I’m a control freak. I used to admit that only in hushed tones, as if it were something to be ashamed of. And the thought of Zen Habits’ No Goals philosophy used to fill me with a vague but pervasive dread.
So when I interviewed Leo for Blog Wise, an ebook on productivity, I wanted to know more. When I asked him what a typical day without goals looked like, he said:
“It’s highly variable. That’s one thing about having a little less structure than I used to have, which is that when it’s unstructured, it’s really a huge, open container that you can do anything you want with. I mean, you can fill it with anything.”
Yet Leo told me that he feels more in control of his life than ever before.
At first glance, this seems paradoxical. Don’t we cede control by abandoning our goals?
To have control, we’re taught, we need to know what we’re doing, and goals and plans are the key mechanisms we use to gain that knowledge. If we have a goal, we can make a plan to achieve it, and check our progress to make sure we’re on track.
That’s how we know what we’re doing. That, says conventional wisdom, is control.
This concept is so ingrained in many of us that when we feel something’s “out of control”, we turn to planning to get it “under control”. We pull out our calendar, break the challenge into steps, schedule them, and “commit” ourselves to completing each one. We may even feel better at the end of this planning process—I can’t be the only one who’s ever found solace in the making of plans.
But is that control? If so, how’s Leo achieving control without goals or plans?
Behind the control paradox
In line with these philosophies, we tend to think that control reduces freedom. According to this concept, control entails close scrutiny, a tight structure, and monitored progress.
But it’s not control that creates these structures. It’s the goals we set, and the plans we make.
If we have a plan, we can’t enjoy true freedom of choice: the plan’s structure dictates what we need to do. The threat of scrutiny ensures we don’t stray from that focus, even if something more interesting comes along. And the progress yardstick gives us a very real opportunity to disappoint—and to fail.
Many of us use a smokescreen of goals and plans as a means to avoid the responsibility of true control. We choose a goal, set up a plan, and slip into operational autopilot. We cruise from day to day along the ever-deepening rut that, while it restricts our freedom even further, requires no conscious thought, nor much energy to maintain.
We think we’re in control, and convince ourselves that we needed to sacrifice freedom to get it.
The truth is that if we let go of these ideas, then, like Leo, we can take control back.
Control freak? Freedom freak
Control and freedom aren’t mutually exclusive. If we let them, they can act as entirely complementary notions.
Control isn’t allowing outside forces, like a goal or plan we (or someone else) created weeks or months ago, to shape our actions.
Control is taking full responsibility for how we spend our time, right here, today. And in that control lies freedom: weget to choose.
What would you do if you had complete control—the freedom to do whatever you wanted today?
My answer to this question was, “live somewhere beautiful, have more free time, and work on cooler stuff.”
So I did. I chose to leave the city and live in the country; to leave my job, switch disciplines and freelance; and now, to go on a “working holiday” to visit friends abroad. These days, I get to make a lot of choices: what I do with my time, when, with whom, and where. I have control over the way work fits into my life, and its importance relative to the other things I like to do. The choices I made have given me the chance to enjoy that “huge, open container” that Leo talked about in our interview.
At first, that freedom was daunting, but it didn’t take long to get used to. The more control I took, the more freedom I gained, and the more choices I wanted to have responsibility for making.
And therein lies the key: to break free of the rut, we have to want to take responsibility for our freedom.