Autodidactic Ambitions, Goals

Set Habits, Not Goals


I’ve been thinking a lot about my new year’s resolutions and my monthly goals lately (probably because I’m pretty much failing miserably at many of them), and for many weeks now, something has just felt OFF about them. I couldn’t pinpoint it at first, but during my run this morning (and during my post-run shower, which was coincidentally shockingly freezing since we forgot to call the gas company to tell them we moved in), I had some important revelations:

With most of my goals, do I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I reach them?
(Not usually.)

Are all my goals enriching my life and making me the best version of myself?
(Not as much as I thought they would.)

Are my goals stressing me out more than inspiring me?
(A resounding YES.)

What gives?

As I looked deeper into it, studying the items off of my bucket list and glancing at last month’s goals, I started asking myself questions such as, “What is my motive behind wanting to read all the books off of The 100 Most Recommended Classics list or all the Newbery award winners? Is it to brag that I’ve read all of them? Is it to gain admiration? Or is it to become more well-read and to fill my life with good literature?

Or how about my goal to learn to scuba dive, to go on a hot air balloon ride, or to go skiing? Are they simply to have a cool experience to share? Or are they because I want to be more adventurous? To discover new sides to myself? To experience novelty with the person I love most in the world by my side?

And after a few hours of questions such as those, I finally boiled it down to the issue itself—

It’s not that I want to have those experiences just to say I had them.

I want to have those experiences because I want to be a different sort of person.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. For as long as I knew what a “marathon” was, I wanted to run one. I wasn’t a runner (at all) growing up, but I wanted the experience of having trained for and done something difficult, and I wanted to discover a form of athleticism I could really embrace. I figured that if I ran a marathon, I would by default become a lifelong runner, and that part of my ideal self would be fulfilled.

Well, as the story goes, I did train for a marathon and run the entire thing. I did, in the process, start calling myself “a runner.” But then I started my first year of teaching, and somehow, I went almost a year without running at all right after having run a marathon. (True story.)

Had I still accomplished my goal of running a marathon? Yes.

But my REAL goal was going unfulfilled—that of becoming a runner in every sense of the word, FOR LIFE.

And when I started running again, the feeling was completely different—I was no longer running so that I could hit some milestone or cross something off my endless bucket list :

I was running because I wanted to and because it made me happier.

That’s the key, really—shouldn’t all of our dreams eventually be leading us towards an ever greater sense of satisfaction and happiness with our life?

Last summer while on a road trip to visit my dad in Kansas City, I read Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. Near the end, she says the following quote, which has somewhat haunted me ever since :

“Many nonwriters assume that publication is a thunderously joyous event in a writer’s life . . . They believe that if they themselves were to get something published, their lives would change instantly, dramatically, and for the better. Their self-esteem would flourish; all self-doubt would be erased like a typo. Entire paragraphs and manuscripts of disappointment and rejection and lack of faith would be wiped out by one push of a psychic delete button and replaced by a quiet, tender sense of worth and belonging. Then they could wrap the world in flame.

“But this is not exactly what happens. . . [E]ventually you have to sit down like every other writer and face the blank page.”

In other words, sometimes we hold these goals or bucket list items in front of our face like shiny gold pieces just out of our reach, thinking that when are finally able to grasp them, our lives will become everything we want them to be.

But what we don’t realize is that true joy and fulfillment and happiness rarely come in arriving at the destination—they come from the training and the hard work and the learning that gets us there, which are the things that coincidentally change, refine, and improve us.

It is this realization that has made me rethink setting goals every month to cross items off my bucket list. It is this realization that has prompted me to put pen to paper yet again and instead of writing more goals and more to-do lists and more items on my bucket list, I have written a list of habits I can choose from each day that I believe will bring me that greater sense of contentment (because each habit is a process and not an end).

And because I don’t need any more stress coming from these habits, I’ve made it just easy enough on myself that I can push myself while not burying myself—I made a list of habits, and each day, I do at least three things on the list.

I’m excited to see how this goes.

If you want to set your own list of habits, here was my process:

1. Make a list of qualities you want to personally possess or that you want your life to have. For example, I want to live a lifestyle that’s more simplified and focused on the important things and simple pleasures of life rather than on consumerism and busy-ness for busy-ness’s sake. I want to be a well-read person who can hold intelligent conversations and positively influence others. I want to be a homemaker who creates the kind of environment for her family that invites people to linger and feel comfortable.

2. Make a list of skills or talents that you would need to put your life more in line with your ideal self. Using my previous examples, I would need to learn to prioritize my time better, keep a tidier home, learn to live with less stuff, read a lot of worthwhile books and newspapers, and cultivate skills in cooking, entertaining, housework, and overall hospitality.

3. Make a list of daily habits that, if practiced frequently, would help your life to become more aligned with your ideal life. Some examples from above: spend fifteen minutes a day de-cluttering a small area of the house, spend 10 minutes in a quality conversation with a loved one either in person or by phone or Skype, read two chapters of a book or three articles in a newspaper, try out one new recipe, etc.

4. Finally, set a realistic goal for yourself to do some of those habits every day (preferably in a rotating order so you don’t always do the same habits and neglect other ones). 

Are you a goal- or habit-oriented kind of person?

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