Goodbye Goals

New Year’s approaches and with it comes the end of another year–and the final verdict on the New Year’s resolutions we all made twelve months ago. Was this year a success, or will it be enshrined in failure forever?

I’ve written a lot about New Year’s resolutions and goal-setting in the six years I’ve been blogging, but this year, I’m telling my goals goodbye–and here’s why.

It comes down to a simple dichotomy: in order to succeed, we must also fail.

What I mean is that success necessitates failure, and while we can make goals SMART to make them more achievable, the goal-making structure inherently forms an uphill journey that inevitably ends in failure.

So earlier this year I came across an article by James Clear that challenged readers to replace goals with systems, manageable habits that can be performed daily to enable each of us to achieve the long-term outcomes we would normally make our goals.

For example, if my goal is to write a book in one year, my system might be writing for thirty minutes a day. To be technical, however, this “system” would still outwardly be a goal, with the measurable steps being writing every day–and at the end of the year, if we didn’t write a book, we’d fail our goal. In fact, at the end of each day, if we hadn’t written for thirty minutes, we would still have failed.

A true system holds onto the daily habits we want to have–such as writing for thirty minutes–and scraps the finish line–writing a book before the year’s up. Now we’re no longer building toward a future time in which we’ll determine our success or failure; rather we’re focusing our energy on each individual day and the actions we’re able to take in the present moment. If we find we can’t write for thirty minutes a day, it’s not a failure because there’s nothing we’ve failed; we simply try again the next day or we reassess what’s actually sustainable and realistic.

Systems, then, are far more forgiving and less shame-inducing than goals.

Since I came across Clear’s article this summer, I’ve been slowly transitioning to a system-based model of personal improvement rather than the tireless goals I’ve been making since my early teenage years. Periodically I reassess my system and make adjustments as necessary, adding new things or taking out the old and irrelevant.

Right now, my system is focused on three areas–health and wellbeing (today I practiced mindfullness; today I exercised; today I flossed, etc…), academics and career (today I studied, today I conducted research, etc…), and writing and reading (today I posted on my blogs, today I wrote fiction or poetry, today I read for pleasure, etc…), and then I finish each report with two things I’m grateful for that day and two things I did that day that make me proud and feel accomplished.

I keep track of this all in a Google Form that has only yes/no answers and two text boxes for expressing gratitude and self-appreciation. I call it my adventure log, and more often than not, I fill it out before bed each night. In just a minute or two I’m able to see where I’m sustaining myself and where I’m struggling, and immediately I’m able to pick up on trends and make adjustments to continually better myself and my life.

Effectively, I’ve released all the goals I’ve made, but I started this year with a different aim than usual: to live my life with love. It’s been a long and torturous journey, and I’ve learned it’s a journey that cannot be completed in a year, but must become our life’s work. Lately I’ve been drawing my eyes back to what it means to live life with love, and the answers I’m finding will form an adventure I’ll share here as the new year dawns.

In fact, it’s a journey I’ll probably share for months to come, and then ever after, because it’s a journey that can only end the moment death takes our hands.

So for now, this “goal” is no more a goal, but a light that will lead me forward, give me the strength and certainty to follow my personal system, and to choose in every moment to be the person I want to be, the person who loves life and lives love.

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