I have something planned for early tonight. I feel both anxiety and excitement whenever I think about it. I feel threatened in a way, feel a queasiness in my stomach, a tension in my shoulders and thighs. Why? Is the tension from the mere fact of setting a goal or planning an activity? What am I afraid of? And how do you set and meet goals without anxiety?
What happens when you create a goal, or create any planned activity? Goal setting is important to all of us no matter how difficult or tedious it might feel at times. It’s important to students, in getting work completed on time. It’s important to teachers who, during the school year, are so busy their lives seem to consist mostly of planning activities and goals or living the planned activity. It’s important to parents, managers, workers of all jobs and professions.
To learn how to create goals, you have to understand why you do it, why this particular goal, and why any goal. It’s not just about meeting expectations and getting work done. Goals structure life. We can’t live without them. They are intentions. They get us to do something. They concretize our emotions and values. They create opportunities to grow, learn, enjoy. So, to create goals you need to be aware of and understand your own experience now. You have to understand your own intentions, needs, drives, primarily the drive to live fully and meaningfully. What, if anything, is getting in the way of living fully now?
When I feel threatened, I usually want to fight, run away, or play dead. But there’s another possibility. I feel threatened partly because getting someplace on time, or succeeding at any task or assignment, means doing all the necessary steps to getting there. Even to be somewhere at 5:00 pm, I must figure out when I must leave, how far away is the place I am going, etc.. Once a time is set, I need to put psychic energy into remembering to get there. And how do I do that? If I’m going somewhere to have fun, I don’t want the moments I am getting ready to have fun be moments of anxiety and fear. To learn something that will make my life better should not mean making my life before that time worse.
But, you might say, sometimes you need to sacrifice in order to achieve. You need to be able to do what is difficult or do what you would rather not. You need to work a lousy job in order to pay for college so you can get a better job. Yes, that’s true, to a point. The point is how do you live that “lousy” job or anything difficult? Once you set an intention or goal, do you then resent and feel angry about all that you must do to get there? Do you resist your own intention? You mustn’t lose the feel of the original drive, which is to fully live the moments of your life. As the novelist G. K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly understood.” A difficulty can become an opportunity. Once you uncover your intention, then mine each moment you live to the depths for what it can teach you, give you, and especially what you can give to it.
So, if you conceive of goal setting as something you do for the future, as if the future were separate from now, then you can never get there. You undermine your efforts. The goal in the future is an idea wrapped in hopes and memories. It’s an abstraction. It’s easy to fear not meeting your expectations or not being the person you imagined you’d be, because these are ideas. You can never, no matter how hard you try nor how glorious or perfect your idea might be, transform yourself into an idea. An idea does not breathe; a living being breathes. But right now can be glorious.
So, to learn how to meet goals, you learn how to live each moment. If you think having a goal is planning for the future, you miss the heart of it and separate from it. If you treat each moment as your goal, then you’ve already achieved it.
To mindfully set and meet goals, try the following:
- Sit with your body straight but not rigid. Take a moment to close your eyes partially or fully and notice your breath. Notice what is happening in and around you. With your inbreath, notice any feelings, thoughts, sensations, or images. With your exhalation, let go of the images and return to awareness of the breath.
- Is there a goal, a need or drive that you have? What goal stirs your heart, awakens your soul, or puts food on the table? Just allow any thoughts or images to come to mind of any goal you want to achieve.
- What is it about this goal that motivates you? Do you want this for your own good? To help others? Just ask yourself, and listen for an answer. Feel the energy within it, the passion. Visualize achieving this goal. Hear, feel, or picture it. Notice yourself, where you are, what you’re doing, as you achieve the goal.
- Test it. Notice any thoughts, feelings, emotions which arise in response to the thought or image of this achieved goal. What might the consequences be of pursuing and achieving this goal? How does it affect the people you know? The world? Does the goal feel right? If so, continue. If not? Let go of the goal and turn your attention to noticing your breath, or listening to the sounds around you.
- Let come to mind the steps you need to take to achieve the goal. Just listen, feel the answers arise. What do you need to do now? Do it in your mind so you can do it in reality. Imagine acting fully, with determination, to achieve what you set out to achieve. What actions will you take when you leave this chair?
- As you breathe in, turn your attention to the room. As you breathe out, open your eyes and look around you. Then begin.
*The photo: the goal of a stone patio halfway achieved.