As we begin a new year, many of us find ourselves in a bit more contemplative mood than usual. What were our highs and lows in 2017? What do we want for 2018? We all could use some clarity to live our best lives.
Sometimes, we’re waiting for clarity to strike us from the outside, maybe in the form of a sign or revelation. But more often than not, the clarity we seek is already within us, waiting to be discovered.
When I was a Sophomore in high school, I started to connect with my own unclarity. What was I going to do with my “one wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver put it? A friend gave me a copy of Anthony Robbins’ “Awaken the Giant Within,” a book I generally now regard with great skepticism, but nonetheless that helped change my life.
Eventually, I found my way to a chapter on goal setting. Like most everyone, I had been taught I should set goals for my life. But just like how I had also been taught I should dust my room and floss my teeth, I wasn’t particularly motivated to do so. Goal setting just seemed painful, with no clear benefit. So, when I started reading the chapter, I was surprised to find a quote from Carl Sandburg: “Nothing happens unless first a dream.” I had never thought that goal setting may be more akin to dream identifying. I continued to read:
“Are you ready to have some fun? Are you willing to be like a kid again and let your imagination run wild?”
The tone caught me off guard. Maybe goal setting wasn’t like dusting my room or flossing my teeth.
I then was led on a series of tasks in which I dreamed what I wanted to create in my life. I brainstormed for 5 minutes about four areas each: personal development, career / economics, adventures, and contributions. Ultimately, I identified the most important one-year goal in each area.
The effects of this exercise on me can’t be overstated. It brought me clarity for the first time in my life. I had been a mediocre student, for instance, often struggling in difficult subjects, sometimes getting into trouble with my dad because of earning a “D.” But, during my goal setting session, I decided I wanted to be an “A” student. From that point forward, that’s exactly what I made happen. I earned straight “A”s through the rest of high school. This allowed me to enroll at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where I continued being an “A” student. This, in part, allowed me to get into a top-rated Counseling Psychology program at the University of Minnesota. My future opened before me. And it all started with a goal.
With this personal experience in mind, my undergraduate and graduate research interests came to focus on the influence of goals in people’s lives. Working with motivation researcher Judy Harackiewicz in Wisconsin, I learned how goals motivated for intrinsic reasons such as enjoyment or love tend to be more beneficial than goals motivated for extrinsic reasons such as financial compensation or fame. In this lab, I worked with Andy Elliot, whose research revealed how goals focused on approaching the good generally are more productive than goals focused on avoiding the bad. We read about Deci and Ryan’s research showing that goals meeting human needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence usually are more satisfying than goals pursued for other reasons such as social approval. In graduate school, I was advised by pioneering goal researcher Eric Klinger who taught me how goals can be distinguished based on their level of abstractness and time horizon.
Since high school, I have continued the regular practice of setting goals from time to time to find clarity for what I want to create in my life. Guided by Klinger’s insight about the different types of goals possible, I now have elaborated on several different forms of goals: a personal mission statement, a bucket list, one-year goals, goals for “being,” ongoing life goals, and concrete goals. You might think of them as possibilities for forms your New Year’s resolutions may take. Maybe one will especially catch your eye.
1. When I was in college, I was introduced to the bestselling “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” In this book, Stephen Covey discusses the practice of crafting a statement of one’s personal mission in life. When I considered this possibility, I was inspired! However, over 25 years of working on my personal mission statement, I now realize how the process of reflecting on my mission is at least as – if not more – important than the actual statement I produce. I have scrapped many drafts over the years, ultimately settling on a single sentence: “the mission of my life is to love God and others as myself.” This practice has deeply affected my life. Not only do I have a better sense of what I want my life to be about, I have a deeper context for understanding more specific goals I want to pursue.
2. I first heard about the notion of a “bucket list” from the movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman by that name. The idea is to identify activities or accomplishments one wants to experience at some point during one’s lifetime. Often, a bucket list focuses on adventures, such as one of my bucket list items to “go to Vermont in the Fall” or “travel to Russia.” But it wouldn’t have to do so. In fact, one of the most meaningful items on my bucket list is to “celebrate my 50th anniversary with my wife, with all my kids and grandkids present, and surrounded by lifelong friends.”
3. Traditional New Year’s resolutions usually take the form of a one-year goal. As I mentioned, it may be helpful to dream about everything you’d most love to make happen in different areas of your life before deciding on one of these. Working on a personal mission statement also helps in this regard. When I set goals of this type, I focus on a variety of domains of my life (listed here in order of priority): spirituality (personal spirituality, church, volunteering), physical health (exercise, nutrition, rest), fun and adventure (personal interests, hobbies, travel), relationships (husband, dad, friend), career, and investments (financial, housing). These goals can and should be specific and measurable. For instance, this year, I have goals to “volunteer with my kids at a local nature center,” “plan a trip to Canada,” and “post a blog entry twice per month.”
4. Most goal setting exercises emphasize how goals should be specific and measurable. However, some domains of life make this difficult. As a result, I also set “being” goals. To do this, I started with the five historical Quaker testimonies (following the acronym “SPICE”): simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality, and I elaborated on what they mean to me. I added to this list a variety of other ways I want to “be,” including being in awe, curious, and hard-working. As I have thought more about this, I realize other goals I want to pursue in certain domains also are “being” goals, such as my desires to “be connected with my wife;” “hold a loving, encouraging space where my kids can unfold at their own pace;” and “be in relationship with friends I feel called toward.”
5. Having done a lot of goal work over my lifetime, I recently added another type of goal to my repertoire, again to provide clarity. I’m calling this an “ongoing life goal” because it is broader in scope and timeframe than a one-year goal. To identify these, I ask myself: “what do I want to do, in general, in my life?” Because ongoing life goals are so abstract, I wouldn’t identify more than five. For example, I want to “help create a home space out of which family members can flourish,” “curate experiences for students to be transformed,” and “create beauty.”
6. Many of the above-mentioned kinds of goals won’t influence behavior unless they get translated into concrete goals pursued on a weekly or daily basis. Therefore, following Covey’s suggestion, almost every week for the past 25 years, I have taken about 30 minutes on the weekend to review my one-year and ongoing life goals to consider what I could do in the coming week to make progress toward their achievement. More specifically, I reflect on each the major roles and domains in my life (spiritual, health, husband, dad, professor, friend, and steward) and ask myself: “what is the one activity I could do this week that would make the biggest difference in this area?” Usually, for instance, I find places in my schedule for meditative prayer, exercise, and walks with my wife. I am flexible, but writing down these commitments in my weekly planner has helped create habits that have made a huge difference in the quality of my life.
Now, what about you?… Would you like more clarity for your life?
Don’t get stuck in old patterns. Consider the types of goals I mentioned above (personal mission statement, bucket list, one-year goals, “being” goals, ongoing life goals, concrete goals). Choose one that intrigues you and spend 30 minutes today, by yourself, quietly reflecting on what you want to create in your life in that way.
Just a reminder: this isn’t something you “should” do or “have” to do. It isn’t like dusting or flossing. This is an opportunity to use your imagination and dream about your best life.
One more tip. As I was advised, do not leave your goal setting session without taking some action in the direction of your resolutions.
As the Tao Te Ching states: “a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
This post first appeared at http://www.psychologytoday.com