Want more out of life—but you're not sure what? This non-goal goalsetting method can help.

By Stacy Kim
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Gracia Lam

Valerie had worked her entire life to become a scientist. She had survived a whittling-down process and was on a path she thought she wanted. Yet as she approached securing tenure as a college professor in New York City, she didn’t feel satisfied.

One day it struck her that her colleagues actually enjoyed parts of their job that she didn’t care for. “I didn’t want to be spending all my time and energy presenting or making a name for myself through publishing and politicking,” she said. “It was exhausting keeping up a facade pretending to want this career.”

As a life coach, I help talented and caring women successfully juggle careers, families, and relationships. I’ve met a surprising number of women like Valerie (I’ve omitted her last name to respect her privacy). They have successful careers and are active in their communities. But below the surface, something is missing. They struggle to uncover what could give them fulfillment. Some get frustrated that they can’t figure out what they want on their own. Others feel guilty. By the time they meet me, many need tissues during our first session.

When I opened my practice, I didn’t know how to help these women. The usual weapons in a coach’s arsenal—creating a vision, making a plan, setting goals, and staying accountable—didn’t apply. After all, how can you set goals for an unknown objective?

I was stumped.

It was unbearable to see such bright, thoughtful women feel torn up. So I stalled by persuading those early clients to take a short break from trying to figure out an end goal and instead do something pleasurable. We stumbled upon a strategy that not only worked to cheer them up but also helped them find meaning and purpose. Distilling their steps into an analogy, I discovered what I call the Lighthouse Method. If you want to make a life change but have no idea what it should be, think of that change as a lighthouse far away. You know neither what the lighthouse looks like nor its location. You can only see its dim, distant light. To reach it, you need to step offshore, point your boat in the direction of the light, and row.

Described this way, the Lighthouse Method seems logical, but it’s not the approach most of us take. We default to planning before doing. If you want to get good grades, lose weight, or find a new job, you set a goal and plan of attack. But if you don’t know what you want to achieve, making a plan is like driving to an unknown destination. Talented women with perfectionist tendencies especially will search for the perfect plan before taking action, in order to avoid missteps. And this is why so many get stuck. If you feel unsatisfied but can’t quite pinpoint what you want—in your career, your home life, or your free time—use these steps to draw the map to your own lighthouse.

Take the Scenic Route

To start The Lighthouse Method, you need to get in your boat and pick a direction. The best way to begin is to do something purely enjoyable. Many busy women, like Valerie, find this challenging. “Though I had wanted to sew myself a skirt for a while and even purchased the pattern and fabric, it felt incredibly indulgent, wildly wrong, and frivolous,” she said of her first activity. “But after a half hour, I found myself in a mental state of just doing. I lost track of time. I loved it.”

Most of us tightly bind our identities to our career, unknowingly deemphasizing other aspects of our lives. We bifurcate the spheres of “work” and “leisure,” believing that work can’t be amusing and leisure can’t be arduous. Yet doing pleasurable things is critical. It not only makes you happier but helps you identify what gives you “flow,” a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University, to describe the revitalizing sensation you get as you become completely absorbed in a task.

Once you add gratifying activities into your life, you can’t help seeking out more while abandoning those that don’t satiate. When Valerie finished her skirt, she felt emboldened to start other career explorations. “Making something is taking a creative risk,” she said. “It feels fantastic. [I got] into the mode of, ‘OK, I’m going to take another risk today.’ ”

Valerie began to network, catching up with friends who used their advanced degrees outside academia. They introduced her to new people, and her newfound enthusiasm made meeting strangers less intimidating—even exciting. Sewing helped Valerie see she yearned for more creative and entrepreneurial work. Eight months later, she launched an online education business, Be Naturally Curious, which makes it fun for parents and educators to teach kids science. To this day, she turns to sewing whenever she feels stuck.

Try this: Find what gives you flow. Rekindle an old hobby or give a current one a few more hours or challenges. For some, it might be cooking. For others, it’s exercise. Make sure it’s something you want to do. Then aim to expand your repertoire by making note of when you are doing anything else that makes you feel strong and energized.

Redirect When You Need to

Once you’ve pushed offshore and begun to explore what gives you satisfaction, you’ll inevitably run into obstacles. Usually these stem from doubts you might have about the direction you’re taking. After all, when there’s only a glimmer of light from an unknown lighthouse ahead, rowing can feel dark and scary.

Another client, Renata Carvalho, had long lost interest in marketing but was feeling too scared to make a change. “My work defined me,” she said. “If I’m not the executive, the advertising woman, I had always been, then who am I?”

When her husband decided to move his business from Buenos Aires to New York, Brazil-born Renata saw it as “the perfect excuse” to start over. Asked at the time what was the most recent pleasurable thing she had done, she said it was reviewing the floor plans for her new home. Thinking she might enjoy visiting apartments for a living, she talked to her real estate agent. She soon realized what attracted her instead was architecture. But the architect she interviewed discouraged her, describing the long, expensive training required. Determined to avoid returning to marketing, Renata remained optimistic and kept searching. She discovered interior design and found a manageable associate’s degree program.

Optimism is a powerful motivator, according to Adam Grant, professor of psychology and management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. But so is what he calls “defensive pessimism.” By envisioning and confronting worst-case scenarios, you can propel yourself to prepare. That’s what Renata did when she learned she needed to pass the TOEFL exam (a test of one’s mastery of English as a foreign language) for her program. She began to question whether she could return to school at all, so to avoid failure, she enrolled in a test-prep class. She not only realized she could study again but passed her exam.

Months before she even graduated, Renata got two clients. “It’s just incredible,” she said. “I can’t stop laughing.”

Try this: Until you’ve figured out what you want to do, trust you’ll succeed. Write down some positive affirmations. Talk to friends and family who encourage you. And keep up with activities that give you pleasure and flow. The moment you sense hesitation, tell your inner critic, “I ­haven’t decided yet. I’ll be cautious once I do.” If you find yourself ruminating, seek a distraction, like dancing or doing a puzzle.

Keep Momentum With Small Strokes

People assume that tackling big questions, like “What should I do with my life?” or “What will make me happy?,” require big chunks of time. Some wait until they can clear the decks, while others won’t bother. Either way, you stall. Moving a stopped boat requires will and energy. It’s easier to keep moving by rowing small, frequent, and consistent strokes.

When Nicole Villamora moved to Washington, D.C., for a job with a lobbying firm, she soon realized it wasn’t right for her and felt isolated. “I underestimated the challenges of starting over in a new city,” she said. “I was alone for the first time in my adult life.” To turn things around, Nicole started listening to uplifting podcasts. Always interested in health, she did something nourishing every day—yoga, a positive mind-set practice, or cooking a nutritious meal.

Don’t underestimate the power of these tiny actions. Small wins not only make one’s day but can be a huge motivator, according to the coauthors of The Progress Principle, Teresa M. Amabile, professor of business administration and director of research at Harvard Business School, and Steven Kramer, a developmental psychologist. Building on each victory, Nicole continued exploring health-related activities, leading her to meet new people and try new things. “I finally felt empowered and hopeful,” she said. Soon a tech start-up founder she met hired her as a company health coach.

Try this: Create some small wins by breaking down projects into short behaviors. For example, if you want to get healthy, don’t start with a strict exercise program. Walk around the block, do some jumping jacks, or climb a flight of stairs. If you want a new job, the first move is not to overhaul your résumé. Invite someone in a field that interests you to coffee. To keep a task small, set a timer for, say, 20 minutes. When time is up, congratulate yourself.

For many women, these steps will seem counterintuitive. But if you don’t know what you want, lose the map, enjoy the scenery, adjust your sails, let go of anchors, and gently row. You’ll find your lighthouse is closer than you thought.