How To Be Goal-Free When You Have Obligations

February 22, 2007  

“How can someone be goal-free when they have obligations?” This is a great question and one of the most frequently asked in regards to leading a goal-free lifestyle. The essence of Goal-Free Living is about being present and having the life you want now. But when you have obligations, it may often appear necessary to sacrifice present moment happiness in order to satisfy established commitments. Fortunately, this is not true. You simply need to shift your relationship to commitments by using three simple concepts.

  • External Integrity vs Internal Integrity
  • Positions vs Interests
  • Choosing When You Have Only One Option

External Integrity vs Internal Integrity

If you never commit to anything, you never have to worry about keeping your commitments. However, this is neither realistic nor desirable. I have often heard the misconception stated that Goal-Free Living is a lifestyle to support “commitment-phobes.” In reality, it is quite the opposite. Being goal-free is about the ability to powerfully commit to each and every moment. This starts by ensuring that both internal and external integrity are in alignment.

For many, integrity means “being your word.” I refer to this as “external integrity.” Very simply put, you do what you said you would do.

For example, you said that you would attend a friend’s Tupperware party Saturday night, but now you have a better offer. Cancelling your original plans would show a lack of integrity. The same is true with the commitment of marriage. We make a vow to love, honor, and cherish till death do us part. But sometimes seemingly better offers come about that make us question or reconsider our original commitment. Pursuing a path of infidelity or stopping the marriage prior to the originally negotiated date of “death do we part” is again, a lack of integrity.

External integrity is important. It is what keeps society together. However, it is only half of the equation.

When faced with a commitment, have you ever said “yes” to requests when you really want to say “no?”

This leads to the second half of integrity – “internal integrity” – which is “your word being you.” This is about making commitments that are truly in line with your personal compass. Obvious as that may seem, most people at one point or another commit to things that are not consistent with their values or interests.

You say “yes” to attend your friend’s Tupperware party because you want to support her, even though you would rather be doing something else. Or, after feeling pressure from your significant other, you decide to make the leap into wedded bliss so as not to run the risk of losing your mate. It is in these cases where internal and external integrity are out of alignment, making the commitment feel burdensome.

Do you want to be happier? Make commitments you are willing to keep AND that support your values and interests. This is not always an easy task. It may involve leaning how to say “no” constructively. Or better yet, it may mean generating creative solutions that meet the needs of both parties.

Positions vs Interests

I recently attended a class on negotiating, where two types of negotiating were discussed: position-based negotiating and interest-based negotiating.

Position-based negotiating is when you negotiate over one particular desired outcome, such as the specific amount of money you are willing to pay/receive for a given item. This type of negotiating is one dimensional and leaves little room for creativity. This treats negotiating like a goal. “I want x dollars, and I am going to do what I can to get it.”

On the other hand, interest-based negotiating focuses on the intent behind the goal. What are the wants, needs, and desires that led to the creation of the goal.

Why is this important? If you are in a situation where you made a commitment that is no longer in line with your interests (or never was to begin with), do not view your options as simply black or white: “stay married OR get a divorce” or “go to the party OR do not.” Instead, try to understand the intent behind the original commitment to see if there is another way to satisfy the other’s true need while maintaining your internal integrity.

You no longer want to go to the Tupperware party. Ask your friend why she wanted you there. Maybe it was because she wanted someone to serve food. Or maybe it was because she needed someone to manage the guests. Maybe there is a way you can meet her needs and desires, without actually being in attendance at the party. Or perhaps you only need to be there for the first 30 minutes for your friend to feel satisfied.

Or, your marriage is no longer working for you. Rather than assuming divorce is the only solution, dig deeper. Explore hidden beliefs/assumptions about how you think your marriage should look. There is no one right model for a marriage. Explore the interests, needs, and desires of you and your spouse. Maybe your assumptions – such as how much time you should spend together, what tasks you should perform, or how you should prioritize your financial investments – are not true. This isn’t a negotiation, but rather an exploratory discussion.

Focusing on interests means of finding creative solutions where both parties are willing to change the terms of the commitment so that everyone is happy because it meets the “intent” of the original commitment. Maintaining commitments as they currently exist is a goal. Instead, strive to honor the “intent” of your commitment while meeting the needs of all parties involved. Doing so, you may find that you can develop a win-win solution.

Of course, this is not always possible. There are times when you must honor your commitments, on their original terms. In this situation, the solution is to “choose when you have only one option.”

Choosing when you have one option

This is one of the most powerful concepts, because there are times in life when you don’t have a choice – other than one option. When you can learn to embrace that option – powerfully – you increase your resilience and happiness.

When my wife asked for a divorce many years back, I did not want the marriage to end. Although I pleaded my case, her mind was made up. I would have preferred to make the marriage work, but MY only choice at that point was divorce. Rather than hoping, wishing, and dreaming it could be different, I “chose” divorce and got on with my life. I embraced the one and only option I had.

Conversely, if you no longer want to be married but feel the need to honor your obligation, your only option is to choose marriage. This means giving up the right to wish it were different. You should no longer daydream about how life could have been. You can’t be jealous of others who have the life you (think you) want. When you wish for it to be different, you are not “present” in the marriage. If you can powerfully choose and embrace your one option – marriage – then you can begin to create a new relationship that works for all parties.

Or, back to our Tupperware party example. You agreed to go to the party to be supportive. Afterwards you had regrets. You wished you had said “no.” You start thinking up hollow excuses to get you out of the situation. Doing so would be a lack of integrity. Instead, if you are going to go, choose that option. Stop considering the possibility of bailing out. Don’t “want” other options. Want what you have. Embrace your choice. Doing so will almost always change your attitude about the situation. Therefore, when you do go to the party, you can be “present” rather than having your mind wander off and wish you were somewhere else.

It’s all a matter of choice. Powerfully embrace your responsibilities, not because you have to, but because you want to. Doing so can make any commitment a thing of passion.


Consider these three concepts while making and keeping commitments. Make commitments that are in line with your compass – and then honor those commitments. However, if your interests change over time, “renegotiate” the commitment such that all parties feel whole and complete. And in those cases where changing the terms of a commitment is not possible, powerfully embrace your original obligation with no regrets. These three steps can help anyone live goal-free in a life filled with obligations.

Leave a Reply

Old Comments

4 Responses to “How To Be Goal-Free When You Have Obligations”

  1. Rosario on February 24th, 2007 7:52 am

    I like your approach of choosing options that satisfy self-interest while in cooperation with others (win-win). This is how living organisms are wired in nature, looking for maximum efficiency and energy conservation.

    I also like all I learn about human behavior and motivation in a TV program for match-making where mostly middle to old-age people go aiming to say good-bye to their solitude. It’s different to reality-show, it has tremendous social value and it’s done in a very sensitive manner. I don’t know if I’ll get to seventees, eightees or even ninetees, but if so, I’d like to be like many of those I watch on the screen. They are from other generation in which there was not that much talk on choice and options because there were not many of the latter and so it was easier to make the former. Independently of their personal stories -many of them full of difficulties, these people have made it and that’s the first marvel. Another marvel I see is the capacity of human beings for abnegation in a beautiful and compassionate selfless way, not in the derogative way of servilism or self-punishment. Many chose to give back good for bad in marriage situations where one fell ill and the other, who was completely unhappy or badly treated and could have gone at that time, stayed by the other’s side often relegating personal interest for a long period of time -years- that would finish with the ill’s death. Interest in this way was secondary to values, compassion and abnegation. The caretakers didn’t love their partners because they had realised they had made a mistake getting married, but they DID love them, because they opted for love of a higher calibre. Nothing to negotiate for they had the upper hand, although they chose to stay with the weak.These are examples of something in which I believe: the essential good and noble nature in every human being.

    And another thing I marvel with is the capacity for shameless self-enjoyment and genuine living in the now of these old people who have lived with honesty and dedication what they had to live, good or bad. Life has its own funny ways to close the circle sometimes, bringing unexpected surprises. I felt impacted by two cases in which after 40 or 50 years of happy marriage, two widow men came across their primary adolescent loves. The emotion and awe reflected by each of the four was a sign of how time is not important in matters of the heart, as 50 years later and much body deterioration, they saw and felt each other same than in their youth. Life circumstances -rather than choice on options- took them apart, they embraced their own paths wholeheartedly, and destiny closed the loop in its own time. What is meant to be will be -no matter how long it will take- and if not will pass. We are not allowed to see the future because we would not be then fully present in the moment, and that’s the path these wise people invite us to walk with their example.

  2. Richard on June 27th, 2007 10:16 pm

    I believe that forwarding this article to friends might be a good way to introduce the goal-free paridigm to people, and to give them an idea of it’s value.

    As I write this, I realize that something that I’ve been doing recently is an example of the value of the value of using a compass instead of a map. That wonderful benefit is enjoying the present instead of seeing it as a means to an end. “Good times or bad times, they’re the only times we have” so we might as well enjoy them.

    The map says: change clothes, then check your email, then take a walk, and then go to bed.

    The problem is that we find that “Whatever you want to do, you’ve got to do something else first.” In other words each “want to” involves a number of “have tos.”

    (Turn off the Sopranos, get our friend off the phone, check on the weather, and maybe coordinate my bed time with someone else.)

    This is the “What must I do next” approach to life. It suggests that we must reach the next goal to be ok, and we are likely to conclude that we should have done each thing better or quicker. Is it surprising that we might see ourselves as lacking motivation or will power?

    The compass approach lets us ask: What is something I want to do, and What should I or could I do before I do that.” (In this case the “should” can give us positive ideas at a time where they can actually help us.)

    In the above example: We might say: One thing I want to do is change clothes. “Let me set the tevo to record the Sopranos, Now let’s see if Stephen approved my last post, Now I think I’ll check the weather and empty the garbage, and call mom to see how her casino weekend went. In this case the multi tasking isn’t based on frantic efforts to be ok … but instead is related to words like synergy and serendipity. :-)

    This approach involves a “want to” and a number of “get tos.” and since we are linking positive efforts and positive feelings we are building motivation. NOTICE: Maybe we don’t get our clothes changed, BUT with this approach:

  3. linda okyere on July 9th, 2007 8:53 am

    Is good to send this article to people for them to be men and women of integrity

  4. It is hard to keep believing - Personal Development for Smart People Forums on December 22nd, 2007 6:52 am

    [...] had no heart ;-) Have you read any of the goal free living material on Steven Shapiro’s site? How To Be Goal-Free When You Have Obligations : Stephen Shapiro __________________ Regards, Mark Successful career change using goals, coaching and mentoring. [...]