Saturday, December 31, 2011

Resolution Rebellion 2012: My goals are stars

Stars I'm steering by in 2012. Call 'em goals if you need to.

Man, I chafe at goal-setting. I can barely even type those words without twitching. And eye rolling.

I think goals are magnificent tools for organizations, where it makes life easier to have clear objectives spelled out for clarity and focus. But on a personal level, I can't help but feel layers of yuck when I look at the new year and hear all sorts of jazzed-up experts implying that your happiness entirely depends on a program and some achievement on a list of shoulds.

Consider this research from The Way We're Working Isn't Working by Tony Schwartz, Jean Gomes and Catherine McCarthy.
  • Twenty-five percent of people abandon their New Year's resolutions after one week. Sixty percent do so within six months.
  • The average person makes the same New Year's resolution 10 separate times without success.
  • Ninety-five percent of those who lose weight on a diet regain it, and a significant percentage gain more back than the originally lost.
  • The authors conclude, "Will and discipline are wildly overrated."
Not exactly encouraging stats. But wait! There's more!

Why Resolutions Suck

I have two main problems with personal goals in the form of resolutions.
  1. There's this creepy, underlying premise that you and your life aren't good enough as is. You're somehow falling short, missing the mark, and everything would be so much better if you just swapped out something you are (or aren't) for something bigger, brighter and shinier.
  2. The reason you haven't made this obvious improvement before is that you lack some essential quality in your character, like discipline or willpower.
Well, my friends, I'm calling hooey on that whole line of thinking. The reason that resolutions fail is because we declare war on ourselves in order to keep them.

Yep. I said it. We have this uncanny ability to use our hopes for a better life as a weapon and see ourselves as the enemy. And I won't be party to that destructive game anymore. I refuse to look at myself as a success or a failure based on how I lived up to a list.

War No More
I refuse because I've been there before. In 2009, I took a look at my tired, flabby self and decided that I wanted a strong, powerful body that had plenty of energy. At first, everything was going well. I was focused on workouts rather than a number on the scale, and I was proud of my faster 10k times and the definition in my quads. I was thrilled to see how much I craved exercise instead of licorice. Or naps.

As the months wore on and the pounds did start falling off, I was seduced by success. I thought that if I'd made it this far, I could at least try to peel off enough to get within five pounds of my college weight. I worked harder, ate less, and checked my progress every single day, waiting for that moment when the scale registered the magic number.

Then one day, after weeks of being two pounds away from my goal, I stepped on the scale and saw that in spite of all my efforts, I was still two pounds away from my goal. I felt weak and tired and dizzy.

So I quit. I was not willing to continue depriving and pushing myself for a number.

Today, I've gained back 75% of the 20 pounds I lost, but I'm not sorry. My body is stronger and more trim than it was back in 2009. I have come through one of the most stressful years of my life without gaining an extra ten pounds. It's all good.

Another Way

Ohhh, but I still feel that pull this time of year to make one of those gotta-be-better New Year's lists. There is always that yearning to make life more about doing deeply gratifying things than being on autopilot or straining to get ahead.

Luckily, I stumbled upon a goal-getting technique (free!) from Martha Beck, a hilarious and insightful life coach, who understands that listing these desires isn't about achieving external rewards for good behavior. It's about bringing you home to yourself.

Here's my overview of the method. Please see the article above for full, juicy details.

  • Make a traditional list of goals or resolutions. 
  • Get to the heart of the matter by pinpointing what you are hoping to bring into your life through this goal. For example, many of us are drawn like moth to flame to the goal "lose weight." But how exactly do you think you'll be happier if you lose weight? What appeals to you about seeing a smaller number when you step on the scale? I chose this very goal for 2012 and found that I really wanted my body to be lean, powerful and full of energy. It wasn't about a number at all.
  • Look for places where you're already getting those feelings and follow them. It's so easy to fall into thinking that says we need something outside ourselves to save us, when our heart's desire is staring us in the face. My instant ticket to feelings of power and energy are as close as my garage, home to my purple bikes and bliss.
When I did this exercise, I ended up with a list of five areas that I want to focus on this year. In the spirit of early explorers who used the heavens to cross unknown seas, I'm calling them the Stars I Steer By. (Forgive the nasty grammar, please.) Each star has three words that embody the qualities I want to bring into that realm of my life. Throughout the year, by paying attention to what brings my joy, I'll be keeping track of the happies and focus on filling my life with more of that.

These qualities are not goals or resolutions, mind you. They are reminders. Stars that I will use to navigate my year and bring me home to myself.

May you have a nurturing and expansive new year!

If you need a more left-brained but flexible way to make New Year's goals, try this time management technique from Fast Company.

In case you're nosy, here are the rest of the details on my Stars chart. Since I'm now the kind of girl who not only likes to color outside the lines but also draw my own damn picture, I chucked the idea of a traditional list and made a simple visual. It makes me feel better when I gaze at it.

Sovereignty (my key guiding principle)
  • Delight
  • Receiving
  • Tending (As in, caring for and having a tendency. I'm still unpacking this word that popped up during the exercise.)
Flow (I'm easily distracted.)
  • Attention
  • Transcendence (Getting outside and above an issue.)
  • Integration (Seeing a challenge as a teacher and bringing it into myself rather than resisting it.)
  • Powerful
  • Lean
  • Full of energy
Home (I've been struggling with keeping my house out of a vortex of chaos for years.)
  • Beauty
  • Order
  • Simplicity
Work (I'm hoping to do something legal to earn an income this year.)
  • Possibility
  • Flexibility
  • Confidence


  1. I've had better luck with goals that don't require will power every day, like doing one thing that makes me nervous this year. That is a manageable goal, and turned out to be almost fun - I gave a talk to a very forgiving group. I ended up with maybe 15 goals and accomplished maybe 12, spread across the year. It is fun to look at the list each month and see what progress has been made. (The goal to lose weight is one of the few that didn't get done!)

  2. I haven't made resolutions, but I'm finding that this is definitely an interior kind of time, this ending of a year and starting a new. It's been a rough end. I'm probably on your wavelength -- keep wool spinning! keep writing! keep an eye out for wild miracles! -- and am stepping into being even more Lorca. It's more fun. The lace up boots help. And the puppy.

    Oddly, or not, I have overheard a lot of people saying on the street, " 2012 is going to be a really good year."

  3. Magpie--I'm with you! I'm not quite courageous enough to do something that scares me each month, but I am going to try something new that sparks my imagination, as this TED talk by Matt Cutts suggests.

    December gave me Shiva Nata, which I love!

    January is reserved for juggling!

    Lorca--Yes, yes, yes. Here's to power boots, puppies, and miracles!

  4. This post is bursting at the seams with the Good and the Wise and the Useful. I know I hated on goals on my own blog, but I absolutely love your take on resolutions. Thank you!!!!

    One of my hugely important, foundational 'intentions' for the new year is to live what I know and truly process my processes.(... I'm sure that makes sense..?) If I want to exercise more and I'm finding myself procrastinating and in avoidance mode, consciously interacting with that avoidance IS part of working towards my goal. And I shower myself with congratulations and loving attention when I succeed in THAT. Gold stars for me!

    I'm envisioning your Stars chart as a garden, where seeds of those flowers have been planted. Wishing them lots of sunshine and the right amount of rain!

    Gonna go plant my own garden...

    xoxo, Simone

  5. Simone--Stars, garden, it's all the same. The garden metaphor works well with the idea of tending, which has me entranced. Love your idea of processing the processes. My squirrel brain understands that, for sure!

    Thanks to Shiva Nata, I've found a place where I can process the avoidance or whatever walls I'm running into without feeling like I have to immediately and forever fix them. It's a relief.

    Here's to abundance in your garden this year!