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Choosing a Goal That Will Change Your Life

Strategies and goals

There are at least three good times to target a new life goal:

1) When a person doesn’t have a goal at the moment and decides to improve life by getting one
2) When the goal or goals a person has already been pursuing turn out to be no longer necessary or not as high-priority as they once were (or once seemed), or
3) When work toward a current goal has gone so far that everything needed to keep on track for that goal has become habit, or in the case of a goal that’s a specific project, when that project is finished.

Should I always have a goal?
It’s hard to imagine that there’s anyone who has achieved every goal that would ever do them or others good–which suggests that if it’s practical, it’s probably worth having a goal nearly all the time.

But there’s that limitation, “if it’s practical”: is it always practical? Probably not absolutely all the time: if a person is dealing with a major crisis in the family or temporarily working 80 hours a week to deal with a short-term problem, there’s probably so much time, attention, and energy going into that short-term problem that long-term goals would wither from having too little effort going into them.

At the same time, for many people it feels like there’s always a special situation or problem going on: financial crisis after financial crisis, or having to work 80 hours week after week, or constant breakdowns in an important relationship. Even though these can be real crises, the fact that they’re continuing over a long period of time probably means they’re systemic problems: in other words, there’s some underlying difficulty that probably needs to be addressed if these crises are going to stop. Addressing that underlying difficulty would be a goal.

What if I need to pursue two or more goals at once?
Often there are battling needs in our lives that present multiple, top-level priorities, all of which need to be addressed at the same time. Right?

Actually … no. The idea that priorities “need” to be addressed is a broken idea, because “need” is absolute. “Needing” to be done doesn’t mean a thing necessarily can be done, or that it’s the highest priority, or that absolute devastation will occur if it’s not done. A more effective way of looking at things that seem to need to be done is to phrase them in terms of actions and consequences, for instance “If I don’t get the house cleaned before my friends come over, they will see my house dirty” or “If I’m late paying that bill, they’ll charge me an extra $25 and call to ask me where the money is if I don’t call them first.” This is instead of “I need to clean the house!” or “I can’t miss paying that bill!”

The reason I’m pointing to this problem of thinking of priorities as needs is that with rare exceptions, we really can’t take on more than one significant goal at a time. Successfully pursuing a goal means changing habits, devoting thought to the subject, and pulling time and energy away from other tasks. It’s true that if someone has a lot of extra time all of a sudden, for example due to recent retirement, it might be possible to pursue more than one goal at a time, like getting fit and starting a consulting service. Most of us, though, have lives that are already full of other things, and even if some of those things aren’t necessarily a good use of our time, in most cases we’re used to doing them, and it will take a lot of focus to change over to doing something different.

The upshot is that even if there are several really pressing problems to address at the same time, the most effective way to deal with them will be to decide which will pay off the most extravagantly if it’s done first. For instance, if you are constantly overcommitted and don’t have enough money to pay your bills, both of those are pressing problems, but in many cases it will make sense to deal with the overcommitment problem first, because if that’s addressed effectively, there will be more time to address the financial problem, which may in many cases require extra time if a solution is going to be worked out.

Making multiple goals into one goal
There actually is one approach to choosing a goal that can accomplish multiple major life priorities at the same time, which is to focus on process and organization instead of on the goal itself. For instance, I could adopt a goal of trying to do a very good job of making every choice, however small. Practicing this goal would mean things like regularly thinking back over good and bad choices made to try to repeat the good choices and improve on the bad choices; becoming more mindful of thoughts; and possibly adding healthy improvements to life, like meditation or more exercise.

A goal like this could simultaneously help in a lot of areas of life: eating better, making better use of time, improving relationships, spending money more wisely, and so on.

Other goals that serve multiple purposes include communicating better; getting very good at tracking, organizing, and prioritizing tasks; and improving mood. If there’s more than one thing you really want to accomplish in your life at the moment, ask yourself: is there any kind of practice I could learn that would benefit all of these areas?

New Year’s resolutions and other big goals
As we move toward 2010 and (for many people) New Year’s resolutions, I’ll be looking at ways to make and keep a resolution that will really make a difference. This article is the first in the series. The others will be posted over the coming week, right up to New Year’s Day, on my regular Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule.

Photo by simonsterg

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