The celebration of New Year’s this week means that we’ve come to the end of the four-part year-end series designed to set ourselves up well for 2019. The first week explored values (what we care about); the second week discussed the discernment of desires (how we decide what desires we pursue and which we leave behind); and the third week took a long, hard look at the year that has been. This final post in this series brings the previous three together. It is goal-setting as a sacred practice.
Most of us are probably familiar with the idea of New Year’s Resolutions. This is an ancient tradition — apparently with parallels in both Babylonian and Roman religion — of marking the new year by making promises or intentions. And it makes sense; as arbitrary as the change of year is as a ‘new beginning’, it is a new beginning nonetheless. It’s a natural time to think about how we might like our life to be different. Unfortunately, most Resolutions are either set aside or forgotten before the calendar turns over to February. New Year’s Resolutions tend to be treated like wishes, made without much commitment or regard to how they might be accomplished. And this is where New Year’s goal-setting comes in. Unlike New Year’s Resolutions, goals are more like plans; they aren’t just a statement of a desired future state ‘out there’ in the aether; they have substance and actions associated with them. And that’s why people in the vast industry that exists now about productivity prefer to talk about goals.
While goal-setting, whether implicit or explicit, is a universal phenomenon, contemporary thought on goal-setting really begins in 1981 with the development of the SMART Goal terminology by George T. Doran. Since then, goal-setting has exploded as a major interdisciplinary focus. While it’s slightly different from the form Doran originally developed, the most common form of the SMART acronym I’ve come across is:
- Specific: It targets a single area for change.
- Measurable: It has genuine indicators of progress.
- Achievable: It can reasonably be done within the parameters and resources available.
- Relevant: It is meaningful.
- Time-bound: It has a deadline for completion.
How might we apply this to the ‘spiritual life’? Well, first of all, as I’ve written elsewhere, I am convinced that there is no such thing as a ‘spiritual life’ as opposed to an ‘unspiritual’ one. We have one life and our faith — whatever that may be — should saturate all of it. But, even allowing the common descriptor of ‘the spiritual life’ to describe such things as prayer, attendance at community religious observances, charitable works and reading of sacred texts, I don’t think it’s at all crass or profane to set SMART goals in these areas, and I think the kind of piety that might cause us to shy away from doing so because it is seen to be unspiritual can get in the way of genuine growth and positive change. For example, a common New Year’s Resolution among Christians is “I want to read the Bible more.” That’s a good desire. But what does ‘more’ mean for you? How will you know if you’ve accomplished it? What changes are you going to put in place to let you do it? Turning such a desire into a SMART goal — for example, “I want to read the assigned Gospel reading every morning before work for the next six months” — transforms it into something that can be actioned and monitored. How effective this habit is in furthering your relationship with God is another question, but setting good goals can at least help you create the habit.
What is it?
- Think about what came up for you when you thought through your values, your desires, and your Annual Review. What themes emerge? What areas excite you?
- Once you have a manageable number (whatever seems doable to you) of themes or areas of focus, think of some objectives you’d like to achieve in those areas.
- Turn your objectives into SMART goals.
- Summarize your action steps, then do them!
While, as I’ll get into below, I’ve had a difficult history with goal-setting, it has now become something I really look forward to. While some may find all the different exercises and tools repetitive, frustrating, and maybe even a little narcissistic, I find it helpful to come at the same question — What do I want my life to look like? — from different angles, and see what themes emerge from the exercise. And I enjoy figuring out how I might tweak my life to improve my physical and mental health, productivity and enjoyment. This year took me by surprise in that one consistent theme emerged in every area of my life: focus. And so, while 2018 was a year of exploration and newness, it quickly became apparent that my goals for 2019 were going to be about growth through building on existing foundations and narrowing my efforts.
I’ve had a fraught history with goal-setting. Back in Junior High and High School, I had to set goals every term as part of guidance classes, and I hated it. While I’m sure my schools’ leaders had hoped to instill goal-setting as an important habit in my life, these exercises actually gave me a deep suspicion of goal-setting that took a long time to overcome. I had it in my head that achieving what I wanted to achieve in my personal life was a matter of wiring and will-power, not strategy and mindset. Shedding this fixed mentality took some time, and it happened incrementally: as I saw strategies work, I was more inclined to trust them. Saying ‘I want to exercise more’ didn’t work; but deciding I wanted to swim three days a week at the small pool in my building did. Setting too lofty a goal — say, swimming for an hour — also didn’t work; it wasn’t achievable for my level of fitness. And so it went, with every new failure putting one more piece of the puzzle into place. Yet I was still convinced formal goal-setting wouldn’t work for me.
When I first encountered SMART goals in a project management course, my initial skepticism was quickly overcome when I saw projects go sideways. When a project got out of hand, it was almost always because questions of scoping (‘Specific’), evaluability (‘Measurable’), resources (‘Achievable’), value (‘Relevant’), or timing (‘Time-bound’) were ignored. So, I took notice at the value of SMART goals. But my true epiphany didn’t come until I saw someone use SMART goals in a personal development setting. Here, the Big Problem I’d had with goal-setting all these years jumped out at me in a giant capital letter R. Going back to my early encounter with goal-setting in school, the problem was that, as far as school goes, I’m very internally motivated, so the external goals I had to set didn’t make a difference. I’d set my goal for, say, having an 85% average, but since I was motivated to learn, my real goal (as I later discovered) was mastery and so I was never really happy with anything less than 100% in my classes: Not because I was a perfectionist, but because anything less than that meant that there was more I could have learned. So it wasn’t that goal-setting was stupid or didn’t work, but that the goals I was forced to set weren’t relevant to what I valued and desired, and to what motivated me.
It’s probably because of this long journey that I feel it is so important to begin the goal-setting process with exploring values and desires. I know that if my goals aren’t consistent with what I value, they won’t be real goals. The S, M, A, and T may be what makes a goal completable, but it’s the R that makes it meaningful. It’s the R that makes me care.
My goal-setting this year demonstrated another important thing about the process: its ability to give me new insight about myself. I had no idea going into the process this year that I was feeling a lack of focus in my life — in fact, I’d probably have told you how much I’d been enjoying the year of intentional exploration. But while that year was good for me, I learned through checking in with my values, desires, and experience of the past year that it was time to take a new approach. “To everything there is a season…” as they say. There’s a time to go broader and there’s a time to go deeper. I’m apparently entering into the latter right now.
I think this is where I appreciate undertaking this whole goal-setting process as a sacred practice. Because I’ve thought through my values and their relationship to my faith tradition, because I’ve tested my desires, because I’ve done my Annual Review as a kind of Examen, and because all of this has been soaked in an atmosphere of prayer, I can feel pretty confident that the insight I gain through it all is in line with how God is working in my life right now. And that’s a very joyful and grace-filled place to be.
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