Retirement Goals: Beware Overplanning

By Justin Pritchard, CFP®

Do you have goals for your retirement? Or does the thought of naming a goal make you uneasy?

You’ve probably heard that you only accomplish things when you set clear goals, and one of the biggest milestones in your life might be when you can stop working for pay. But let’s challenge the traditional view of goal setting and suggest that it might be okay if you don’t have a list of retirement goals in your back pocket that you can instantly reference.

This has a profound impact on how you design your life and how you plan for retirement.

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For instance, your first 20 years in retirement would include 7,300 days. Those might be your most active days, possibly followed by a less active period as your health declines. What do you want to do with those days? And if you’re thinking of your favorite activity (like reading on the beach), will you really want to do that 7,300 times?

Plus, feeling unclear about goals might cause you to delay planning. That’s not helpful.

Ultimately, you might just want to have options in retirement. Getting clear on a rough income level might be an excellent start. Then, consider taxes, inflation, and health care costs, and you’re well on your way.

Explanation of how many days are in your first 20 years of retirement: 7,300

Will You Double Down on Today’s Version of Yourself?

Some of this thinking is backed by the so-called “End of History Illusion,” which explains how bad we are at predicting and understanding our future selves. It shouldn’t be surprising that predictions are difficult—we know that from investing—but many of us still have blind spots here. You’re probably reasonably aware of your current personality traits, values, and preferences. But will those change over time? And if so, would your goals change along with them?

Here’s another way to think about this. Look back ten years and consider who you were. What did your ten-years-ago self think your life would look like today? How did you imagine what you’d do with your life, who you’d spend time with, and how you’d feel about various topics? What about preferences like your favorite music and foods, etc.? Could you have predicted accurately.

Some of the changes in life are driven by external events, while others occur as we grow and evolve in different areas.

We tend to assume that we’ll be exactly the same person in the future. And it’s true that we probably gravitate to some version of ourselves and certain traits that will remain constant for most of our lives. But we’ll probably also change.

The End of History Illusion resulted from a 2013 study by three psychologists. They looked at how people change, and yes, older people tend to change less than younger people. Still, older participants experienced change, sometimes in ways (and to degrees) that surprised them.

A major consequence of the End of History Illusion is that we tend to double down on our current version of reality. We’ll make retirement goals based on the things we value and enjoy now, and that’s understandable. However, that tendency could have the risk of getting ourselves pigeonholed and missing out on other rich areas of life. Plus, if nothing else, our bodies will change, and we might not be able to do all of the things we might idealize.

That’s not to say you should ignore your current preferences. You might be very clear on what matters most to you, and you might be reasonably confident about how you’ll feel in the future.

Still, I encourage you to explore the idea of having loosely held retirement goals, or even not having goals. Yes, you undoubtedly want to be financially independent, which probably means not working forever.

So, this isn’t about suggesting that you aspire to do nothing and sit around all day. But let’s maybe be a little slower and gentler about how we pursue goals in retirement? That way, I think you’re in a better position to go in the direction that will make you happiest.

Permission to Not Have Goals

Let’s look at how several people discuss goal-setting and how this might fit with retirement planning.

What’s the Value of Asking About Goals?

Carl Richards, a former financial advisor and the guy who used to do the napkin sketches at the NY Times, observed that asking clients about their goals is kind of weird. He noted that many people don’t know what their specific goals are.

Still, people might say what they think they’re supposed to say when you ask about goals for retirement. For example, you’d be entirely unsurprised to hear answers like:

  • Being free to spend my time any way I want
  • Travel (that’s what people do in retirement, right?)
  • Spending time with loved ones

There’s nothing wrong with any of those goals, and it’s admirable to recognize when you’re not sure you even have them. The point here is that pursuing something you don’t care much about might not end up being fulfilling. So, there’s no need to force it.

Goals can be intimidating—it may feel like you need to dedicate all of your energy to pursuing a goal once you say it out loud or write it down. That can be helpful and promote accountability when you have an important goal that you want to accomplish. But if the goal is not a high priority, we don’t want you to go down the wrong path.

I’ve also heard Carl suggest Pema Chodron’s excellent book, When Things Fall Apart, multiple times. If you’re not familiar with that book, a big piece of it is understanding that there is no certainty in life, and the ground is constantly shifting beneath our feet. As a result, making rigid goals and grasping for certainty could be a recipe for suffering.

That’s a big oversimplification, and I’m not sure the book even uses the word “goals,” but hopefully you get the idea. The book is a fairly quick read, so check it out if you haven’t already.

No Specific Goals

There is plenty of information online about the concept of not having goals. Of course, there’s also well-established momentum that says you need to set goals. But let’s focus on the former for now, since the latter gets plenty of attention already.

Just search for anything along the lines of “I don’t set goals,” and you may be able to find something relevant to your life. Zen Habits, for example, explains one way of looking at things, specifically noting:

“These days, however, I live without goals, for the most part. It’s absolutely liberating, and contrary to what you might have been taught, it absolutely doesn’t mean you stop achieving things.”


Maggie Zhou points out that you can consider “anti-goals” or identify things you don’t want in your life. Then, there’s more room for the things you do want to fall into place. For example, you might aim for a retirement where you:

  • Never drive during rush hour
  • Don’t have to go through three airports to see loved ones
  • Don’t want to be stressed out about medical bills
  • And the ultimate: Avoid running out of money during life

From the financial side of things, if we can just accomplish the last one, you’ve got one of the biggies down for retirement.

With anti-goals, you can honor your preferences and steer clear of situations you don’t like. That alone might offer a reason to be optimistic about retirement.

But let’s not forget the End of History Illusion. You might avoid some things today but find them more tolerable later in life. That can happen for various reasons, so practice never saying never, even as you explore the idea of anti-goals.

Some of the things you still might strive for in retirement: Connection, purpose, activity and health, other things

What You Might Still Need

Hopefully all of this takes some of the pressure off if you feel intimidated about retirement goals. You don’t necessarily need them.

That said, it’s wise to have some sort of plan for how you’ll spend your time in retirement. Some studies suggest that stopping work can contribute to a decline in physical and mental health. Granted, the causes are complicated, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll suffer from stopping work, but retirement can bring about some significant changes:

  • Less social interaction
  • Loss of your identity as a [whatever you did for work]
  • Lack of routine, structure, or schedule
  • Fewer “required” challenges to overcome, helping to stimulate your mind
  • Less physical movement
  • Less recognition and accolades
  • Less purpose

The good news is that you can make efforts to offset those effects. Whether you take a class, dive into hobbies, work on projects, or take other steps, you can stay engaged.

I know of a woman who coordinates volunteer roles for certain retirees, partly just to get them out of the house. These are often simple tasks where you just need a responsible or helpful person present, and the work doesn’t necessarily feel like “work” for those doing it.

But it’s valuable to the community, and it’s valuable for the volunteers. The way she described it, some people might just be at home thinking about their health issues or otherwise going down rabbit holes if they’re not getting out into the world and doing something.

So that’s another interesting point: You can always find things to do later in life—even if you’re not yet sure what that will look like right now.

There’s also the old adage: Failing to plan is planning to fail. It’s wise to plan for something, but that might just be a plan to have enough resources to enjoy life and see how it unfolds. Instead of pretending to have any certainty on what life might look like, designing a future that’s robust enough to weather a variety of storms might be the best you can do.

Make Them if You’ve Got Them

It’s important to distinguish between not having any goals at all and not wanting to accept any goals. A lack of any direction or pursuit can be problematic. So be sure to revisit the question occasionally, giving yourself time and space to figure out what you might really want.

If you’re avoiding things you might want, it’s important to acknowledge those goals and explore what might be holding you back. For example, you might avoid goals or keep them to yourself because:

  • They’ll be unpopular with others.
  • You’re not sure you can accomplish them.
  • You’re worried you’ll become somebody you don’t want to be.
  • They are otherwise uncomfortable.

In those cases, moving forward might dramatically improve your life (or perhaps your concerns are worth listening to, and proceeding with caution is wise). The key is to make conscious decisions about what you pursue—or don’t—and understand the drivers behind each decision.