprecation of “you’ll never produce anything good enough” is a constant hounding in my head. Somehow I kept thinking if I get to FI, that voice will go away. I think I will try switching tactics and approach a continuous improvement strategy instead.

    This post really put into perspective the checkin with happiness and goals. I will need to re-evaluate where my money, happiness and time balance is. Thank you again for a well written, thought provoking post.

  47. Jennie
    January 15, 2021 at 7:50 am

    Such a great post! I found the FI movement in 2018 when I was two years into working on a passion project (a sci-fi novel) and feeling trapped at a job that no longer filled me up with joy or challenge. Listening to you and other folks (Paula Pant, the ChooseFI guys, etc.) felt like waking up. I got so excited. The world was full of possibilities again. So, my husband and I put our heads together and came up with a ten-year plan. Around that same time, I saw one of the other parents at my son’s school wearing a Mad Fientist T-Shirt and felt that I was in the coolest secret club ever.

    I pulled the trigger on my early retirement in Dec. 2020 (ahead of schedule at 41) because my husband is still enjoying his work and we realized we didn’t need both incomes. I wanted to start teaching at one of the local colleges and invest more time in writing… but then with everything going remote, my “retirement” allowed me to stay home with our son without the added stress that so many people have had to endure. But, I was definitely intellectually restless. I had applied to the teaching pool at our community college in January 2020 and they contacted me to teach online this semester. It’s been a steep learning curve but I’m loving the sense of purpose. I’ve been wrestling a bit with the self-doubt and frustration of making mistakes, so this post has been a real boost. Thanks, Brandon!

  48. Susana
    January 17, 2021 at 10:46 pm

    Hi Brandon,
    Thanks for all your awesome work/education for all of us that are “type A” – that need to understand and optimize everything. I reached FI 5 years ago without even knowing it but continue to work part time at 1/4 of my previous work schedule. FI has provided freedom to have choices and time to reflect – so grateful for that.
    As I grow older (and hopefully wiser) I hope to share some of my well earned wisdom – these are things that I wish someone had advised me when I was in my teens/20s/30s.
    1. Choose health over wealth – for many reasons that are evident. As a physician, I see the other side of the coin and it is terrible way to live – or more aptly – not to live.
    2. Type A “perfectionists” burn out way faster than most of the rest the workforce – I think that’s why we become FI’ers. I wish some had told me a long time ago that the key to a happier life and longevity lies in intentionally practicing to be imperfect and letting go of the minutiae & control – in the big scheme of things, what seems so important at that moment is so useless in the big scheme of life… such wasted energy/efforts.
    3. Intentionality; with each choice ask yourself “will this make me happier in the long run” – it brings into focus the important things in life. Take the time to enjoy your choices and important moments.
    Hope it helps – instead of making resolutions, to work towards overall life goals

    • Lisa
      January 24, 2021 at 11:53 am

      Great comments, I totally agree!

  49. Lisa
    January 24, 2021 at 11:50 am

    Thanks for this article!
    I really loved the part about changing mindset from goals and “Doing”, to Mastery and enjoying the process.
    About 10 years ago I became really interested in FIRE and put a lot of energy towards it, but it was a grind being so focused on the end goal. Then 5 years ago I did a lot of reflection about the life I wanted to live, and made big changes that were intended to make life more enjoyable but would take longer to reach FI.
    We moved, I opened a home daycare, started homeschooling our kids, and slowed the pace of life. We are so much happier now!

    The interesting thing is that when I look back at my goals from when I started pursuing FIRE they were:
    -To have autonomy over my days
    -To have more free time
    -To gain financial security (incidentally, Daycare has ended up being much more secure than many industries in this time of covid, it is always sought after!)
    -To be able to focus more on my family, interests and hobbies

    I actually got all of those things by changing my lifestyle without reaching FI. In a way I focused on mastering my lifestyle and took the pressure of goals out of the equation, and all of my previous goals came to fruition anyway, without even thinking about them anymore!
    For the next 5 years I’m going to focus on becoming a master at breeding Greater Swiss Mountain dogs, and learn all I can to bring healthy, well adjusted dogs into the world. I’ve been drawn to dog breeding as a way to help create loving, joyful connections between humans and animals…anyone who has had pets knows that they open up a whole other world of relationships.
    To quote Eckhart Tolle “The universe delights in the creation of life forms.” and I hope to help with that creation :)
    Your article has helped me take the focus off of the daunting amount of effort and learning needed to be an ethical dog breeder, and put it on enjoying the process, and getting better each day.
    Thank you!

    • Nick
      February 7, 2021 at 11:41 am

      Really cool to read this comment Lisa, I feel you’ve learned and applied the lessons that I need to! Do you have any book recommendations or anything in terms of the reflection on the life you wanted to live? the same for mastering your lifestyle?

      Your future plan sounds epic! Are you still running the home daycare too?

      • Lisa
        March 3, 2021 at 1:31 pm

        Thanks Nick! It’s been a process for sure, but those are all the little things that make up a life :)
        Taking stock of the longings and discontents I had in each area of my life was a start (Health and wellness, relationships, time and money freedom, and vocation). Then looking at what I could do, with what I had, from where I was to change those longings/discontents…not trying to plan the whole process at once, just taking steps I could manage, and one thing lead to another.
        Also visualize the life you would love to live, and make decisions based on what you would love and what fits your values is a good habit to get into.

        I see in your comment that you want to do work that will help others, but it seems to be coming from a feeling of obligation/duty rather than passion. I think if you do what you love, whatever that is, it will help others by default even if it is seemingly unrelated or unimportant. By putting your joy into the world it sends ripples of happiness to others, and that can have an immediate impact on anyone you come into contact with. Most of us have had the experience of meeting a very kind, attentive, joyful cashier/cabbie/receptionist or whatever and remembered them or felt their presence, not because of WHAT they did, but HOW they did it.
        Eckhart Tolle’s book “A new earth” is great, and I’ve learned a lot from Mary Morrissey and Bob Proctor, they both have books, email lists etc.
        I am still running daycare for now, but will phase that out to just older school kids as I start having puppies around, hopefully this fall :)
        Good luck to you! It’s an exciting time, because discontent is the first stage of growth

  50. Nick
    February 7, 2021 at 11:38 am

    For fitness, I decided I just wanted to go to the gym 2-4 days a week for the rest of my life. I didn’t really care about benching a certain weight or putting on a certain amount of muscle mass…I just wanted to get healthy and stay healthy.

    Brandon and everyone else, can I ask what does this look like when we’re considering work? I’m mid-30s, single income with kids so it’s still a long time to FIRE, I’ve become increasingly more dissatisfied with my work and frankly I’m unsure what to do or what to move towards.

    Like your statement on the gym, I have pretty good systems for everything in my life, everything except work! I have systems to do my work and do it well but I don’t enjoy it and it’s draining me more and more. I take the mastery approach but the passion Cal Newport etc said would come…well it hasn’t! Now I’m having a bit of a crisis of meaning looking for ‘work’ with a sense of purpose.

    Do you all feel like you’ve a sense of purpose in your lives? I guess I do in terms of family but seem to feel I need one for work. 30years working 8hrs a day at something, to me it feels like it needs to benefit society or building a skillset that can benefit society. Brandon with your time as a software engineer, I know it provided useful skills so you could build income streams but do you see it as wasted now? Do you wish you’d done a different role? Most likely I suspect you wish you’d done music alongside work.

    As an example, recently I’ve been romanticising the idea of working in data science, build a useful skillset through a paid career, likely including plenty of enjoyable work but being able to do some cool things with open government data that could be applied post retirement. I could do this now without changing role, but I imagine I could build relevant and frankly more skills doing the career change. I honestly feel a bit paralysed by this stuff, it’s hard to know if these are genuine feelings/desires or I’m creating drudgery for myself!

    Apologies for the wall of whinging, I’m not sure where else is good to discuss such things, recommendations welcome!

  51. CaptainFI
    February 13, 2021 at 11:36 pm

    I like to think I am pretty on top of goal setting – but I sort it slightly differently. I have daily, weekly and monthly process goals (almost like a routine if you will) and then I have short term (3 monthly), medium term (within a year) and long term goals (within 5 years). I find it too difficult to look past 5 years

  52. John @ LiveOffDividends
    February 24, 2021 at 7:59 am

    Love the time, happiness and money relationship triangle. Like you, I find myself focusing too much on the money side of things as I work towards FIRE. Certainly a work in progress.

  53. Clint @ CreditBrite
    February 26, 2021 at 7:07 pm

    Great post. I’m a big fan of both James Clear and Daniel Pink (Drive was awesome) so I can relate to those 2 for sure. I had no clue you had an interview with James Clear though so now I’m off to listen to that.

  54. Paul de Reijer
    February 28, 2021 at 7:09 pm

    Hello, I just read your article, titled “A Better Alternative to Resolutions and Goals”, and I am flabbergasted! It was like reading an article from Jim Rohn himself. I have a small Moleskine in which I jot down a lot of his teachings, and I just added another 5 handwritten pages to it, capturing the essence of your article. This is gold my friend! Thanks and looking forward to reading you again. Regards, Paul

  55. In Debt No More
    March 11, 2021 at 5:35 pm

    I think there are two separate things being conflated into the concept of a goal in this article.
    A goal is a tool, just like land marks on a map. It is not the thing that holds the existential concept of happiness. I think it is crazy to set out with a desire to master something without a structure for getting there – and to me, that structure always comes in the form of goals. It is not that the goals are the thing that will bring happiness, but they offer the way to mastery. The experience and journey to mastery, where the flow exists, is still there.
    I was in $100K of debt less than 10 years ago (debt free now) and without goals, I would not have been able to claw my way out of that miserable hole. Along the way, I did become a master at not only getting out of debt but a master of my finances, which is exactly what you are talking about here.
    Thank you for writing about that which makes us happy – very inspiring!

  56. Mike Kehoe
    April 15, 2021 at 10:52 pm

    Wow, I can’t tell you how helpful that post / ideas was for me right now. Thank you very much! Mike

  57. Leah
    June 11, 2021 at 12:33 pm

    Really insightful take on mastery versus goal setting–thank you!

  58. Cynthia@himoneys
    September 20, 2021 at 9:30 am

    I love this post and it has such detailed and useful info about after FI. Actually, I found that I am worse after I reach FI. Mainly for mentally and lack of purpose, community and balance. It take me a while to find a way to explore the new journey. Thanks a lot and your blog is one of my favourite. I follow your step to open a blog and hopefully enjoy the journey.

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