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The Tao of Goal Setting

The closing of a year is a wonderful time to assess and evaluate as well as to plan and dream.  Within a week or so, pretty much everywhere you turn someone will be talking about New Year’s resolutions. As I was reflecting on this year and evaluating my personal growth, I thought that I might share three interrelated principles that I’ve learned in hopes that you might find them helpful along your journey.

Principle 1 – Conscious Creation vs. Spontaneous Adaptation

If you’ve hung around the self-help or high achievement crowd, I’m sure you know lots of people who are very driven to plan and create every aspect of their lives.  They have a 10-year vision of how they want things to work out. They may use vision boards and say affirmations multiple times per day.  They are usually disciplined and determined – especially at first.

They make a compelling argument that the power of intention and focus helps to create the life of your dreams.  At its best, that philosophy is noble and good and it can be a powerful vehicle for self-improvement. At its worst, it causes a great deal of depression and burnout in people when things don’t go the way they planned.

You might know some people who take a totally different approach to life. Instead of planning and creating, they just like to “go with the flow” in life. They may have some general idea of what they want to do but they figure that they will react and adapt to whatever happens along the way. The upside to this approach is that their relative carefree attitude allows them to experience a lot of joy in the small things of life. They seem to embrace the adventure that life brings.  The downside to this way of living shows up when they realize that they aren’t growing and contributing to the world around them.

These people may find that as the years go on, their friends are moving and growing but they are stagnant and rotting.  The path of least resistance has not pressured their self-development.

So what is the secret? Is there a “middle path” between these two extreme approaches? I believe that this is another example of the Chinese philosophy of “yin and yang”.  The first approach is very rigid, driven and focused on results of production.  It is interested in what I “create”, “have” and what I “do”.  The second approach is flowing and relaxed. It is focused on the process of “becoming” and “connecting”.

So how do we incorporate this flowing, adaptable “ease” within the overarching drive to create a positive impact on the world around us and create a happy, abundant life? For me the secret is to make sure the goals I’m driving for are the “right” goals.

Principle 2 – Getting our Ladder Against the Right Wall

Are any of you getting as tired as I am of experts telling you how you should live your life? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of experts. I love learning from people who know more than I do. It’s just my contention that there are a few real experts in comparison to the many people who are trying to sell themselves as experts.  Those of the second category often have a message of “If you want a life as amazing as mine, follow me and I’ll tell you what I did to create it.” On the other hand, the real experts message usually sounds more like, “I’ve learned some principles that you might consider implementing in your life. If you apply them, you’ll know if they work for you and then you can continue to benefit from them.” It may be a subtle difference but it is an important one. I’ve spent plenty of years of my life trying to create what someone else told me I should want.  What I’ve learned is that I’m just as empty if I achieve it as when I don’t achieve it. We are each responsible for our own lives we need to find our own answers not just repeat the life of some guru or expert.

This is only discovered by asking some tough questions about the goals that we set for ourselves.  Questions like, “Will the accomplishment of this goal require me to sacrifice something that I value even higher than the goal?”  For instance, I could make the goal to make more money but in order to do that it may require that I work a 60-hour week, sacrificing time with kids and family that I value higher than the money. If I were to keep pushing for that goal without realizing the conflict, I will be unsuccessful and unhappy regardless of my success at achieving the goal.

Another question may be, “is the behavior that I need to change to accomplish this goal something that I can sustain?”  There are tons of quick fix solutions out there but if I want a lasting result, I’m going to need to continue to live a lifestyle that can sustain the result for the long term.  Dieting and exercise are the best examples of this short-sighted approach.  Does anyone really think that they can do something for 10 days and notice a lifelong impact? If structured well, these short-term programs can be helpful but they must be geared to teach lifestyle habits that can be sustained after the program is completed.  Only then will a person have a chance to really stay on track.

Powerful questions to ask yourself

How can you make sure that you are in balance?  Can you really refine your goal list until you have only a few items that are really important to you?  Can you resist the temptation to try to accomplish what everyone else says you need to do?  Above all else, can you be flexible in the process of living?

Goals are there to give you a big “why”, a purpose to live for and to work towards.  The flexibility comes in when we get down to the “how”.  I hope that this gives you some things to ponder as you consider the new year and how you can make you the best you possible every day.


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