Lose 10 pounds, read a book a week, find a full-time fella, go to the gym every day, get a promotion, quit my job, start my own business, travel more, learn a new language, be nicer to my siblings, volunteer with a local charity, save for a house, drink more water, eat less sugar, go vegan….
It’s said that failing to plan is a plan to fail but sometimes planning too much just makes us feel like failures. Each January, we vow to be better, shinier versions of ourselves, filling notebooks and thought bubbles with dreams of what we’d do if we weren’t currently berating ourselves for not having already done it. Goals are great but sometimes it’s best to appreciate where we are while making plans for where we want to be.
Your life is your baby, I know, I know. As tempting as it is to vie for a version of how your life should look, why not allow your baby to grow with guidance and, most of all, give it some space to surprise you?
Need some inspo? Make goal-setting easier with these 4 simple tips from my book The Happy Medium. In the meantime, resolve to go easy on yourself. You’ll be the happier for it.
DECLUTTER YOUR DREAMS
There’s a good reason that we are filled with regrets about what might have been and the distracting relics of our unfulfilled goals – because we never gave our story an ending. Don’t fall foul of the Zeigarnik effect, a term given by Roy Baumeister and E.J. Masicampo at Florida State University’s Department of Psychology to the condition where an unfulfilled goal interferes with the ability to carry out a subsequent task. The takeaway? If you make definite plans to finish one goal rather than setting but not completing numerous ones, your working memory can engage with the present and concentrate on immediate tasks that will allow you to reach your goal, and thus free you from distraction.
DETACH FROM THE OUTCOME
I’ll be happy when I lose 10 pounds. I’ll be happy when I get promoted. I’ll be happy when hangover-free wine is invented. Ring a bell? We’re devils for making our desires conditional on the outcome, which, according to Buddha, is the source of all suffering. Your best bet? Tune into the emotional feedback you hope to get from your goal. What is the feeling you are seeking? Self-esteem? Recognition? Connection? Your feelings are the signal that tells you where you stand in relation to your happy medium. Tune into this feedback and find excuses to feel these feel-good vibes every day rather than waiting for external circumstances to change. Holding our happiness captive until life pays a handsome ransom doesn’t make us happier now. It just makes us more anxious about how long it’s going to take until we get paid.
KICK THE BUCKET (LIST)
Life feeling a bit stale? You don’t need to BASE-jump off the Burj Khalifa tower or zip-line naked over a crocodile farm to fuel the dopamine in your brain. The easiest way to convert the ordinary into the extraordinary is by committing to small but salient changes – now. Give your seat to a stranger on the bus, try sexting your partner of a Monday (careful with the autocorrect lest ‘erotic’ becomes ‘septic’) or take a new route home from work! Give it a go for a few weeks and ask yourself how it feels. As your awareness of the potential for extraordinary experiences around you is raised, your basal ganglia will begin to register this newness as an existing connection. Looking at things with curious eyes allows us an opportunity for creativity and variety, which, in turn, keeps our habits from becoming unconscious or automatic. The result? Instant vitality.
FORESEE YOUR FUTURE
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg, author of Smarter Faster Better, recommends ‘building mental models – telling ourselves stories – about what we expect to see’. Envisioning what will happen when we undertake certain actions, the potential obstacles along the way and ways of pre-empting them, he maintains, ‘makes it easier to decide where your focus should go when your plan encounters real life’. What’s more, by considering the multiple outcome scenarios, much like those of the Choose Your Own Adventures kids’ books, we’re exposed to a wider (and sometimes contradictory) set of possibilities, thus empowering us to make more considered choices.
No, this isn’t a slacker anthem. Lowering your expectations slightly can greatly increase your chances of satisfaction. Maureen Gaffney, author of Flourishing, suggests selecting social norms that allocate your unconscious attention to sensible expectations of yourself. In other words, don’t expect to be the opening act for Celine Dion’s Vegas residency if you’ve only been asked to sing at closing time in pubs. Selecting goals that mirror your talents goes a long way to staving off the spectre of excessive comparison.