Well, the Winter Solstice was a few weeks ago and I have been excited ever since. The longest night of the year gives way to days that get steadily longer and longer. More sun means more light, more time, more energy, more productivity.
(Listen to me use words like “productivity” like I’m a manager. lol…)
Of course, in my town, the sun is obscured by clouds more than half the year…but that’s beside the point. Even through clouds, my early morning yoga practice is starting to be marked by grey light instead of pitch black and I’m excited.
Clouds and long nights for weeks on end can evoke a depressed experience for many people, even us “native” Oregonians. For a desert-born boy like me, being hot and sun-bathed feels more natural. I have more energy. The world looks less bleak. I get ambitious. I think I can do everything I set my mind to do and all by this Saturday.
And then I get discouraged because I can’t actually do everything I want to do.
I’m sure there are others, like me, who have gotten more ambitious then they have the energy to sustain and maybe have made more new years resolutions than they are actually able to keep.
So then, I’d like to present a goal-making tool that I have used at work and have found to be most helpful in my own life. It’s the acronym SMART and the letter P.
Let’s start with P, which is for Positive.
This isn’t positive instead of negative, this is positive in the additive sense, instead of subtractive. Something you’re going to add into your life instead of something you’re going to take away. Between clients and friends, I’ve heard things like, “I want to stop drinking,” or “Stop smoking” or “Stop looking at porn.” These are all good things to want, however they themselves are only first steps.
To quote Mr. Spock, (the vulcan, not the doctor), “Nature abhors a vacuum.” Meaning that whatever your vice is, it has a function in your life. If you take that vice out, you have to put something in its place, otherwise you’ll be working to maintain a void and that just doesn’t work. Either you’ll intentionally fill it with something good, or something unhealthy will fill it for your.
Positive goal statements could looked like, “I want to start…” “I want to do…” “I want to learn…” “I want to increase…”
Now for SMART
S is for Specific.
One of the best ways to defeat a goal and prevent change is make your desired change to big and vague. So then, instead of saying, “I want to be healthier,” or “I want to be more spiritual,” your opportunity is to own those terms and define what they mean for you. Does greater health mean losing weight? Building muscle? Preventing diabetes? Having healthier skin? Training for a marathon? Being more regular? Does being more spiritual mean a more regular spiritual practice? Participation in a faith community? Being a missionary? A pilgrimage? Warm fuzzy feelings when singing Chris Tomlin songs?
If you don’t say exactly what you’re hoping for, it’s easy to either try to do everything and fail at most of it. It’s also easy to avoid commitment because you haven’t picked a specific target. The more specific your goal is, the more energy you can focus on it.
M is for Measurable.
Once you’ve identified a specific goal, you want to find out a way to make it tangible, and you can do this by making it measurable. If your goal is to lose weight, you could say, “I want to weigh this much,” or “I want to fit into clothes this size.” If your goal is to have a more regular spiritual practice, you could say, “I want to read my holy text this many times per week,” or “I want to spend this many minutes in prayer and meditation every morning or evening.” For me, being a writer, I’ve set the goals of finishing a manuscript by the end of this calendar year and to post a post every week.
You want a goal to be measurable so you will know when you have achieved it. Otherwise you’ll always be asking, “Am I healthy enough?” “Am I spiritual yet?” “Am I really a writer?”
A is for Attainable. Said another way, make your goal or resolution Realistic.
For me as a writer, with my schedule being what it is, committing to post something every day would be unrealistic, just like committing to writing for an hour every day. Similarly, most people seeking greater health will not drop 100 pounds in a month. Most people will not be able to maintain an hour of Bible reading and an hour of prayer every day, at least not early on in their faith journeys. Most of us will not win Nobel peace prizes, be the next Mother Theresa, be Olympic athletes, or perfectly abstain from all vices. Most of us writers are not writing the next Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter phenomenon, and a good many of us will not publish either.
However, most people can lose a few pounds a month, then maintain a healthy body weight. Most people can read a daily passage of their holy text and spend a few minutes in prayer or meditation. Most people can find ways of living more peaceably with their families, neighbors and co-workers. Most people can support a non-profit or charity organization, at least with a small financial contribution. Most people can do more of some kind of physical activity. And in this age, any writer can keep a blog and most writers can at least finish the stories in their heads, even if their audience never exceeds their circle of friends.
It’s the small things done regularly that make the biggest change, not the big things done once or twice.
If it’s attainable, it will probably also be sustainable, and then you will have accomplished an actual change.
R is for Relevant.
Basically, do something you care about. Something that actually matters to you. Something that actually impacts your life. I see this in recovery circles all the time. People who want to change for their own sake are usually able to change. People who are trying to change and give up a vice because someone else wants them to, may be able to give it up for a while, but they’ll always go back eventually.
Whatever you’re resolving to do, if you don’t actually care about it, you won’t be able to do it.
T is for Timely.
Ever heard the phrase “One day at a time”? This is an example of a Timely goal. Whatever you are resolving to do, you want to be able to see results somewhat soon, or else you will become discouraged. A goal to achieve or change something within a week, or month or year is timely. Giving up texting for 40 days of Lent is timely. Saying you will never do such and such again for as long as you live is not timely.
Granted, there is definitely a place for long term goals and commitments. Walking with God. “Till death do us part.” Saving money for a college education for your kid. Saving money for your retirement. Coming out of a bad family system and making changes so that someday your grandkids will have a healthy family system. These are very long term goals that absolutely be undertaken!
But all of these meta-goals will be made up of dozens, even hundreds of smaller more timely goals. The trick then, is to keep your meta-goal in mind, but put your energy into what is right before you today.
You might object to this post saying, “This is all behaviorism! All you’re talking about is behavior!”
To which I would say, “You’re right! I am talking about behavior!”
Change absolutely must begin in the heart. Real growth and healing and recovery comes first and only from God. But that is a whole ‘nother conversation and process.
I wouldn’t have this conversation with someone who didn’t want to change. With that person, I would talk about motivation. This conversation about goals is for people who have experienced some heart change and now want to change their lifestyle, but feel pressured to do too much or be perfect or meet too many expectations. This talk about goals is for people who want to grow but haven’t learned how yet, or for people who want to accomplish, but don’t yet know how to moderate their ambition.
So then, as the days grow longer and we aspire to be more and better than we are, keep in mind your meta-goal but remember that today is important too. May you not be discouraged and may you have success in all your daily endeavors…