Are Long-Term Goals a Thing of the Past? Starting with a Life Philosophy and Creating Microsteps
Or read on for my personal story on goal setting:
Back in March and a week before the company I work for ordered everyone to work from home, I joined a small accountability group to keep me on track for side projects. We all attended it with big goals, big dreams, and a strong desire to make shit happen. Fast forward a month after the United States shut down; talking about goals seemed like a thing of the past.
As we went around the virtual table on Google Hangouts, eventually the host would ask me how my goals are coming along. I said setting long-term goals seemed silly to me now. This thought just sort of came out; I didn’t fully realize that’s how I felt. So I thought more about goal setting, and what I concluded was: No matter how S.M.A.R.T I’d make my goals, I wouldn’t achieve them. Not because of self-doubt, but because something critical was missing.
In early March, I had bought a new Bullet Journal and was working through Ryder Carroll’s analog journaling system. I was writing out what I ‘know’ will be accomplished and what will happen — one of them being my trip to Belgium in the upcoming weeks.
It didn’t happen. Months later, I’m still working from home with little insight into what will happen next. I have no idea what tomorrow is going to look like. Yes, it’s been the same every day, especially my morning routine: Make coffee, read a book, do some writing, some yoga, and start working. But every day, there is a chance that I will have to switch gears and get back into the office. Or the news will announce a vaccine. Or the entire country will shut down completely again.
The thing is, the word all of us are tired of hearing — ‘uncertain’ — is nothing new when it comes to describing life. We do not know what will happen tomorrow. We never have. I like to think of these times as peculiar, odd, or uncommon, but life has always been uncertain.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put a lot of things into perspective for me. I started thinking about how often we have our heads in the clouds, thinking about the future so much that we lose touch of the present, ergo we don’t do the work (the real work — deep work) to get to where we need to be.
We act as if we’re giraffes with our long necks overseeing what’s far ahead. We like to think of ourselves as psychics with an ability to forecast what will happen in five, 10, or 15 years. It’s even one of the most common yet dumbest questions asked during job interviews: Where do you see yourself in five years?
I like goals. I make a lot of them, but I have never been good at achieving them. I’d wondered if it’s because they are too forward-thinking. Or maybe I never put too much thought into “A for Achievable” other than adding a few more days or weeks to my goals thinking that time was the only factor in measuring what’s achievable.
Maybe all along I should have been asking questions like:
What is the current state of my life right now?
What are my resources?
What makes sense for me to work on in the upcoming weeks?
What can I do today?
What is a Life Philosophy?
A life philosophy is a personal vision statement that focuses on values and purpose. It offers clarity on how you want to show up in the world rather than on a specific goal.
Goal setting is great. I think everyone should have at least one goal to work towards. But there is a missing step in the process. Taking the time to craft a life philosophy gives you more freedom to let life unfold without the fear of falling too far off the path.
No matter how good you are at setting goals, you will come against road closures, forcing you to take a detour. As long as your life philosophy is at the wheel, you’ll stay in the right direction.
By leading with a life philosophy, decision making comes easier because you’ll be guided by what you value; not just by the goals you set out to achieve.
It’s the ‘Why’ that drives goal setting. It’s the ‘Why’ that takes the ego out and allows you to craft achievable goals, mapping them up to where you want to head in life. this brings clarity to questions like “Where do you want to go?” and “Who do you want to be?”
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’” – Viktor Frankly, author of Man’s Search for Meaning
By starting with a life philosophy, you might even realize some of the goals you initially set out to achieve don’t map up to where you want to go at all. Maybe all this time you’ve been creating a roadmap towards California, but you really want to head towards New York. You’ll never know unless you take the time to get clear on what you truly want.
Angela Duckworth, the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, does a great job explaining how starting with a life philosophy can conjure clarity in your goals.
The top-level goal is your life philosophy: it’s your vision of who you want to be and how you want to show up.
Mid-level goals are your primary goals. There are usually no more than three and they tie directly into your life philosophy.
The low-level goals are action-based — what are you going to do to make your mid-level goals happen. And it’s not just about creating tasks; it’s about creating powerful, productive habits.
The entire goal hierarchy should connect and tie together.
Even if you already created goals, it’s never too late to check in with them by writing a life philosophy statement.
How to Create Microsteps
I’ve also been drawn to Arianna Huffington’s notion of microsteps — taking big goals and breaking them down into bite-size pieces. Microsteps can be defined as: “small, incremental, science-backed actions we can take that will have both immediate and long-lasting benefits to the way we live our lives.”
Small habits lead to big changes, but we oftentimes feel like our goals are not big enough. Maybe it’s the pressure of keeping up with our peers. Or maybe it’s just our ego talking with a big mouth telling us we need to audaciously do bigger, better things. This only leaves us feeling burnt out and overwhelmed, when all it would take are a few new positive habits, and we’d be on our way to achieving great things.
Look back at the goal hierarchy — the low-level goals are usually where your microsteps happen. Oftentimes, they are habits you do daily.
A personal example: My life philosophy is to tell stories that help others. That takes a great deal of listening, reading, and writing. So every day, I make sure to listen to what others have to say, read every day, and always be writing.
We can’t control what is going to happen tomorrow. My therapist used to tell me this all the time: “Shannon, you can’t control the weather.” Out of all my therapy sessions, this is one thing she said that stuck with me. So simple, but so true. It made me realize how much I try to control everything. Never would I have thought this of myself — a control freak, me!? — yet my urge to control everything led to a lot more disappointment in my life than necessary.
No wonder I feel tired at a young age. I haven’t stopped waving my magic wand since I was born, hoping that it will someday make things go my way. Like the young apprentice in the classic Disney film, Fantasia, trying to control everything only leads to disaster.
The one thing we can control is how we respond to what happens tomorrow. Living life every day by our truth. Self-management helps us make better decisions and puts trust in ourselves to know that when the time comes, we have the emotional strength to act accordingly.
“We mistakenly think that success is the result of the amount of the time we put in at work instead of the quality of the time we put in.” – Arianna Huffington
With a life philosophy, we can take an alternative turn knowing we’ll find ourselves back on the right path. And with goals that match up to our life philosophy, you’re able to create a clearer roadmap and better habits.
Living life true to you is enough, so I encourage you to craft a life philosophy.
Ask yourself: How do I want to show up in this world?
Make goals. Make plans. But take them in microsteps. Focus on what you can do today rather than five years from now.
It’s time to put away the magic wand and live for today.’