How to Set Goals Like a Normal Person
How many of these statements are true for you?
- "I have no trouble setting goals and no shortage of ideas, but I'm too distracted by what's next to focus on what's now."
- "I'm a big ideas person and love the idea of my goals, but I lack motivation to actually make the changes needed to go for it."
- "I really struggle with the all-or-nothing mentality. If I can't be 100% perfect, I give up. If I misstep once, I forfeit. Or I think 'Oh well, I'll start over tomorrow or next week.'"
- "I struggle with prioritizing working toward my goals. Daily chores, cooking, taking care of my kids, church and school commitments, etc. feel more urgent, so those things get my time and attention."
- "I feel like small steps aren't good enough to get me to my bigger goals so I just stop."
- "I wonder if my goal really matters in the scheme of things."
If any these made your Me, Too! alarm go off, welcome. We're in this goal-setting abyss together.
Personally, I'm a recovering goal-setter. For years, I strived for accomplishment and checked boxes and then overcorrected HARD by quitting goals cold turkey. I thought the only way to be free of Goal Guilt was to quit setting them altogether. Just live life, man. Achievement is overrated.
Maybe. Or maybe achievement needs a facelift.
A Hopeful Definition
When I say "goal," what do I mean? What do you mean? The possibilities are vast, and that's the problem.
Setting goals could be abstract (find better work-life balance), specific (paint the garage), personal (feel comfortable in my skin), idealistic (exercise 60 minutes every day), or aspirational (get off social media). You probably have a goal that falls into each of these categories, but the problem lies in having one mental file folder marked GOALS and sticking everything inside. Having a better relationship with my husband and remodeling the guest bathroom require very different skill sets, yet I approach them the same way. Like a crazy person.
"That thing didn't work the last seven years when I tried to lose ten pounds, but let's see if it'll work this time for writing a book proposal and connecting more with my teenage son!"
You guys. We need a new way.
Last month, I defined self-care as anything that makes you feel more like yourself. It's not manicures and shopping sprees and abandoning everything that's important to look pretty. It's simply understanding what makes you feel like you and doing it. Although it's a simple definition, it made a big impact on many of you. Let's try and do the same with goals.
We need the same working definition, so let's start there.
A goal is a purposeful direction, not a destination.
I know I know this goes against everything you've ever heard about goals, but hear me out.
Most productivity gurus talk about SMART goals - specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound goals. This idea was introduced in a management magazine over 35 years ago and has stuck around in a big way. Don't set a goal to lose weight but instead to walk 30 minutes a day for three months! It's specific, you can measure it, it's achievable if you just do it, it's pretty realistic assuming your kid doesn't get sick, and you can check it off in three months! Easy, right?
SMART goals might be technically correct, but they leave little room for the soul, for grace, and for the why. We give up because we lose motivation, we see failing as the end, or we don't even know why we picked our specific, measurable goals in the first place. Trying to put SMART checkboxes next to everything in our jam-packed mental file folder is too sterile, too robotic.
And yet we keep doing it because that's all there is, right?
Wrong. Praise hands emoji.
The New Way
You have so many ideas, so many things you want to accomplish, so many ways to make your life better, and right now, on Monday, January 1st, you're ready. You're in it. You're determined to have this year be different. And, yes, your persistence is key. Your commitment to yourself and what you want matters.
But you need a new framework.
Michael Hyatt is a leadership and productivity guru who leans into the robotic way most of the time. In fact, I listened to his podcast series on goal-setting, and - warning, y'all - we're basically doing things the opposite way from the goal guru. It hasn't worked yet for us yet, so what have we got to lose? That said, this particular Michael Hyatt quote is worth paying attention to:
"You don't drift to a place you choose. Desirable outcomes are caused."
You don't magically happen into a fit body, an organized house, a Master's degree, or a fulfilling relationship. You do have to choose to be a player, but you don't have to be a robot.
If you see a goal as a purposeful direction and not a destination, you won't be as discouraged by the urgent, the children, the lack of time, or the fear. Checking the box is not the endgame. That's what we hear and what we've been taught, but perhaps that doesn't work for you. Instead, place yourself on the path, and start walking. Sprint. Stand still. Fall backwards. But stay on the path of your personal purposeful direction.
It's nitty gritty time.
How to Set Goals That Matter and Stick
1. Pick your path.
2. Find the edge.
3. Plan to stumble.
4. Celebrate the right way.
It's possible to walk toward dreams without crumbling under the pressure. Let's break down these four steps to figure out how.
Pick Your Path
We see goals as tasks, as things to do. What if we completely reframe it? Three questions should get you there.
Question #1: Who do I want to be?
Not what do you want to do. Who do you want to be? Look ahead a year, five years, ten. What person do you hope to see? Write it down, and be specific.
A runner, a published author, a mom who gathers her family around the table more nights than not, confident, debt-free, a business owner, a woman who can get off the couch without her knees falling apart (that one's for me), a gardener, a baker, a decorator, a reader, a party thrower, a mom who gets along with her kids, the next Oprah.
Use your imagination. Unearth those dormant dreams. Name who you want to be without fear or shame. Nobody has to know but you.
Question #2: Why does being this person matter to me?
Dig deep. You'll probably get a little cringe-y at first and then empowered.
Why does being a runner matter? What's the real reason? It might be a valuable spiritual practice or an essential stress-reliever. Or you might just think runners are fit and cool and you want to be fit and cool, too. There's no shame. Just be honest.
Why does being a published author matter? Is it because you don't think your work is valid until it's published? Is it because you want to create a resource for an audience you care about? Do you want to be famous? Again, just be honest.
Why does gathering your family around the table matter to you? Maybe your family didn't eat together growing up. Maybe your parents were divorced and you always longed for a "whole" family laughing around a platter of chicken. (This could shed a little light on why you put so much pressure on dinner... because it's actually way bigger than dinner.)
Until you know your deepest motivation, you'll be stuck.
Question #3: How am I more like this person than I was a year ago?
We often move unconsciously in the direction of what really matters, so if you run more now than you did a year ago, if you have written more on a blog or have tinkered with that book proposal in the last year, and if you planned out meals a few more times this year than last, you're more like that person you want to be. More importantly, you've identified something that does matter beyond checked boxes. It counts even if it doesn't get checked off! Celebrate that!
Heat Check Time
These first three questions will help you pick your path, unearthing what really makes you tick. On the flip side, they could help you identify what's a self- or society-imposed aspiration rather than a deep, soul dream. The perfect example is losing weight. What kind of person is that? Do you just want to be a thin person? Why does that matter? Are you any thinner now than you were last year? Moving in autopilot towards things you think you should do is why we fail at goals like pros.
This, however, is excellent news. If you realize the goals you've set in recent years are coming from a place of being who you think you should be, let them loose! Stop setting goals to be a person who really doesn't matter to you and use that energy for what does. Or for a nap.
Pick your path. Not a checkbox goal but a path toward becoming someone, not accomplishing something.
"What if I want to be ten different people?"
It's a valid question. It's likely you'll think of several people you want to be, and while they could be very connected, I encourage you to just choose one. For now. You can always come back to the others.
Remember, being intentional on one path, even for a short time, is better than spreading across multiple paths that require more than you can give. Start small. Start slow. Who you are isn't going anywhere.
Find the Edge
The more narrow your path, the more you'll stay on it.
Notice that when we picked our path, we didn't say "I want to be a healthy person" or "I want to be well-rounded." Also notice that I didn't ask you what seven people do you want to be. Just the one. Because here's what that whole situation looks like:
There's this woman. Let's call her Bendra. (My name is Kendra; there's no connection.) Every January (and sometimes May and September or any other time she feels like she's falling apart), she lists out all the things she thinks will make her a healthier, better person. Eat dessert only once a week, don't eat after 8pm, drink green tea every night, walk 30 minutes a day, meal plan every Sunday, prep all the meals once a week, take vitamins every day, read a meaningful story to each child every day, stick to a regular cleaning schedule, clean out one closet or drawer every week, eat grownup food for lunch, journal every day, have a little jar of conversation starters on the dinner table and use them nightly with laughter and listening in great supply, light candles constantly, dry flowers and hang them from my wooden beamed rafters, install wooden beamed rafters...
Bendra failed like ten minutes ago and is now hiding in the closet with some Peppermint JoJo's.
Have you ever been like Bendra? We set ourselves up for so much just in our daily lives, not to mention grand dreams and home projects and everything that falls through the daily cracks.
We have to narrow the path, y'all. We have to find the edge and stick to it.
So once you've picked your path of who you want to be, ask yourself another three questions to find the edge.
Question #1: What needs to happen to become this person?
Hopefully you're motivated by a deeper purpose, by the person you want to be, so what needs to happen to live into who he or she is?
What needs to happen to become a runner? You need to run more days than you don't. You need shoes that keep your feet safe. You need a surface that doesn't hurt. You need a route or companion that's motivating, i.e. trails vs. the treadmill, with a friend instead of alone, or with a favorite podcast or audiobook. And you might need something to train for, like a local 5k or (gulp) a marathon.
What needs to happen to become a published author? You need a book idea. You need to become a better writing and therefore write something more days than you don't. You need a crafted book proposal. You might need an agent to help shop the idea around. You need a purpose statement for your writing, an understanding of your own voice and message. You need to believe that what you're offering matters.
What needs to happen to be a mom who gathers her family around the table every night? You need dinner. To maintain sanity and a reasonable grocery bill, you probably need a plan. You need a handful of dependable, versatile cooking skills. You need a few dependable, versatile recipes. You need to lower your expectations that your family will value the time the same way you do. You probably need to prep ahead a little. You need to not panic ohmygosh.
Write down everything you can think of. What needs to happen to become that person? Be kind and honest, please.
Question #2: What one thing would have the most impact now?
Look at your list, and choose what pops out as the most impactful.
Only you know the answer because only you know what truly motivates you, but let's still guess.
If you want to be a runner, the most impactful thing would be to actually run more days than you don't. An author? Finishing a book proposal. Dinner? Making a plan.
Question #3: What can I do every day for the next 30 days to aim for that one thing?
Just one little thing every day. Only one. We've tried setting several goals at once, and it just makes us fail multiple times. So for 30 days, let's do one simple thing. Make it tiny enough to remember and easy enough to actually do.
Put your running clothes and shoes on every day for 30 days. Even if you don't run every day, you're heading in a purposeful direction.
Leave your book proposal open on your computer and work on it for five minutes every day. Even if it takes you more than a month to finish it, you're heading in a purposeful direction.
Decide what's for dinner every morning before things get crazy. Even if you don't have an elaborate weekly meal plan, you're heading in a purposeful direction.
One tiny thing every day.
Hating Small Steps
Can we talk about how awful they are? How useless they feel? Small steps absolutely feel inconsequential and pointless, but I believe (and deep down, you believe, too) that they make a difference. It's about daily disciplines on a tiny scale. One step. Not a marathon.
P.S. Even if we don't want to believe small steps matter, we're not doing anything anyway, so what have we got to lose?
Over the last year, I've added two daily steps to my life. I stretch my legs before bed, and I know what's for dinner before breakfast is over. The stretching hasn't made me look like Gwyneth Paltrow. The dinner plan isn't on a rotation with detailed shopping lists and binder tabs. I simply feel a little better when I wake up in the morning, and I'm not (as much of a) crazy person at 4:30pm. A worthy exchange for tiny daily steps.
Big chunks of time aren't a magic formula. Checking off ambitious boxes is difficult and results in the shortest of highs. Then we're left with "now what?"
Small steps and big accomplishments alike make sense when we see ourselves on a path. Any movement is good movement. Every small step keeps us in the purposeful direction we intentionally chose. Checked boxes aren't the end of the story. And even if we stand still, we're still on the path.
Plan to Stumble
What will get in the way of my one thing?
This is simple and vital. Be your own fortune teller, and figure out where you're likely to trip up. If your daily task hit a worst case scenario, what would that look like? Now decide how to handle it before it happens.
Is your typical morning too rushed to remember to put on your running gear? Move a morning task to the evening before to free up two minutes, or put your running stuff out before you go to bed.
You want to work on your book proposal for five minutes every day, but is your computer in a room that you don't go into every day or in a room that EVERYONE ELSE goes into every day? Move the computer to a spot where you're likely to remember to write and can for five minutes without interruption.
Is it tough to choose dinner at breakfast because your Morning Brain is too tired to remember what you have in the freezer? Make a list of what's in your freezer or even choose tomorrow's dinner while you're cleaning up tonight's. Cabinets and freezers are opening and closing as you clean up, so use that effort to choose the next meal.
This one is less fun and more important.
How are you going to convince yourself that this choice isn't important? What holes will you try to poke in the person you want to be? How will you respond to not doing the one task every day? I promise that doing the emotional work now is better than doing it when you're hangrily eating Oreos in front of the sink.
One the best ways to set yourself for normal person success? Define what success means.
We do a great job of calling ourselves failures, but how often are we way too intense with what a failure is? My hand is waving so hard right now. For your one thing, define what's perfect, what's a failure, and what's good enough. So often, you're totally in Good Enough territory but don't see it.
For the runner, if perfection is running 30 minutes every day, anything between that and actually putting on your shoes with the intention to run is good enough. You're still on the path. The longer you get comfortable on that path, the more you'll want to run. Failure is throwing out your shoes in a fit of self-contempt, but guess what? You're still on the path. You just need to go find your shoes.
For the book proposal writer, perfection is writing for an hour instead of five minutes and being excited when you're done. Guess what's good enough? Anything between that and thinking about your proposal while you're grocery shopping. The longer you get comfortable on that path, the more you'll want to write. Failure is thinking that your idea is dumb and that no one would care if you wrote again, but guess what? That's part of every. single. person's creative process. You're still on the path.
For the morning meal planner, perfection is having a rotation of meals that are easy to make, healthy, cheap, quick, and make everyone is your family happy. Actually hold up, that's A FREAKING DREAM WORLD. Let's back up a sec. Perfection is eating with whoever is with you at a table of intention. Good enough is anything between Dream World and cereal. Truly. If you approach your table with the purposeful intention of gathering people rather than making a meal, you're doing great. The longer you get comfortable on the path of People over Food, the more you'll want to cook. Failure is telling yourself you're not a good person because you can't get dinner on the table like everyone else seems to, but guess what? We all tell ourselves that lie. You're still on the path, and you're going to be okay.
Define success. Define failure. More importantly, define the beautifully wide space of good enough.
Celebrate the Right Way
Rewards are too tied to destination thinking. Most of the time, I want the reward more than I want the goal and just end up buying/eating the reward and quitting the "impossible goal."
We need to mark the moments.
How many goals did you almost complete in recent years but don't remember because you didn't think they were worth celebrating? We haven't taught ourselves to be proud, to remember, to keep progress in perspective. And sorry to get all Oprah up in here, but if the person you want to be is truly important, sincerely high-fiving yourself for any movement along that path is the deepest of rewards.
Why? You're becoming a person, not checking off a list. You're feeling empowered, seeing the benefits of daily choices, acknowledging the value of slow but intentional progress. As you become a fuller and deeper version of yourself, your soul will be satisfied in a way a tangible reward can't match.
The best way to bring the tangible into in your path is by marking moments. You did your one thing for a chunk of the 30 days; celebrate still being on the path by intentionally planning a run on a favorite trail you discovered, by putting a little book sticker on your planner at the end of your 30 days to remember that you still love to write, or by flipping through a new cookbook with excitement, knowing you actually might cook from it soon. Mentally mark the moment, and you'll see a tiny change in how your next 30 days on the path will be.
To be clear, I do love tangible rewards; I'm buying a fancy face mask at the end of 2018 to celebrate staying on my path, but that isn't what drives me. If the reward compels you more than the thing itself, you might be on the wrong path. Instead, mark the moments. Anything else is just gravy.
The Nasty Underbelly of Goal-Setting
I heard Michael Hyatt say that setting goals in only one area won't work because all areas are connected, that we need to succeed in health, work, money, and relationships because they all depend on one another. I agree... except for the success part.
We are complex people, impacted by more factors than we can count, some in our control and others beyond us. If we assume the best way to be successful humans (whatever that means) is to strive towards idealism and accomplishment in all areas of our lives, we'll fail before we check a box. The answer is not more goals. The answer isn't living your best life. (Sorry, Sweet Beloved Oprah.) The answer is grace.
We are not zero-sum failures.
Not succeeding in one area does not make you a failure in all of them, and yet that's how we see ourselves. All or nothing. I'm Gwyneth Paltrow or a lady hobo, a master chef or a McDonald's garbage person, Dave Ramsey or a scared penny on the train track.
Your life is connected, but your failures don't have to be.
Besides, we've already sculpted failure into something that can galvanize us to stay on the path that matters, to stick to our purposeful direction without needing a single checkbox. That's all the success you need right there.
Grace, not goals. A direction, not a destination.
The beauty of this new way is that we'll actually become the people we want to because we've stripped guilt from the equation.
Pick your path. Decide who you want to be, not what you want to do.
Find the edge. Narrow your focus to one small step you can take every day to stay on a path that matters.
Plan to stumble. Plan for practical and emotional obstacles before they happen, and show yourself grace when you fall anyway.
Celebrate the right way. Mark the moments; don't live for a reward.
After you complete 30 small steps on your path, you have several choices: continue with another 30 days of the same task, choose another small step on that path to complement the first 30 days, or look back at other people you want to be and begin walking down that path only for your next round of small steps.
If you're overwhelmed by keeping up with multiple personalities, remember you're one person. It's not that on your on many paths all spread apart; look at it more as lanes on a track. Each lane has edges and it's best to stay within one lane at a time, but all the lanes are going the same direction, all part of one giant life path.
One of the best ways to remember your one small step is to see its movement every day. I've created a little card you can print out to put in your planner, on your mirror, or on your car visor to create a new rhythm for remembering what matters. It's a super cute 30-day path of circles, not a list of checkboxes. Total shape semantics, but I still think it works.
Here's to 30 days of exploring your path. Don't put too much pressure on an entire year; let it breathe, and you'll breathe better, too.