This time of year, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the frenzy of “New Year, New You” resolutions to “fix” myself. Although I’ve moved away from the typical New Year’s resolutions for many years, I still have a tendency to get very enthusiastic about the opportunity for new beginnings and a clean start on goals. And in this rush of enthusiasm, I get fired up about making some major changes in my life. But this year I’m taking a mindful pause from that rush to improve my life and am considering a different approach.
I’m realizing that much of what served me well in the first half of life is no longer a good fit for building a meaningful life after 50. In my career in high tech, I was very successful applying classic goal achievement techniques. My goals were designed with the SMART formula: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-based. But now my goals have shifted as my priorities have changed. My focus is on building a more meaningful life, rather than goals like finally getting to the goal weight that’s been lurking in the back of my mind for decades. And I’m realizing that those previous techniques may not be suited for what I actually want now. Forcing my previously successful methods to work at this stage in my life has just led to frustration, discouragement, and a sense that I’ve lost the self discipline that it takes to achieve any goal.
So, this year I’m trying a new approach. Its easy to think that I still want the same things I’ve always wanted, but a small voice that I hear when I’m being mindful and deliberate is insistently encouraging me to look deeper. Rather than “starting strong” and attempting to power through a set of specific, measurable changes, I’m leaving myself open to grace and a slower unfolding of change. I’m trying to shift into a posture of Zen “beginner’s mind,” to be open to exploring the entire process rather than charging strongly towards a set goal. In fact, I’m considering not choosing goals at all, but instead focusing on a new mindset towards life.
To support this new mindset, I’m choosing guiding principles instead of the SMART methodology. These principles fill me with a calm hope, rather than the adrenaline rush of a self-imposed edict to finally get this right by forcing myself to just do it. Here are the principles I’m employing:
Behaviors rather than results
Focusing on results often leaves me frustrated. No matter how hard I try, there are things I can’t control in the process of achieving almost any objective. In losing weight, I don’t have total control over how my body processes food and reacts to exercise, and a 3500 calorie deficit does NOT always lead to a pound of weight loss on the scale. Rather than setting up specific result goals, I can focus on behaviors that I can control. This could be getting in 10K steps every day, or gradually cutting down on the amount of sugar I consume. These behaviors are in my control, and in the long term they will lead to the real results I want (such as feeling better in my body, rather than the scale showing a particular number).
Progress not perfection
Rather than setting up an ambitious action plan for myself which I’m unlikely to be able to maintain, I’m aiming for progress in the right direction. Some days this progress might be learning how to recover from a slip up so that it doesn’t escalate into a major backslide or even giving up. Consistent progress compounds over the long run.
Be open to a change in the goal
The end result that I think will make me happy may not be where I really want to be. It does me no good to keep pushing towards a goal without taking the time to mindfully assess if that goal continues to be what I really want. If the process of working towards the goal doesn’t make me happy, then will achieving that goal really make me happy? If my ultimate goal is living what I consider a meaningful life, then there will be a lot of experimentation and inevitable dead end paths along the way.