GOAL SETTING: friend or foe?

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I was first introduced to the art of “goal setting” when I was chosen to be a lululemon ambassador.  The store manager asked me to picture my ideal life ten years from now. She probed me with thought-provoking questions to help me create a vision: Where do you wake up? What does the scenery look like? What is the weather? Who are you with? You get dressed. What do you put on? Where are you going? Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

I was instructed to take that vision and write a paragraph titled, “My Dream Life.” From that paragraph, I was to come up with 10-year personal, professional and health goals (2 goals in each category, a total of six 10-year goals).  Then I was taught to work backwards. I came up with six 5-year goals and, lastly, six 1-year goals. I was taught that goal-setting was the key to creating this dream life. My fantasies could become my reality if I stayed focused on goal-setting and goal-crushing.  Awesome! Sounds good, right? It did to me, so I drank that Kool Aid.

Approximately 1 year later, I was at a yoga teacher training program in Mexico when a man said to me, “You can have everything you want in life, if you can let go of the picture of what you think it’s supposed to look like.”  This sentence hit me like a ton of bricks for two reasons; (1) it resonated so deeply with me that I knew it was profound and (2) it went against everything I had been working towards since my goal-setting tutorial.  “Let go of the picture of what it’s supposed to look like?! I can’t let go of my vision!,” I thought. “If I let go of the vision, then what am I working towards?!”  There was also a small voice inside of me that was whispering, “If you want to hold on to that picture so tightly, you should probably loosen the grip a bit and let go.”

I felt conflicted.  Was the vision of my ideal life motivating me to live my best life OR was the vision a trap that had me convinced that happiness looked a certain way?

In the field of positive psychology, there is a name for someone who equates sustained happiness with reaching a certain destination (or goal): a RAT RACER.  The rat racer will be happy when (fill in the blank). A few examples: I will be happy when I get that job. I will be happy when I get that promotion. I will be happy when I get that car. This rat-racer gets so caught up in “what it’s supposed to look like” that she forgets to enjoy the present moment and embrace life as it comes to her.

So, what’s the answer?! Live life day-by-day, be present, and enjoy the journey OR set goals, stay focused on the task at hand, and keep your eye on the prize?!

I think the answer is a combination of both.  I have learned that life will throw you curveballs, so to get super attached to a 10-year vision is a dangerous, and often times, a silly practice.  I have also learned that sometimes life will take shape in its own beautiful way, and it may be even more lovely than any “perfect picture” you could have imagined. There are times that life can be devastating and hard, and yet again, the picture changes and there’s happiness nevertheless.

Finding gratitude in the present moment and not getting overly caught up in “what’s next” has been a challenging and eye-opening practice for me. I have the tendency to plan, organize, and perfect everything in my life, so to drop the 10-year vision and to be okay with “what will be, will be” was something that didn’t happen overnight.

Rather than having such a rigid format when goal setting, I create more short-term goals for myself. Sometimes they are 1-year goals, sometimes 6-month goals, and sometimes they are 1-month goals.  For me, this practice feels attainable, productive, and realistic. It allows me to feel motivated and focused, while remaining flexible. I can change the plan/goal as life comes at me. It gives me a sense of meaning and purpose without feeling overwhelmed. I do not feel like a rat-racer because I am constantly celebrating small victories. Lastly, and most importantly, the idea of a “perfect life” is not something that I see off in the distance, 10 years from now.  Instead, the “perfect” is in the present - it’s just about taking a second to find it and acknowledge it.

Amy Schneider