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  • Writer's picturestasiabird

Why I'm Rejecting Traditional Goal Setting

This past year has been a bit of a vortex for my life goals.

On the one hand, a major life goal was met - I had my first kid. On the other hand, a lot of the work I'd regularly be doing to build out my business had to be put on pause.

Honestly, I have been loving the hiatus. As the years have gone on, it's felt more and more like just a grind, with no set end date in sight. What started as something I loved to do for its own sake became like chains around my feet. In a sense, I couldn't ever stop working. My work was always with me.

But the more pregnant I got and then in the wake of the birth of my son, it was, of course, not possible to conduct my work in the same way. I no longer could devote my full attention to the kinds of things I felt were necessary to do for my business. I lost all privilege of predictability in my day; I had to learn how to work towards my goals in tiny increments, between feedings and diaper changes and naps. I had to learn how to do as much as possible on my phone, usually with one hand. I have come to love a good app.

In the midst of all this, an interesting thing started to happen; a mysterious tendril reached up from the shadowy, mysterious undergrowth. I’ve found myself wanting to write more than ever before, just for the fun of writing. I’ve discovered that my penchant for throwing graphic designs together is how I play now; the end result of a png file is really a side effect. The distance I have from the business of playing shows and writing songs has given me some space to breathe, to rethink how I want my music to sound.

In other words, in the absence of pressure, a new sort of productivity has arisen.

All of this definitely has had a bearing on how I think about the year to come; my expectations of the next twelve months are a lot more fluid than they’ve ever been. I think this is, in part, related to the lifting of heavy expectations, not only from myself, but from other people. For the first time in a long time, I feel free to really do what I want. Nobody makes demands of a new mom except her baby, I guess. This feeling of freedom is the antithesis of what I was expecting from motherhood, which always seemed to carry with it the shadow of burden and endless duty.

As you can imagine, all of this threw my normal routine of setting resolutions and even hunting for a planner way up in the air. In a sense, I’ve been thoroughly grounded with one single goal - keep this little baby alive and help him to thrive. It doesn’t make sense for me to expect to dictate what I’ll do every 90 minutes of every working day in advance - I might have a good idea, but it’s never exactly the same as an accurate prediction.

I find that my life makes the most sense when I have a grasp on the main headlines: I know that I need to get X, Y and Z done sometime in my day. Those tasks hover in the ether of my mental sky and, at some point, there’s an opportunity to do them. Generally, I’ve got my one thing to get done by the time my son is asleep for the night- and since that time is pretty late right now, that means I’ve got a lot of potential opportunity.

So when November of 2023 rolled around, my typical annual search for next year's planner was changed. I knew that I wouldn't be able to make use of my normal sort of planner, with its inherent requirements for predictability. I knew that my normal routine of setting goals for the year and breaking them down into quarterly, monthly, weekly and daily tasks would need to adjust to the season of new motherhood that I'm currently experiencing.

Even if there were no baby, I think I'd still change up how I do things.

Why relegate myself to a grind? Why rob myself of the joy of doing the things I love simply because I love them?

And here is where I came up with my slogan for the year - 'growth over goals'.

Part of the foundation of this slogan came from an article on the problem with traditional goal setting, sent to me from a friend in January of 2023.

Essentially, the issue is that when we structure all of our personal growth around goals, we can turn what's meant for life-long quests into a short term means to an end.

For example, if what we ultimately want is to be healthy people, we want to be healthy for the rest of our lives, not just until we can bench-press 100 bananas. Maybe we can break that ultimate quest  down into smaller side quests with deadlines, like eating a certain food group regularly by three months from now. But then we risk losing sight of the whole point of eating that food group, which is to be a healthy person.

I guess I'm saying that goals carry the risk of making us a bit tunnel-vision-y.

A really great example of someone who got lost in their goals is the lead character of Breaking Bad, Walter White. Good old WW set out to leave enough money for his family so that his future death wouldn't bankrupt them.

Without spoiling anything for the uninitiated, he definitely met that goal, but along the way he lost sight of why he was trying to leave his family money. He loved them, he appreciated their trust in him and wanted their lives to be good. The money itself was a means to an end initially, but along the way it became its own end, and he sacrificed the bigger gift in the process: his family's trust and well-being.

Another flaw of the goal-setting system is that it inevitably produces fear, which can lead to procrastination and then ultimately failure to proceed. For example, you set a goal to eat green food three times a week by March 31st. By the second week of January, you forget and only eat green food twice a week.

This represents failure on your part and nobody likes failure. You now set about punishing yourself, and this makes you much less interested in even thinking about the color green. You are officially not thinking at all about the whole point of eating vegetables in the first place, which was to become a healthy person. You in fact are now way more likely to go the other way and lean into foods that are going to have a negative effect on your health.

As Walter White progressed further and further into his alternate life, he essentially reformed the way his mind worked, which reinforced a new set of habits, which reinforced the way his worldview was changing.

He wound up a very different person by the end of his story than he was at the beginning, and this essentially happened when he started thinking a different way. He said yes to things that he would have never previously said yes to, set his sights on more money than he ever previously thought he had the rights to. In fact, by the time he had more than enough money to leave behind for his family, he had developed a taste for a life of crime, so thoroughly had he rewired his brain.

Now, for the rest of us that aren't planning on setting up an income stream via the biggest meth production operation in US history, we might wonder what change looks like for us. Who do we want to be by year's end this year? Why do we want this? What's really at the root of our goals and resolutions?

Once we've answered those questions, we can then go on to ask ourselves about habits. In the everyday life of this new person you'd like to be, what sorts of habits underpin what you'd see? What does this person do when nobody's looking? What's their ultimate 'why'?

This brings me to my last issue with traditional goal setting- it trains us to stop at some point. It tells us that these good new things we're introducing into our lives have an end date, that at some point we'll cease doing them. But real growth would incorporate growth-producing factors for as long as growth needs to happen, which is always. So whatever new things we choose to bring into our lives, we plan on keeping them around. And we also don't need to punish ourselves if we forget for awhile, because if what we're doing is meant for a lifelong timeline, then we have many opportunities to try again.

  Additionally, the concept of attaching rewards to goals can be really counterproductive - in my case, I trained myself to play music mostly if I would be paid. This redirected my focus from the intrinsic rewards of playing music to the reward of money, which is not nearly as enjoyable. In fact, there’s something called the ‘overjustification effect’, which means that when you attach an external reward to something you do for the internal enjoyment of it, you wind up enjoying it less.

All that to say - this year, as I walk a journey of growth over goals, I want to be intentional about noticing the intrinsic rewards that come with the life-giving habits I'm practicing at. I predict that, by leaning into simply embracing habits that lead to growth, I will not only find that I do grow, but I’ll also reap the side-benefit of having more music I’m happy to play in front of an audience, t-shirt designs I’m excited to tote around, written words I’m proud to sign my name to.

Will I be rejecting goal-setting completely? No, not at all. It’s just that my stated goals will know their place in my life. Goals were made for man; man was not made for goals. Our lives are too rich to piecemeal out, hour by cursed hour.

I invite you to join me on this journey. I'm curious to see what happens when we approach our new year with a vision, bolstered by an underlying structure of more traditional goal setting with an eye to forming new habits. This sounds more interesting and helpful than a list of disconnected and fragmented tasks.

As a resource for this new journey, I have created a graphic organizer that I'm calling 'The Gentle Prioritizer', available here. I took the standard format of a monthly / weekly planner and used it as a jumping off point for something that is a little less confining, but still has structure. I've included pdf files of the main page templates in my planner in this month’s Plunder Box that you can download and print at home. Plunder Boxes are freely available to email subscribers, just sign up at this link!

If you choose to join in, I'd encourage you to combine this planner with a journaling practice- our lives are dynamic, and it can be helpful to examine our intended routines in light of our daily realities. I'd also encourage you to let me know that you're joining in! It would be fun to have tea together, either in person or online, to compare notes.

That’s all for now!


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