Dreamlining: A Good Alternative to Setting Goals?


Image by PrioTime

Did you notice all the “here are my 2011 goals” blog posts flying around last month?

I sure did – they seemed to be everywhere. And for the past month I’ve been putting off setting my own goals for 2011. For some reason, the idea of “goals” just doesn’t sit right with me.

For the past while I’ve assumed it was just me who thought like this – until I picked up my (well-read) copy of the 4 Hour Work Week yesterday and reviewed chapter 1 on “Definition” – the chapter in which Tim Ferriss argues that the questions “What do I want?” and “What are my goals?” are far too broad to be useful.

What Tim recommends, instead of asking yourself those two incredibly vague questions, is to pose this simple question: “What excites me?” Tim includes this question in a process that he calls dreamlining.

For me, this question hits the nail on the head – because it’s far easier to define what excites us. By planning our future by focusing on what excites us, we’re also more likely to achieve happiness than focusing on “goals” – and there’s scientific proof to back up my claim. Allow me to explain.

Why Setting Goals Doesn’t Work
In his book “Stumbling on Happiness“, psychologist Daniel Gilbert describes one fundamental problem with planning for the future: when we actually get there, it’s never the same as we imagined it would be. The reason is that we (human beings) are terrible at predicting what we’ll feel like in a particular situation in the future – partly because we tend to idealize the future (“I just know everything will be great if I just get ___!”).

The reality is that even when we do get X, it often doesn’t feel as good as we thought it would. (On the other hand, when we make a discovery or get a gift unexpectedly, we feel great.)

Try this little mental test to bring this point home: reflect back on the days when you were a university student, or just starting off in the workforce. You probably had less money and fewer material goods that you do now, but were you a lot less happy than you are today? Probably not – even though back in those days you probably said, “If only I had a house and a car and X and Y and Z, I’d be much happier”.

My point is this: if you’re struggling with setting goals for 2011, concentrate instead on making a list of activities that excite you.

Here’s the great thing about taking that approach, rather than trying to pick goals out of the air: by making a list of things that excite you, you’ll also be identifying the areas of your online business that you’re best suited to work on.


Because your list of things that excite you will probably include some activities that overlap with your online business.

So Dan Gilbert’s book, and Tim Ferriss’ idea of asking ourself “What excites me?” has caused me to think about the future in a profoundly different way. Now, instead of starting with an income goal, I’ve made a list of all the activities that excite me. Here are a few items from my personal list (don’t laugh, I’m exposing myself here!):

– surfing

– snowboarding

– travel

– foreign cultures

– survey data analysis

– politics

– real estate

After coming up with that list, I probed within myself even deeper (not literally, of course – that’s disgusting). What was it I enjoyed about each of these activities? With surfing and snowboarding it’s the physical adrenalin and being in beautiful surroundings: with traveling it’s the excitement that comes with change; with foreign cultures and politics it’s the intellectual stimulation; and with survey data analysis it’s the excitement of gaining insight into people’s lives from faceless numbers.

Implicit in the dreamlining concept is to envision what your “ideal life” would look like. I prefer to think of this in terms of what I would do in my “ideal month” (because a single day is too limiting), and throw a bunch of activities in there.

So here are some of the things I’ve come up with for my ideal month. I would spend time:

– Surfing with my two sons

– Snowboarding (also with my boys)

– Analyzing the data from niche research projects (then handing that analysis off to my virtual team to have a product developed, website set up, etc.)

– Planning trips (“mini-retirements” that I would take with my family every three months).

– Overseeing my virtual team, who are handling all of the components of my business except the data analysis component (which I’m doing)

– Advising non-profits on how to increase their revenue

– Looking out for new real estate investments

Another great thing about building a plan around activities that excite us is that they’re just as measurable as regular goals (and we all know that “what gets measured gets managed”).

By reflecting on my experiences over the past year, and looking at where I am right now with my online business, I know that I’m part-way toward achieving my dreamline. Last year I took three trips with my family, and did a fair bit of snowboarding – but I didn’t do nearly as much surfing as I wanted to (gee, I wonder if living inland had anything to do with that :(. I’ve also moved much closer to where I want to be with my online business, systematizing the SEO, PPC, and content-generation components of the business (next up: systematizing niche research and product development).

So, what do you think of the idea of dreamlining and focusing on exciting activities, instead of “goals”?

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  1. says

    Thanks for blogging and emailing this Moe.

    The goal setting procedure is absolutely one of the hardest things for me to do now that I am self-employed. Distractions galore and a thousand things to be done.

    This gave me some much needed insight in what I have been doing wrong and some good ideas as to what I can start doing to get to the 4-Hour work week :-), esp the idea of setting goals around things that excite me.

  2. Troy says

    Hi, Moe.
    Thank you for new post and very interesting idea-not to set the goals but to focus on exciting activities. I am glad to agree with that as I think such activities are the best possible positive motivations for the human mind. I.e this is what we want .. opposite to that what we do not want. Most of us know it as “I know what I do not want, however I do not know what want..” Therefore we do something (business or job) just to avoid what we do not want…unfortunately this method will never make us happy (it can make but just for a while)..

    • Moe says

      As you say, Troy, the key is to focus on exciting activities. It’s easy to know what excites us NOW; it’s a lot harder to know how $1 million will make us feel in X years’ time. For me, that’s why a concentration on activities is key.

  3. says

    Hi Moe,
    First of all, I’m in the middle of reading your Finding a niche report. I have found it the most in depth guide I have found so far, so you score high as an expert here and I intend to use some of this knowledge in my niche research.
    If it comes to goal setting, I happen to blog about goals and I believe Tim Ferris has done an excellent job refining the goal setting process.
    Here is my take on this. We as human beings are goal seeking animals. Changing the name of goal setting to Dreamlining is just that, changing the name of timeless and precious process that only the the most effective humans have been applying throughout the ages.
    Tim Ferris hasn’t eliminated goal setting, he just refined the process according to his experience and knowledge.
    All the critical components are still here:
    1. Asking how to get from point A to B ( there are actually many different questions to get the answers, for example: What is important to me?
    2. Deadlines
    3. Being specific etc
    Anyway I could talk about it for days.
    Greetings Moe

    • Moe says

      Thanks for your feedback, Derek! I appreciate your kind words.

      Wow, you have a blog about goals – you must be one disciplined mofo :)

      I’m going to check out your blog right now.


  4. Andre says

    Hi Moe,

    Good article. Right on the spot. I’m really struggling with setting & achieving goals. I used to set goals in old fashion (based on my values), but it just didn’t “clicked” or moved me.

    Therefore after your article I will try to work on what’s excite me.

    Also Eben Pagan suggested to view goal setting as problem solving. I think his perspective is also worth of considering and trying out. We are all wired differently, and what works for someone, it doesn’t mean it will work for you 😉


  5. says

    I say forget all of that! This will sound odd but I’ve stopped thinking or really paying attention to time in general. Having a daughter does require forward thinking (saving lot’s of money for expenses down the road) but other than that I work to keep a perpetual forward motion for myself. And as I continue forward momentum I observe things as they happen, look for the opportunities in everything, weigh the cost and pros/cons of each, and move quickly to take advantage. Ultimately what this allows me to do is pivot rapidly to take advantage of things that come up.

    Do I have goals? Not so specific ones. I have principles that govern my actions and rules of working I operate under, but aside from that it’s all big picture stuff.

    Interestingly, this makes a real adventure out of life and keeps me super happy a vast majority of the time. I’ve lived the alternative and I don’t intend on going back there.

    Another great post Moe thanks for provoking thoughts beyond the usual.

  6. Dan says

    If you’d like a tool for setting your goals, you can use this web application:


    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    A Vision Wall (inspiring images attached to yor goals) is available too.
    Syncs with Evernote, and also comes with mobile-web version, and Android and iPhone apps.


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