Every year for at least 20 years, I spent January 1 happily working on my goals for the new year. And let me tell you, they were beautiful goals. Organized according to sphere of life. Color-coded. Broken down into sub-goals. Entered into my carefully chosen calendar/planner.
I loved imagining the life that those goals would create for me—perfectly organized, always effective, growth-oriented and just all-around better. The problem was, things never seemed to work out that way. The goals helped point me in the right direction but they weren’t actually very helpful for creating the reality I thought I wanted.
Finally, more than a decade ago, I was lounging around on New Year’s Day and Craig asked me, “So do you have your goals done yet for this year?” I answered, “No, I’m not doing specific goals this year. I’ve just decided to be perfect.” We laughed but it was funny because it was true.
Since then, I’ve figured out some of the things I was doing to get in my own way.
For one thing, I had way too many goals. I’ve learned that I can sustain two or maybe three big goals at a time. When I try to do too much, I end up not doing much at all.
For another thing, I was trying to use goals to do things that they weren’t designed for. I wanted my goals to help me feel in control of things, to help me feel less inadequate and deficient, to fill in all the cracks and imperfections in my life. Goals can’t do that.
Learning I didn’t have to be perfect
After I let go of goal-setting as a path to perfection, I pivoted to real resistance to the whole idea of goals. The whole idea of goal-setting made me cranky. The more I felt pushed toward setting SMART goals, the more I locked in on “dumb” goals.
I started to notice a cultural prejudice in favor of people who set and reached goals, as if they were somehow morally superior to people who just lived their lives as-is. It seemed as though the culture around me saw goal-setting as related to character. And that didn’t sit well with me.
What I had to learn first was that it was okay not to have goals, not because I was already perfect but because I didn’t have to be. And then I learned that it was okay to have goals because that’s how we create change in our lives, how we reach for something more.
I experimented with goals related to “being” over goals related to “doing,” so that goal-setting became more about alignment and less about achievement. This is what we’re often doing when we choose a word for the year, a way of setting an internal compass, asking ourselves, “How do I want to show up?” This way of thinking really worked for me.
Then three years ago, I set three concrete goals in three different areas of my life. Each set of goals represented changes I wanted for my life. They were specific and measurable and achievable. The goals helped me to know where to focus, they helped me to make some decisions and do some hard things. Life was different because I had those goals.
And . . . three years later, I haven’t reached any of those goals. So, failure, right?
And yet . . . I’ve really enjoyed my life over the last three years. I’m proud of the life I’ve lived and the things I’ve accomplished. Life got really out of control—I got through breast cancer, I got through the stress and grief of losing Craig’s mom after a terrible illness, I got through the launch of a new business with a huge growth curve. Nothing about my life over the last three years feels like failure.
Part of me is pretty adamant: I like my life, I like who I am and I don’t understand why we have to always push for more and better. And at the same time, there is something healthy in me that pushes for more and better. The struggle is real and it’s in me.
So what are goals for?
Goals are a way of creating the life you want. Often, we aren’t focused on goals when we’re pretty content with how life is and it’s completely okay to be content with how life is. But if you do want something different for your life, goals are a good way to get there.
This might be the year it all comes together. My word for the year: goals. Jim, my partner and friend, has challenged us at TLJ to explore what it means to have an empowering and consistent relationship with our goals. I’m intrigued by that idea and I want to explore it. I have a couple of SMART goals in the works and a few more dumb goals.
There is one part of my life that borders on unworkable. I feel overwhelmed and cynical about the possibility of change. But I want something different for my life and so goals have to be part of that. At this stage of my life, the goal-setting process helps me to feel less overwhelmed, more creative, more hopeful.
So we’ll see what happens. I’m starting 2020 with curiosity and wonder about my goals and how they will work in my life. My biggest goal: to see what I learn.
I’ll keep you posted.