#26: Stop setting goals.

My sister was visiting a few months ago and with perfect timing, the brakes on my car went out, and we found ourselves stuck in the house for three days. Needless to say, we did a lot of talking that week. (Kelsey tends to be more talkative than I am, anyway.) At one point, she asked, “So, what goals do you have this year? I love hearing about people’s goals.”

I replied, “Oh, I don’t set goals.”

Is that a blasphemous thing to say in the 21st century? Some bloggers I love share monthly updates on their progress toward their personal and business goals. A quick search of “goal setting” on Pinterest brings up thousands and thousands of pins from all across the Internet, all promising to help us crush our goals and make real progress and be a totally different person by tomorrow. We set goals for our steps, our weight, our work, our families.

And I admit, I too love hearing about people’s goals. Maybe it’s my natural nosiness coming through, but I do really enjoy learning about the goals and resolutions my friends and acquaintances (and strangers) have set. It can lend unique insight into what people value. When I get to witness someone actually accomplishing a goal, there’s lots of joy and pride in that.

I get it. I really do. But goals haven’t been too helpful for me.

When I worked in ministry, we would write up “spiritual formation plans” each year. We’d look at different areas of our lives—physical, relational, vocational, emotional—and prayerfully consider what God might be up to in our lives over the next year. We asked, “How can I join God in this work?”

But I had a hard time with this task, because it was really tempting to turn that plan into a list of generic New Year’s resolutions. Of course I should work out more or take a yoga class! Of course I should work on developing a more authentic and intimate relationships with my sisters! Of course I should read these books! But just because I should or could didn’t mean it was the thing God was actually asking me to do. My “spiritual formation plans” were often just a glorified self-help checklist.

Before that, my lists of New Year’s resolutions were often impossibly long. I’m embarrassed just thinking back on them. Just like with the spiritual formation plans, I was usually motivated by a sense of “should” and not by a sense of purpose, joy, or freedom. Perfectionism led me to believe that I always had a lot of work and self-improvement to do, so I would draft a long, long list that tackled every area of weakness, every thing I wanted to accomplish, and all the practices I thought would make me more competent, productive, and—truthfully—perfect. My goals never reflected what actually mattered most to me. The end result was that I felt like a failure by December of every year (if not by February).

Of course, there are healthy and helpful ways to set goals. But I’ve learned a lot about myself over the years and now know that the temptation to strive and hustle is too strong, and I find it hard to give myself grace. So, I stopped setting goals.

Instead, I periodically ask myself some questions:

  • What do I want more or less of in my life?
  • How do I want to feel when this season is over?
  • What would bring me joy?
  • What is God up to right now?
  • What would it look like for me to walk in freedom?

Instead of resolutions, I choose a word of the year, and I use that to drive my decision making throughout the year. To give you an example, my word of the year for 2016 is joy. In each different category of my life—motherhood or vocation, for example—I ask myself, “What would it look like to experience joy in this area?” And I let that drive whatever projects, ideas, or changes I want to make.

You might want to go right on ahead setting goals, and I know there is so much value in that. Sometimes, goal setting helps us do the work God’s calling us to do and helps us become the person he’s calling us to be. I would just say this: Take the pressure off yourself.

Sometimes, perfectionism tempts us to focus on self-help and self-improvement, instead of allowing Jesus to sanctify, transform, redeem us. I gave up on setting goals because I wanted to experience freedom rather than pressure, redemption rather than accomplishment, atonement rather than obligation.

In case you’re wondering, I often think about “projects” and “rhythms” instead of goals. I’m sure this is just semantics, but the distinction is helpful for me. Most of the time, I don’t give myself deadlines or numerical benchmarks. I think in broader, more general terms. I try to look at my life holistically. Some examples:

  • Instead of setting goals like, “Read 50 books this year,” or “Journal every day,” I know that reading and writing help me feel calm and inspired, so I try to make reading and writing part of my daily rhythm and routine.
  • Instead of setting giant, longterm goals in January, I look at each season individually. (This seems much easier now that we live in Michigan, where the actual seasons mirror what the calendar says.) I get to tackle projects like trying new recipes or doing certain activities with the boys this way. Instead of setting goals like “Try a new recipe every week,” it becomes about savoring each season as it comes.
  • I get really clear on my purpose, and I constantly ask, “Why is this important to me?” When I’m honest with myself, I can usually identify when a goal or project is motivated by comparison, cultural expectations, or a sense of obligation. Powersheets are the most helpful tool I’ve found for making sure that goals align with a sense of purpose.

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