The fun of setting goals

paris Photo by Louis Pellissier

My sister asked about some goal-setting I’d mentioned, so I wanted to write down my thoughts.

First of all, I’m not a goal-oriented person. My life has shown so many twists and turns that I believe you have to stay present and make decisions as they come. Plus, I work in the tech industry, where it’s impossible to predict how the field will look in five or ten years. My career has been much more opportunity-oriented vs goal-oriented.* And many of the things I’m most proud of (rowing in the Head of the Charles regatta, launching my own iPhone app, helping raise $1.4 million for hurricane relief) were pretty much unplanned.

But, I’ve tried a few times. I do want a bit more focus in my life. Chris Guillebeau writes often about his Annual Review, where he spends two weeks each winter reflecting on the previous year and planning for the new one (in specific categories and overall themes). I tried that in 2011 and 2012, but I didn’t really finish all the lists, think through all the details, or follow through on checkups.

Then last week my friend invited me to join a shared goal-setting group for 2015. Her friend has organized this group for 15 years to provide support and accountability for a small group of women. Each person sets 115 goals for the year — both easy and challenging — in a shared Google Doc. With a dozen other lists to look at (most by professional magazine writers), I was much more inspired. The goals ranged from super professional to achingly vulnerable.

But then I stared at my page. And read some more articles. Goals seemed banal, or ridiculous, or inapplicable. And, worst of all, I MIGHT FAIL. So I realized (the major benefit of the exercise) I needed to articulate what I valued most in life. (I didn’t really understand this word “values” until like six months ago. It seemed so abstract until someone explained it to me as “your most valuable experiences or possessions”.) I needed to recognize what I’d already accomplished.

So I wrote a list of the things I’m most proud of, the things I’ve already managed to:

  • do (experiences and achievements)
  • be (jobs held or roles played)
  • see (places and events)
  • have (possessions and situations)

(ht AJ Roberts for the breakdown)

This gave me so much energy: pride in seeing what I’d already accomplished, and clarity in noticing the patterns and implications. Many things would seem banal, ridiculous, or inapplicable to other people — and they would be! (Unless you want to start a gallery or a mosh pit.) But the point of the exercise is to center yourself. And starting with accomplishments put it on a positive angle.

Then I wrote two questions:
1. Who do I want to be in 2015?
2. How am I going to get there?

The first one was a short phrase describing Erica Heinz version 2015, the second one was a long list broken into methods/priorities that resonated with me:

  • Fitness
  • Nutrition
  • Creativity
  • Work
  • Relationships
  • Exploration
  • Learning
  • Money
  • Community Service
  • Fun
  • Accoutrements

With that structure, I wrote my 115 sub-tasks in a couple of hours. I’ll still revise and confirm them before our start date of Jan 1 (after that you can’t change them, so you have to be sure you really want to do each one), but it was amazingly easier once I had my own focus. And, based on advice from the groupstarter, I made sure to have a mix of challenging and easy. I tend to aim a bit high.

A final tactical note is that big goals need to be broken down into smaller tasks. This process was just as helpful as the final output; it brought to light many assumptions and motivations.

For example, I’ve always wanted to do a silent retreat; people say it’s intense but life-changing. This seemed like a good year, and I knew that offered free 3- and 10-day silent retreats, but to put it into my list I needed to decide which one and when. So I searched all their locations and events, and reviewed all the available articles and videos. I ended up deciding that the situation (10 hours a day sitting, when I’m just recovering from sciatica), was not right for me at all! I found a much more appropriate retreat, in a warm climate, and it’s already motivating me to sort through my budget for last year and next.

And the headstart is a big benefit. To my hippie regret, you can’t do everything spur-of-the-moment (things sell out or have deadlines), and goals aka plans are a great way to make sure you get started on time.

Happy holidays 2014. Here’s to a centered, fit, proud 2015 :)

*I think there was an NYT op-ed about goal-oriented vs opportunity-oriented paths, but I cannot find the link.

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