I’m fantastic with setting goals. It’s a skill I exercise daily. Just this morning, I set goals when I silenced my alarm twice and told myself I would get up at some arbitrary time my sleep-brain told me would be sufficient. Right after, I cleaned the house and cursed past-me who promised to clean the house earlier that week. Setting goals is easy. The following through part, well, let’s just say I’m making it my goal to get better at meeting my goals.
Goal planning can be roughly defined as wanting to do a thing, making a plan to do the thing, and committing to the plan to do the thing. Eloquent, right? Everybody makes goals all the time. Literally all the time. Maybe you’re racing the car next to you at the stoplight, wrapping up grocery shopping before the kids get out of school, or trying to make it through work without strangling that guy eating onion tuna salad at his desk.
The goals I really have trouble with (and I’m going to project for a moment and assume all of you have the same problem) are lifelong goals. By lifelong, I refer to goals that have the same expiration date as you. Think eating healthier, donating to charity, and reading more. Those all sound great, but they’re actually pretty awful in the practicality department. If you live off of a diet of bacon grease and hard liquor, eating a single piece of broccoli would put you in the green. Donating to charity? Drop a trashed left shoe off at Goodwill and you’re practically a saint. And what about reading? If you start reading the nutrition labels off your canned soup, you’re technically reading more than you would have been otherwise. Might as well start a book club with all that literary knowledge your brain is inevitably teaming with.
Point is, most lifelong goals are fluffy, ill-defined dream puffs. That’s probably why we have about as much luck achieving them as we do catching clouds in our bare hands. So what can we do about that? I’m going to break down how I catch clouds in three parts: motivation, control, and definitive success. It all starts with setting the bar low.
What’s my motivation?
Before investing your own weight in blood, sweat, and tears into you’re half-baked dreams, it would be wise to take a moment to consider why you even want to accomplish that thing you want to accomplish. This is step zero in the planning process because if your motivations aren’t right, you shouldn’t even start planning. Analyzing your motivations might mean staring deep into the dark crevices of your insecurities but it’s better to do that at the beginning of the journey than to be half-way across Middle Earth with a bundle of arrows through your chest only to realize you had daddy issues all along.
Truth bomb: I want to be a better writer. Big surprise. Why you might ask? Well, I draw an intrinsic value from the act of writing. It makes me think in ways I wouldn’t otherwise. It highlights the mundane aspects of my life and helps me appreciate my surroundings. Now that sounds all noble and dignified, but I have material motivations as well. Would I like to sell books and have gushing fans swoon in my presence? Of course. But if at the end of my life, I don’t make a single cent off of my writing or carve out any kind of name for myself besides the one on my gravestone, I won’t regret a single second. I like what I write and I like how writing changes me. That’s sufficient.
Definitely take a moment to consider why it’s so important you do the thing and you might realize the thing itself isn’t the issue. Maybe you wanted to become a doctor to help heal people but you flunked out of med school. Consider massage therapy or joining Americorps. Reading more to expand your horizons and be a better-informed citizen is pretty rad but to do it impress Beverly from accounting? She’s probably too focused on that spinach in your teeth to even notice the title in your hands. Lifelong goals are going to be with you for a while and if you’re not fully invested for the right reasons, you’re going to lose interest.
What can I control?
As a part of the whole “become a better writer” goal, I convinced myself at some point that I needed to become a published author. And not only did I need to be published traditionally, it needed to happen by the time I hit thirty. I’m still a handful of years shy of that deadline, but I’ve since revised that goal. Publishing requires multiple steps: finish a manuscript, re-write it a billion times, doubt your life choices, rewrite again, send to beta readers, beg friends and family to read it, few billion more edits, then send it off to the publisher and cry. Then you wait. Up until the publishing part, every step of the process is under your control. In fact, with various degrees of success, even the publishing part is under your control with indie platforms. If you want to move through a traditional publisher, though, that’s about where your control stops. You can’t control other people’s actions. Hypnotism is usually frowned upon. You can control how many publishers you send a manuscript, how you take criticism, who you have edit your work, etc.
To expand this beyond writing, think about applying for jobs. You decide where and when you apply. Polish your resume and appearance. Research the position and practice an interview with a loved one or your own reflection if nothing else. Even if you’re rejected, send a thank you note. When you’re first putting yourself out there, it’s really tough to get rejections- rejections are tough even after you’ve put yourself out there extensively- but keep in mind that at least you’re starting somewhere. It’s better to focus on your part and be pleasantly surprised if you’re accepted than to assume you’re the best candidate ever and be round-house kicked into a pile of humiliation after reading an automatically generated email. You can’t be disappointed if you don’t have expectations. Maybe don’t embroider that into a pillow. What I will stress is the importance of mapping out where your role ends and focusing on that stuff.
On the flip side, say you understand exactly where your responsibility ends but you keep tripping up your end. Like you accidentally eat three pizzas in one sitting when you’re on a carb-free kick. That’s okay! You have tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that (so long as you don’t die.) Forgive yourself and move on. This is especially important with lifelong goals because, well, they’re lifelong and I can guarantee you, you’re going to fail yourself at some point. It’ll happen. You will walk straight into a pit of disappointment eventually and you’re going to have to decide whether you want to invest in real estate or climb out. Suck in your pride, admit you’re flawed and remember you’re not beyond asking for a helping hand, or even a rope ladder depending on how far you fall. You can’t control failing but you can control your response.
What does success look like?
Success manifests differently with lifelong goals than it does with finite ones. Write a book by thirty? Once the deadline approaches, you’ve either done it or you haven’t. But writing a book at some point in your lifespan? Much less accountability. The best way to tackle lifelong goals is to chunk them up into smaller goals.
When we think of goals, we usually think big and broad which is cool. It’s great to dream. Spectacular, even. But from my experience, real change comes from the consolidated effects of itty-bitty daily goals. Consider this: eating is kind of a necessity and because I have yet to afford my own chef, I should probably cook healthy-ish food on a regular basis. Cooking, which takes a fair amount of time itself, also involves grocery shopping and cleaning dishes. Overall, it’s a huge schedule vacuum. On one extreme, I could spend a ton of time pre-planning optimally nutritional meals and strategically coupon at the cheapest grocery stores. I’m going to be realistic, though: I don’t have that kind of attention span or dedication to my health. Props if you do but I would rather spend a few extra dollars, make one stop and spend that time doing things I love like scrolling aimlessly through social media. On the other extreme, I could maximize my time by only eating out. Not only can I not afford that, but the majority of premade food isn’t as healthy as what I would cook at home. My wallet and my cholesterol would have it out for me. In summation, the daily decisions I make with food have longterm implications.
As I’ve already mentioned too many times, one of my biggest goals in life is to be a better writer. That’s a lovely, vague, ill-defined goal. I could literally learn one additional vocabulary word and technically “be a better writer.” Obviously, a goal like that needs more clarity. Early on in my writing career, I struggled with finishing projects. The doc I threw all stories ideas onto had over twenty beginning paragraphs but not a single finished story. To address that area of weakness, I began setting personal deadlines: finish one short story per month. I’ve finished eight stories in five months and my writing has improved drastically. In summation, chunking up big goals into bite-size bits makes them much easier to digest.
To wrap up this super long post about low expectations, consider the following: set the bar low. In the beginning, it’s better to build your confidence up by smashing a mini-bosses than to stare at the big boss and immediately disqualify yourself. Lifelong goals last as long as you do so learn to run for distance as opposed quick sprints.