Oh, goals. How we love them in Western culture.
“Meet your goals in 2012,” says the advertising for a nearby gym.
“Let us help you reach your goals,” says another.
We all have goals, or should. Right? Goals are Very Important. Especially when it comes to fitness and nutrition.
And, so the popular logic goes, our goals should be SMART goals:
We should whip out the Gantt charts and plan our lives like it’s Mission Impossible. Then we will be On Top Of Things. Then there will be peace on earth and good will to all, for we will have arrived.
I recently read David Allen’s Getting Things Done. It’s a psalm for productivity. I flipped through GTD like people visit holy sites: with the panting hope that this — this formula, this system, this relic — would be the secret. That after I consumed this revered book, my inbox would be like unto a Zen garden and my mind would somehow be both a placid lake and a bubbling rapid of productivity.
Now, I’ve long been a fan of throwing things out. Try it. It feels delicious. Scary at first. But then… oh, so very, very yummy.
So high-fives to Allen for empowering us all to whip out the Glad Bags O’Justice on our lives. If we get nothing done out of Getting Things Done beyond mashing our hoarders’ nests into a pile and lighting the whole fucking thing on fire along with our teenage insecurities and adult pettiness, that would be quite enough.
I also love Allen’s idea of regular self-reviews, which I’ve done for a long time. At Precision Nutrition we are fond of asking the inconvenient question How’s that workin’ for ya?
In other words, look back on what you’re doing. Is it really working… or not? Really? Hey, no big deal if it isn’t. Just change it. Whatever the answer, the important part is that you know. And you can’t know unless you’re brave enough to look. Which few people do.
Especially not regularly. Think how much better your life would be if — instead of a frenzied, shamed, annual ritual of “resolution” — you simply allocated 5 minutes a day for a calm, compassionate, clear-eyed appraisal of your thoughts, feelings, and actions. An appraisal directed at intelligent problem solving, building awareness, or insightful reflection, not tiresome self-criticism or brain-hamster rumination.
Try this now. Whip out a piece of paper and set a timer. Spend 5 minutes just observing and reflecting.
- What did you do today? What did you think today? What did you feel today?
- Which choices were good? Why?
- Which choices didn’t work for you? Why not?
- What would you change?
- How would you go about changing that, starting now?
- Can you really change whatever it is you want to change? Is that the most important, most intelligent place to put your energy?
- What are your patterns? Where do you get “stuck” or where do you “latch on”?
- What are your routines? Do those work for you? Could you do more of what works?
- As you do this review, how is your breathing? Are you clenching your jaw? What’s happening in your body while you contemplate?
Doesn’t matter if you don’t do anything with this stuff right now. Just tune in. Give yourself your undivided attention for 5 minutes. Trust me, you have time. In fact, this may be one of the most important things you do all day.
Then, why not throw something out? Even if it’s a snotty Kleenex? Get in the habit of throwing things away. Trust me, it’s diviiiine. Today, Kleenex. Tomorrow, the piece of crap that hangs over you like a nagging sword of Damocles, reminding you that you never finished high school Latin or that you still haven’t read that National Geographic from 2003.
Back to GTD. To be brutally honest, Allen lost me around the time he proposed having seven project categories. Suddenly, this system that was supposed to simplify my life was looking awful lot like a Baroque alchemist’s bulbously elaborate horoscope of mental disorder.
Nowhere was Do Less proposed. No, the goal was to Do More… just with labels and file folders for everything. Contemplating this dystopian future, I felt my eyes go as glassy as a stuffed marmot’s.
I refocused my suddenly-softened retinas and soldiered bravely onward. I composed lists of Next Actions.
I spent the next few days in a frenzied haze of Doing Things. My tickybox-checking burned holes in my post-it stack. I plowed through Next Actions with the singular intent of a silverback gorilla on crystal meth.
At the end of those days, I had, indeed, Gotten Things Done. The idea of Next Actions is, in theory, a good one: You simply break larger projects down into smaller, more manageable steps. One thing at a time. I dig that approach real good. In fact, it’s the basis for the Lean Eating coaching program I designed.
But after improving my productivity by Doing piles of Things I didn’t feel any better. I felt worse. I felt breathless, hurried, and paranoid.
I reviewed Next Actions constantly, vibrating on red alert and poised for execution. My world became a series of Next Actions awaiting attention. Shrinking my stride while sprinting sped up the footfalls of my Next Actions. If I skipped lunch I could knock off three steps. Besides, lunch wasn’t in the project list, and adrenaline is the perfect GTD fuel anyway.
I ended the week exhausted and panic-attacked, driven to hyperventilating hysteria by my Next Action list that bristled with three minute to-dos. When I had a full-tilt ribcage-crushing weep session after accidentally spilling tea on myself (to be fair, the tea was really fucking hot and I was wearing a sweater that nicely insulated said liquid’s blistering wrath against the delicate epithelium of my chest before I could untangle my sleeves enough to rip the woolen napalm off myself), I knew it might be time to re-think my new approach.
What the fuck? When did we all become so obsessed with producing stuff? Do I really want to be able to make more stuff, faster? I thought I left that shit behind in academia when I got off the Publication Purgatory treadmill.
Over at Zen Habits, Joshua Fields Millburn’s written a very lucid piece on 100 Days Without Goals. It feels almost naughty even reading it, doesn’t it? That slackass! Where’s his 5-year plan?
News flash: The universe doesn’t give a flying fuck about your plans. You can either kick and scream against this reality, raging against the dying of your mathematically structured light, or you can get real, review the available evidence from your own experience, and accept that life is a change sandwich between two slices of chaos.
Rushing through a manic haze of Doing Things doesn’t solve two fundamental problems:
Problem 1: Too often we are passengers in the speeding train of our own lives, ripping towards an imaginary destination (“arriving”, “losing 10 lb”, “winning the lottery”, “finally being happy”, etc.) with the blinds pulled down.
We aren’t paying attention. We rarely even peek out of the windows to watch the blurred scenery whip past as we hurtle to our inevitable demise. We are simply hanging on for dear life, with faint nausea and our eyes shut.
Problem 2: We don’t know what we really want. (Or we’ve lost touch with it.) Our daily actions don’t reflect our deepest values, principles, and priorities. Quick: What’s most important to you in life? Write it down:
- What’s most important to me is: _________.
- I live for: _________.
- It’s essential to me that I: _________.
- In an ideal world, I’d never go to bed without: _________.
- What brings me joy is: _________.
- I feel inspired and excited, and immersed in what I’m doing, when I: _________.
You get the idea. Digest for a while. In an ideal world, if you were to receive the Mensch Award, what would it be for?
So think about this instead. Rather than what to get done, think about why and how to get it done… and how you can be there for the entire process.
Why are you getting things done in the first place?
But of course, it’s January so you want me to talk about goals, right? Here’s what I suggest.
Set Be-Here-Now Goals rather than Someday Goals.
Someday Goals are externally imposed goals that focus on following rules or expectations. Someday Goals are punitive and dour, focused on enduring (or better yet, numbing out) misery while you wait for an imaginary utopia. Someday Goals keep you living in the near future. Someday Goals often involve outcomes or “If-then” statements, such as “If I am good then I can ‘cheat’…” or “If I work out then I can have…”
Be-Here-Now Goals respond to what is, right now, here. They are calibrated by your internal environment while you twiddle the knobs of honesty and deep compassion for yourself. Be-Here-Now keep you living in the present. Be-Here-Now Goals involve words like “mindful” and “feel” and “choose” and “accept” and “allow”.
Be-Here-Now Goals often involve turning towards unpleasant things to fully experience them, while Someday Goals often involve temporary anesthesia so you can get through to the next checkpoint.
Be-Here-Now Goals are about living and experiencing. Living and experiencing your values, your priorities, your full range of experiences and sensations, and your daily life, no matter how banal. Be-Here-Now Goals are like the way a little kid navigates the world: looking, smelling, touching, tasting, manipulating, playing, picking things up and inspecting them, licking them, throwing them to test their weight.
|Be-Here-Now Goal||Someday Goal / Task|
I’m not arguing you have to spend all waking hours in a state of Memento-esque amnesia, unaware of past or future. Some Someday Goals are great.
Frinstance, “Climb a mountain” is cool. Just break it into a Be-Here-Now Goal of “One step at a time, with full attention” instead of zoning out during your climb, daydreaming of Everest. Then, each single step will be a small joy. (Or painful. But at least you’ll remember each step.)
Be willing to accept the presence of the full range of human experience, right now. You don’t have to love it. Just be there with it. In this moment. Now.
And hey… why not do less in 2012?
Take things off your plate instead of adding them. (Unless you’re a chronic under-achiever. Then try adding something new to your plate while accepting the inevitable presence of mild discomfort that change brings. Your Be-Here-Now goal is simply to experience and be present with this discomfort. The end result is largely irrelevant compared to the victory of expanding your change tolerance.)
Seek contentment and presence, rather than “achievement” and “outcomes”. Have more unstructured, “empty” moments that allow creativity, synthesis, play, and “flow” to flourish.
Occasionally, seek getting nothing done… and simply experience your life in this rare moment of pause and silence.
Now that’s a goal I can get behind this year.