Years ago, I found myself at New Year’s Eve, beating myself up again for not accomplishing my goals for the year. But that particular year, something clicked. Something that said, What if this isn’t your fault?
For an overachieving people-pleaser, this was almost impossible to believe, but I decided to investigate. Why couldn’t I seem to honor my resolutions and achieve those goals I’d set for myself?
What I realized — no exaggeration — changed my life.
Make your goals your own
First of all, I will be honest: I was setting the wrong goals. I was setting the goals I thought I “should” be setting for myself. So it wasn’t a huge surprise that, at the end of the year, I didn’t accomplish my goals, because they weren’t really my goals. They were someone else’s idea of appropriate goals.
I didn’t really want to run a marathon or spend more time studying Spanish. (Ultimately, I completed 1000 hours of yoga teacher training and learned Japanese. But that’s a different story.)
Base your goals on actions, not outcomes
Crafting resolutions that felt more like me was a good start, but it was just the beginning. Even when I sat down to create specific goals that I truly did want to achieve, I still felt constricted and rebellious. I found that I was still clinging to the outcomes of the goals, and that felt really uncomfortable. If I failed, I thought, it would really mean something about me.
So I changed my strategy entirely. Instead of focusing on the outcome of my resolutions, I come up with themes. I look for places I want to focus, instead of a list of things I want to accomplish. The fact is, our accomplishments aren’t always up to us. Our efforts? We can control those. The outcome? Most of the time, it’s out of our hands.
Let’s say you actually do want to run that marathon. You can make a plan and train for the marathon. You can join a running group and buy the shoes and sign up for the race. But maybe you get injured. Or the event is cancelled due to a pandemic. (For instance.) Those things are out of your control, and have no bearing on whether you “succeeded.”
Focus on themes and intentions
Now, I focus on themes and intentions. My themes ask the question: Where do I want to focus my energy? In my life right now, I’m focused on my family, my creative practice, and my activism. It’s not about what will happen in those areas. My themes are the places I want to offer the best of myself.
My intentions ask the question: How do I want to show up for what matters to me? It’s not about what I want to do, it’s about how I want to be in relationship to those areas of my life. When you focus on your themes and intentions, you are better able to keep promises to yourself over which you have control.
Accomplishing specific things
Do I still have specific things I want to accomplish? Absolutely. I’d love to publish a book. I want to knit a blanket and a sweater in the next few months. There are specific trips I’d love to make this year (if it’s safe). I’d love to see my family and create particular kinds of change in my activism. But I’m holding those things lightly and not getting attached.
When things are difficult, you might have less control over where you spend your time and energy. Family members get sick. You may not be able to quit that terrible job right now (because rent and food cost money). It may not be safe to take that trip you’re longing to take.
When you focus on themes and intentions, you’re giving yourself a permission slip to be flexible. What matters isn’t the specific form a goal takes, but that you’re striving to make an impact. You can be present with what’s meaningful without it turning into a story about your value as a person. Your themes and your intentions are under your control.
You just have to ask yourself: Where do I want to be present and what do I want the quality of my presence to be?
How do you approach goal-setting? Do you focus on your actions and on broader themes, or on defined goals and specific results? Share your thoughts in the comments.