A while before I turned 25, having recently heard about Gretchin Rubin’s The Happiness Project, watched Julie and Julia, and, feeling an overall disappointment in my lack of reading since college (notice I didn’t say I’d read The Happiness Project), I decided to set a goal of reading 26 books before I turned 26. I told some friends about my goal, and they kindly donated books and made recommendations to help me reach it.
Spoiler alert: this is not the introduction to a new phase of my blog where I tell you about the 26 books I read during that year. Because I didn’t read them. I made it through about 7 books before my next birthday. I realized 26 books is a lot. I got some great recommendations from friends. Some inspired book discussions took place when I brought up my goal to people. I found some books I really enjoyed, and are still among my favorites: The Shining, by Stephen King. Something Wicked this Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. The Sparrow.
While I didn’t get to check 26 books off my checklist that year, I was reminded of why we set goals in the first place– because they help motivate us. In the process, I realized it is OK if I don’t fully accomplish what I initially wrote on a piece of paper. Often, what is behind the initial goal is another idea or dream you will discover along the way. Putting forth some effort is good (i.e., reading 7 books instead of 26– 7 is better than 0!).
The compulsive side of my personality often sees incompleteness as failure. We’re pretty conditioned to see it that way in our solutions-oriented world: I didn’t check off every box on my list, so nothing ‘counts,’ I didn’t accomplish anything. Instead of looking at my checklists with an all-or-nothing attitude, I’ve been making an effort to focus on a positive approach, applauding myself for making progress towards short and long-term goals, rather than defeating myself when I don’t accomplish every goal I’ve made. Partial checkmark’s still have worth.
My goals have taken unexpected twists and turns these past few years (more on that later). What I’ve found is pleasant surprise (usually in hindsight) at what I have accomplished and how I’ve adapted along the way. I also have found a lot to be proud of, and sometimes boxes that weren’t checked off for the best: ending a relationship with a man whom I loved, and was no longer a positive influence in my life. Deciding not to go to law school.
A couple weeks ago, I looked back at a list I’d made much earlier in the year of some accomplishments I wanted to make for 2015. I’d written down ‘camp 3 times .’ I smiled to myself, and felt some pride as I read the entry while lounging next to my tent during my second camping trip of the year (second spoiler: I’ve now camped 3 times this summer). My focus had turned towards the joy I found in camping, and not on checking off a box. At the same time, the list kept me motivated, and I felt proud of myself for working towards those goals.
Like so many aspects of life, goal-setting is a balance between doing nothing, doing something, and doing way too much. It’s good to do something: set goals that motivate and inspire you. It’s also good to be realistic about which goals you can make progress towards, so you don’t feel overwhelmed by epic goals and do nothing (sometimes my tendency), or set forth epic goals and do way too much and get burned out, losing sight of why you made that goal in the first place (also sometimes my tendency).
Some of the suggestions and insight I’ve picked up along the way about keeping yourself accountable and modifying goals:
- Share your goal with others. Especially other Type A, motivated people. Then they can bug you about your goal when you are feeling unmotivated/lazy and want to ignore it/never talk about it again. When I wanted to start a blog, I told my family and friends about my ideas. It took me a few years after I even brought it up to finally get it going, but having people check in and ask me about it reminded me that it was something I was interested in and did want to work toward, even when I felt overwhelmed by the work ahead.
- Break your goal into parts. You don’t have to achieve it all at once. Since reading my 7 books, I’ve kept my list going, and did eventually reach 26 books, even if it was after I turned 26 🙂 My original goal was based on finding motivation to read more, and it did help me find that motivation.
- Be ok with setting a goal aside and/or adapting it as circumstances change/life happens. If you are feeling overwhelmed or lacking inspiration, set aside your project for a minute. Take a walk, talk to a friend, scan Pinterest to re-boot your mind. Inspiration finds me when I’m not looking for it (yep, all that about a watched pot never boils).
So, I guess my conclusion is to keep setting goals and dreaming dreams. Just also be ok with how they will change and adapt as you change and grow, and be proud of yourself for the almost-accomplishments you make– they mean that you tried!