how to set goals


So, you want to set goals—but you’ve done that before, and it hasn’t gone so well? Lovely. I know this terrain, and I’ve got a few things to say about how to set goals that you actually follow through on, and that feel good. But first?

When it comes to goals, as it comes to everything else in life, there’s this: in pursuing them, you must walk that line between wildly unrestrained ambitions that serve your deepest purpose as a human being, and using goal-setting as a tool for a process rather than an outcome.

Translation? When asking yourself how to set goals you need to go beyond just the “how.” To enjoy goal-setting for your year, you don’t hold yourself back in terms of how big your vision, but at the same time, you recognize that goal-setting is just a tool. It’s part of process, and as soon as you get attached to outcome, it becomes a miserable process.

When I’m setting goals for the year, and I want that process to feel good, what I describe here is exactly what I do. I’m a fan of a large sheet of un-lined paper and Micron pens, but other people love the feeling of keys under fingers—however you work through this process, make sure that where and how you record what you record feels nothing less than delicious.

1. Go wild with what you want. In this stage, you’re letting it all hang out and you’re breaking the bounds of “reality.” When I’m goal-setting from this place, I’m writing down everything I desire without telling myself to “be realistic” (which is a real joy-killer). Do I want to wake up in a gorgeous apartment in Florence that’s outfitted with mid-century modern furniture, and my toddler is in a great mood and our family takes a walk to our favorite cafe for breakfast, and I’m fluent in Italian? Well, then—that’s what I’m writing down.

2. After you expand, contract. Start narrowing down what you’d like to do with your year by looking at what you could make happen in quarterly or six month increments. For one year, I typically stick to threes: three things you’d like to experience, three things you’d like to have, three things that you’d like to “achieve.” The things you’d like to experience would be the one-offs: dinner at Chez Panisse, go zip-lining in the redwoods. The things you’d like to have are possessions: a new pair of black boots or an easel. The things you’d like to “achieve” are the things you’d like to do, this year: train for the triathlon, have more coffee dates with friends, get involved in the activist community.

3. Don’t get attached to outcome. Both when I’m going wild with what I want, as well as when I’m starting to narrow in on some of the specifics that are time-bound for the year, I keep in mind that I’m not interested in the result/outcome, so much as I am in the process. Process is everything, folks. Because I might never get that apartment in Florence with a cheerful toddler where I’m speaking fluent Italian, but just thinking about that a.) lights me up, and b.) has me conjugating a few Italian verbs, which results in c.) my brain starts to whir. Maybe we could put our house on AirBnB…maybe there’s a family in Italy who would want to spend a summer at our place while we stay in their place…does the local community college offer an Italian class? Let me check…

4. Make goals that feel good. Which is why I’m always, of course, referring people to Danielle LaPorte’s Desire Map process.

5. Work backwards from goals, and set up milestones. If I want to train for a triathlon, I’ll look at where I need to be, distance-wise, by race day. Then I’ll work backwards and think about what steps will lead up to that. What mileage will I need to have trained up to, by the time I’m halfway to race day? Same goes for things that I want to have—how much time or money will I need? When will I anticipate having that item, and what do I need to do on the way to getting there?

This process works for life, and for business. Let’s say that you start with step number one and write about the goal of making a billion dollars, money is no object, and hey, you’re also creating wild advances in social justice and humanity. Fantastic. You went big-vision with no limits, and that’s the best place to start.

Step two, you narrow things up—you get time-bound with what feels like a resonant goal for just the year, and you decide to make your first $50k or six figures.

Now, don’t get attached to outcome. If you enjoy the process of hitting $50k, you’re going to be far better off than if you’re rigidly attached to MUST HIT MY NUMBERS and make yourself miserable in pursuit of it. Make sure that the idea of hitting those numbers feels good, too.

Last, work backwards from your goals and set up milestones. What do you need to be doing, consistently, each quarter, to work towards that goal?

I suppose there’s one other step, which is trusting that you can handle however it all pans out. In other words? I’ve set plenty of goals that haven’t panned, out but because I don’t equate finishing the goal with my worth as a human being, I tend not to get too upset when things don’t go as I’ve planned.

All you can do is decide to put the work in, consistently, and the rest will unfold how it unfolds. If you decide that the process of how to set goals matters more to you than the final product—the goal itself—you’ll find that you do make recognizable shifts towards changing your life, and the entire process feels resonant and real, as something that supports your life without overtaking your life.

how to take the first step

I was talking with a friend who was trying to decide how to handle a situation with a passive-aggressive family member. She wanted to take that first step of saying, very simply, “We need to change this conflict between us,” but she (understandably) feared what would happen, next.

So often, we hesitate to take any action, because we can’t predict how the next steps are going to roll out. What if it doesn’t work out, despite our best intentions? What will we tell people? How will we explain ourselves? What if we fail? What if we’re laughed at? What if it’s all a colossal mistake?

I was talking with another friend, a colleague, about how hard it had been when we first started out as coaches. A decade ago, I took the first (very difficult) step that lead me to the career that I have, today. My fears:

What if I’m no good?
What am I going to tell people?
If I do this, does this mean I’ll quit my job?
How will I make money?
What if I fail?

To make it easier to take that step, I reminded myself that the first step is the hardest, and that I didn’t need to know, necessarily, how it was all going to unfold. I decided that I would just start by getting training–and not put pressure on myself to suddenly quit my existing job or figure out every other piece of the puzzle.

* * *

Here’s what I understand, today: the more choices you make, the more courageous your life is.

And really, no one is waiting for us to have it all mapped out.

We want that kind of a safety net, but if we had the safety net, then whatever the big dream is probably wouldn’t matter as much, anyway.

We don’t really need to have it all figured out.

We just need to be willing to take one step. (And then another, and then another).

* * *

In the weeks since the election, I’ve been asking myself how to take that first step towards more activism and using my voice for something other than exclusively telling people to follow their dreams. While I’ve never made it a secret that I’m a liberal-leaning intersectional feminist who believes that #BlackLivesMatter and who supports the LGBTQ community, the discussions of courage that I’ve brought to have always centered around the personal, rather than the political.

If I am honest, then I will say this: I think my wheelhouse in this lifetime is the personal. How women in particular, suffer in their private lives, because they don’t believe that they are enough and because they fear taking steps in the direction of their dreams? That’s where my compass has always been pointed.

I have been that woman. I feel for those women. The individual who suffers is where I’m drawn, just as much as someone else is drawn to community organizing.

I don’t think that having a particular interest in helping individuals with individual problems is absolutely counter to helping the collective. As I share in this piece, when I was (individually) depressed, I was of no use to anyone.

But here is also what I reconcile: In immersing myself in raising up individual women, so that they’d feel more courageous and resilient in their lives, I stopped talking as much (and thinking as much) about the collective. Yes, I continued to volunteer and donate to causes I believe in. Yes, I dutifully read the BBC online to be as conscious as possible about what was happening in the world.

But I stopped being as vocal. I told myself I’d do more, later–when I had time, when my health improved, when I didn’t feel so weighted down from being a new mother. Later.

* * *

So here is what I’m asking of myself, and of my colleagues, and of anyone else who is willing to be courageous enough to care:

Let’s ask ourselves how we got complacent. Ask yourself where you tune out. Ask yourself where presence is needed.

Let’s ask ourselves how we can contribute to the collective. Don’t assume that money and time are the only ways, though these are needed. You can contribute to the collective by speaking up when you hear someone invoking stereotypes, by staying informed, by taking some small action, by actively seeking to befriend people who occupy different social circles and to understand their experiences.

When you talk to anyone, see the entire person, and ask yourself about the intersections of the different roles and groups in their lives–of being a woman or man, of her class or ethnic background, of sexual orientation or gender identification, of the micro-aggressions she might confront in any given day.

Let’s notice those moments where it’s easy to assume that someone has the problems that they have, because they just haven’t tried hard enough. Women don’t complain about the patriarchy, just for kicks. People living at the poverty line aren’t doing that, because hey, why not, it’s fun! Black people aren’t protesting being shot during routine traffic stops, because it’s just no big deal. Migrant workers aren’t asking to be paid fairly and treated humanely because they’re “lazy” after hours spent doing backbreaking labor so that all of us can eat. This just isn’t how people, or social causes, operate.

“Call a thing, a thing!” — Iyanla VanZant. By this, I mean: let’s call things what they are. Trump is not just a politician. It’s not that simple. The way he treats women, minorities, people with disabilities, people of different religions…the disasters he’s created within his own businesses…his failure to pay taxes…these collective facts add up to a character so decidedly un-presidential that it’s appalling. (Yes, yes, I know. Hillary used the wrong email server. Noted. Bush’s White House lost 22 million emails.) My point is this: every politician might be crooked, and every politician might make mistakes, but not every politican is a racist-sexist-homophobe-Islamaphobe-tax-evader who runs businesses into the ground and then profits off of that. Let’s call things what they are.

Let’s use our privilege to help, but let’s start by asking how those who don’t have the same privilege would like us to use that privilege, rather than assuming that we know. We’ve got to start with how we listen. Let the people who have been at the forefront of trying to enact social change inform us as to how we can help them to fill in the gaps, rather than crusading in with assumptions that we know what’s best and what should happen next.

(really) listen (better)

My husband and I have been together for nearly twelve years, now, and we used to argue—like, a lot. We loved deeply in between the arguments and were relentless about cleaning them up, but the arguments punctuated our life together and created scar tissue, again and again.

I didn’t know how to listen. What changed everything was when we both started to (really) listen (better).

Now, understand this—I thought I was a great listener. He did, too. So when he’d open his mouth to speak, I’d think that I was listening because I was hearing and comprehending his words, and when I spoke, he thought he was doing the same.

But for a long time, neither of us was listening from the perspective of how the other person felt, so much as we were simply taking in a message. I was not putting myself in my husband’s shoes and imagining what it might be like, for him. I was simply listening to his words and reflecting back to him that, yeah-yeah, I understood that he didn’t like it when I did XYZ, I’ll try to work on that.

This cycle frustrated us to no end. I remember thinking, angrily, that I just didn’t get how I could be listening so closely and so hard, and still have him say that he didn’t think I understood. And I remember trying to tell him, over and over, why I was upset by this or that thing, and feeling angry and despairing when it was clear to me by how he responded that he wasn’t really “getting” me.

And then, through the magic of couples counseling and two people doing the work and who knows how many lucky breaks, something clicked. I began to understand that what I thought was “listening” was in fact just comprehending, and that what I wanted from him was not comprehending but rather, empathy.

I wanted him to “get” me.
I wanted him to imagine how it felt to be me, on “my side” of the argument.
I wanted empathy.

I wanted to tell my husband why I was frustrated, and not have him just say “I’m sorry.” I wanted to tell him how I felt, and have him practice empathy by imagining what it would be like to be me, the woman he loved, frustrated. I wanted him to “get” where I was “coming from.”

And that was what he wanted from me, too.

He wanted to tell me how he felt, and he didn’t just want me to say, “Ah, I see—I snapped at you when we were in the car and I’m sorry.”

He wanted me to understand the impact of when I snapped at him.
He wanted me to understand what it felt like, to be on his side of that experience.
He wanted empathy.

* * *

During this post-election week, I have been doing my damndest to (really) listen (better).

I understand that we live in a country where two parties have different belief systems and values. I grew up in the Midwest, and a large number of my extended family is staunchly conservative. When we’re talking about differing opinions about gun control or economic policy, I think, “Okay, we have different politics.”

When we’re talking about Trump, someone who has been openly hostile towards people with disabilities, minorities, different religions, immigrants, and women, I think, “Okay, this person (Trump) has a different slant on humanity, and it’s not one that is even remotely rooted in kindness.”

And yet millions of people have just voted him into office. I have felt devastated by this, not necessarily because of liberal vs. conservative politics, but because of the bigotry and hatred that Trump represents.

So I find myself trying to (really) listen (better).

I am trying to (really) listen (better) to the groups that have been disenfranchised for so long that they don’t even trust the sudden upsurge in protest and activism and desires to help (“Where have you been, all this time?” is the refrain I’ve heard).

I am trying to (really) listen (better) to what exactly it is a Trump supporter wants to get under this presidency, and what they feel they aren’t getting, now. Because I’d rather try to find ways to work towards compromises in economic policy across the parties, than allow someone who has no problem with openly airing his bigotry into a position of leadership.

I am trying to (really) listen (better) when someone tells me all the ways that I currently live in a privileged bubble. I’m trying to listen because of how many times I haven’t understood my privilege until it has been pointed out to me, over and over.

* * *

I think it takes courage to listen, especially when people are angry and frightened and sometimes mud-slinging before fact-checking. We all (every human) does this when angry and frightened. Most of us don’t even know how to listen . We think we do, but we don’t.

I think it takes more courage to really listen than it does to quickly move into strategy and to-do lists. Until you (really) listen (better), a problem can’t be understood or disentangled.

I didn’t wake up this week and suddenly decide that I was upset, or that I was finally going to listen—I woke up this week and noticed that the divisiveness in this country felt a lot like those tired, ongoing arguments. And maybe I thought I had been listening, this entire time, but maybe in fact I’d been elitist and dismissive with the political party that I wasn’t affiliated with, and not clear enough to the groups who will be hit the hardest by a Trump presidency that I care, that I’m willing to fight alongside you and under your direction as you work towards a better life; that I’ve never been unaware or unwilling and that I’m sorry that this wasn’t apparent, sooner.

I hardly have all of the answers. No one does. The issues are far more complex and nuanced than what I describe, here, and racism and sexism and social justice issues are absolutely part of this. But I at least want to start with (really) listening (better), and I invite others to do the same.