January comes every year with its own brand of enthusiasm. Our faith in ourselves and the stock market and the whole human race has been restored, and we will never be the same again. We're living in the Enlightenment.
For about one month.
Although it can be pretty disappointing to know that most of us this relinquish hope in a matter of weeks, failing to reach goals gives us the opportunity to reevaluate which projects are better left undone and which point us on the best path and deserve our renewed attention.
Too many goals in January can ruin your chances for the rest of the year. But there are a few ways to keep from goaling yourself to death.
1. Make sure that your goals line up with your gifts, responsibilities, and vision - not with wishful thinking.
"Maybe you should just give up on this one" never made a nice motivational poster, but there's a hard, beautiful necessity in mindfully setting aside things that no longer align - or don't for now - with your life's purpose. Acknowledging that we can't do it all - or can't do it all well - seems excusatory and even unspiritual, but it helps to remember that God has equipped us with specific gifts for specific tasks, and that everything that lies outside that realm is not our priority.
CS Lewis puts it beautifully in the Narnia series, through the Christ figure Aslan: "I am telling you your story...I tell no one any story but his own." Reminiscent of Jesus' words in John 21:22, this expression calls to mind God's greater perspective and stops comparison in its tracks.
Our stories are greater than the sum of our skills and mistakes, the places we've passed through and the people we've known. It's the fusion of the small realm that lies within our personal responsibility and the rest of the world, which is not. We're free to do our best work when we know the difference.
2. Moving a mile forward in one area might be better than moving an inch forward in six different areas.
Adding responsibilities to an already crammed schedule might seem like a normal and respectable practice. But to do this without subtracting anything will lead, at least for us mere mortals, to burnout. We have the option, then, to give a fraction of ourselves to a hundred things or to forfeit some of those in order to give our best selves.
A professor nearing retirement recently shared that his secret to goal-setting was, throughout his adulthood, to cultivate just one skill every year. Around the age of eighty, he probably achieved more of his goals than colleagues who'd recycled the same dozens of resolutions every year.
That this man took the long view reflects a long-lost peace toward the passing of time. We're inundated by time-saving machines, anti-aging products, and a belief that time is strictly a currency to be spent, wasted, or invested. If you find yourself complaining that you "don't have time" for things that matter most, make your peace with your finite resources and, if possible, decline even the most admirable commitments in favor of being free to give yourself fully to better things.
As Greg McKeown writes, "Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter." Ask yourself what might be your best offering to those around you - and what might be your most important area of growth - and reverse engineer your year (and maybe even your day) from that place.
3. Rewrite your goals using positive motivators.
Negative feelings might inspire the first steps toward change, but it can be unhealthy to keep them constantly before you. Instead of centering goals around where you are, restructure them around where you want to be.
In practical terms, this means asking yourself:
Will you frame your new budget in terms of getting out of debt, or in terms of attaining the dream of being financially free? Did you start your fitness plan because you're feeling crushed under societal pressures or because you want to run again, move without pain, or live long enough to get to meet your kids' kids?
Although we need to hold our lives up to the light and acknowledge the gaping need for growth, it's unproductive - and probably still self-centered - to make so much of our failures that we never see our potential. God knows where we're wrong better than we do, and still he promises to equip us and to steer us toward healing and service. Instead of just committing to do less wrong, ask God to show you where you could do the most good.
4. When the goal starts getting in the way of growth, prioritize growth.
The Achilles heel in goal-setting is that sticking with them, absurdly enough, can become detrimental to our growth. It sneaks into our lives even when we believe we're being extraordinarily productive, especially when we start prioritizing the commitments we made long ago over the real needs of the moment.
This past New Year's Eve, on the stellar advice of some podcasts, I committed to creating what I thought looked like success and set lots of new alarms to keep up. Then, barely a week into the new year, I found myself curled up on the couch, sick, while all my phone alarms buzzed away beside me, reminding me with each passing task of how diligent I was supposed to be.
The way we react when we're unwell, interrupted, or otherwise out of commission points to an anxiety that we feel about falling behind in our achievement-focused culture. In my case, becoming healthier this year topped my list of resolutions, but the spirit behind that goal - slowing down, learning self-care, honoring my body as a temple - was ultimately the lesson I needed to learn. Being forced to slow down by things out of my control (specifically, the flu) drove home, better than my theoretical understanding ever could, that God made us for work and also for rest.
In the end, the details of our goals help guide us toward growth, but I'm not convinced that it's always those details that matter. More likely, what matters is that we showed up, took all of life's unpredictability in stride, and, hangups notwithstanding, tried for our personal best.
5. Understand that growth is often invisible, even to us.
Not everything will fit neatly into our ideas of progress. God often works behind the scenes. Many times, we'll achieve our personal best, and look up and realize that we haven't, at least from external standards, moved anywhere. This doesn't mean that we haven't grown.
It's okay that your growth is unglamorous, that it looks nothing like what you imagined, and that other people haven't noticed. Some of the best accomplishments are invisible. Laying a solid foundation for a deep and rich life defies quantification, although growing in ways that other people don't appreciate can feel like a waste of time. If you feel like you're treading water while everyone else is hustling toward more impressive Christmas letters, it's easy to believe that you're somehow behind schedule.
When God keeps you for a while in an apparently useless place, recall Oswald Chambers's assertion that, "God puts his saints where they will glorify him, and we are no judge at all of where that is."
I don't think there's any good excuse for apathy or for withholding from doing good when we're faced with the opportunity, but recalling that God's ideas about status and maturity are different from ours does comfort us. When we watch our personal goals go up in flames, it helps to be reminded that God's plans supersede what we thought we wanted on New Year's Eve.
In my adventures in goal setting, I've learned not that God adopts our plans as his own and comes alongside us to make sure those happen, but that the reverse is true - he has a plan, and sometimes we understand it. When he interrupts and redirects us, he might call us into discomfort or what looks like utter uselessness, but he always calls us to himself.
Emily Maust Wood is a freelance editor and fitness coach. She lives with her husband and shelter dogs, collects old books and broken things, and worries about where her running shoes come from. Charmed by the idea of restoring an old home, she chronicles the adventure at lacorbeille.wordpress.com.
Publication date: February 17, 2015