Originally published on elephant journal.
I’m ambivalent about goals.
On the one hand, I’m keenly aware of the power of setting them—and writing them down, especially—as a means to impress my subconscious mind to help me achieve what I’d like. But a very common experience I have, is that my goals start to develop a quality of should-ness about them.
And when they turn into “shoulds,” I actively resist them.
It’s posed something of a dilemma for me over the last decade, as I’ve become more consciously focused on personal development.
However, I’ve developed an approach I now find helpful. To avoid turning my goals into “shoulds,” I take an optional approach to pursuing them. Instead of regarding my To Do list as a Must/Should Do list, I now view it as a Could Do list.
And with the arrival of September, I find myself dusting off that list. Because, despite my ambivalence towards them, I can never resist goal-setting in September. For me, the month has never lost its ‘Back to School’ energy. And I know I’m not alone in that.
What I’ve learned to do for myself now, when I set the odd goal, is to take a gentle approach. Instead of should-ing all over myself, I set some optional tasks and pat myself on the back if I follow through on them. And if I don’t, tomorrow is another day.
This September I want to establish a routine which will set me up for a productive winter. But I’m also keenly aware that the first step—a supportive morning routine—the one that will help me follow through on all the others, is one I’m very likely to fail at. But that’s ok when you’re using the be-gentle-to-yourself optional approach.
I could set my alarm for 6.30am with a view to rising by 7.00am at the latest, allowing myself a full two hours to meditate, wash, have breakfast and read something inspiring before I start my working day. If I manage to do this, I will be setting myself up for the day in a positive way and allowing an abundance of time to get through whatever tasks I am facing.
If I manage to do this, I will also be creating extra time in my day to do something I’d really like: to spend a minimum of twenty minutes—and hopefully more—writing.
When I wake in the morning, by telling myself I could get up early, rather than “I should”, I give myself the option to linger longer in my toasty bed, listening to the wind howling outside—if I really want to.
Just having the choice makes it infinitely easier for me to choose it.
Having the choice helps me to focus on the benefits of getting up earlier, whereas should-ing all over myself just makes me groan and drag myself un-enthusiastically into the day.
And the choice comes from a subtle shift in my own inner dialogue.
As the mornings get darker and colder it’s going to be harder to get up earlier than I’m used to. But that’s okay because I don’t have to do it.
I might do it though. I’m definitely not dismissing it as an option just because I haven’t mastered it yet.
Because that’s an integral part of life, isn’t it? Wanting to do something. Failing in some way. Trying again.
And, critically, when I don’t manage to achieve my lofty targets, I don’t beat myself up about it either. For me, could-do’s not implemented don’t have the same detrimental impact on my self-esteem as should-do’s, which tend to have an air of failure about them.
I have a vision for myself: being the person who gets up earlier than strictly necessary—with ease—and spends two hours in self-care activity before getting into anything that falls in the category of work.
I haven’t managed to get there yet. But I’m holding on to the vision. This is the morning routine I aspire to and, if I can keep an energy of preference around it, avoiding the unhelpful Should Syndrome, I believe I can get there—eventually.
And if I don’t, that’s ok too. It’s more about the journey than the destination, right?
So, if you want to make changes but you also struggle with goals, my suggestion to you is to write out a list of options instead.
For me, I might not be there by October. But if I’m there by this time next year, that will be success. And everything in between will be progress.
Photo: Purple Slog/Flickr