It happened again. I was just publicly recognized for a goal that took me four years to reach. Immediately I spun into the emotional state that I call the goal hangover.
Goals suck, by the way.
We’re supposed to “find our passion” and make a “bucket list” and a “vision board” and then celebrate when we make all this stuff happen. For the record, the first three parts of that process definitely work as advertised. The trouble is the celebration part.
How can I celebrate when I now have NO GOALS??
Right now, I’m on a goal cycle in the 3-4 year range. I’ve been in this situation several times with wildly different types of goals, and I’m starting to learn to expect it.
I went back to college after my divorce, got my bachelor’s... and then spent months recovering from a respiratory infection
I got my driver’s license at age 29... and then had to commute on the freeway an hour a day
I ran a marathon, got the race medal... and then borked my ankle and spent months in physical therapy
I tackled my paralyzing fear of public speaking, earned my Distinguished Toastmaster award, and then...
This is something that tends to be an open secret for newlyweds. There is an entire industry built around Your Special Day, holding wildly expensive and impractical wedding ceremonies. But then - ta da - you’re married. The premise of marriage is that no day is special; you’re just living a new and different default mode.
(I super-love being married and I think our wedding ceremony was pretty modest - we mainly wanted an excuse to go on a honeymoon).
Marriage includes a bunch of stuff that a wedding typically does not: clearing hair out of the drain, loading the dishwasher, filing taxes, and debating whether to talk to the neighbors about one of their weird loud habits. Marriage is only one example among many of how what was once a lovely fantasy becomes the new baseline, the pretty ring on the vision board now just an ordinary fashion accessory.
Every goal is like that. You strive and strain for it, and then you reach it, and then it simply becomes a thing you can do. It’s a skill, a memory, or something you have worked into the shape of your body.
The trouble with goals is that for those of us who thrive on challenge, reaching the goal means the end of the challenge. It’s a bit of a letdown. What am I supposed to do with my spare time now? Sort laundry and watch TV? So you’re telling me that my reward for reaching my goal is... nothing??
Well, the medal or the trophy or the diploma or the...
Ordinary state of goalless being
Probably most people are more comfortable not having the stress of an impending goal. Most goals are very practical, like paying rent or getting the car fixed. I realize that lacking a goal is a strange problem to have, a problem of privilege -
And indeed, I use some of that privilege to try to help others acquire some privilege of their own -
And yet I find the prospect of having no goals to be disappointing, dull, and boring.
When I was several days into my case of COVID-19, I felt that I might die. I might die quite soon. It felt like such a pitiful waste. I lay there for days, thinking about my stupid day planners and my stupid goal lists and my stupid resolutions. It occurred to me that there would be no lasting legacy, that when someone else went through my stuff, they’d throw it into a bag and get rid of it. Rightfully so. I had very little to show for my time on this planet. Even though I’m a whole body donor, they probably couldn’t even use my poor organs.
At that point, I decided to trash my existing goals.
I decided that the old me had officially died and that, if I ever managed to get up out of my sickbed, I would start fresh.
Being very ill is the most boring thing in the world. It’s hard to sleep and there is very little to attend to while awake. Too sick to read or watch a movie. Too sick to do much of anything but let your mind wander. That’s when I started pondering over the idea of what I would do.
What would you do if you actually had a fresh lease on life?
A real chance to start over?
One of the first decisions I made, after choosing to trash my previous goals, was to act on my intentions more quickly. If there was a book I wanted to read, I would start it right away, rather than add it to a list. If there was a movie I wanted to see, I’d watch it that night - and be grateful when I could track a plot for longer than five minutes without getting confused. If I was thinking about someone, I would reach out right away and write them a note.
This is a way of having “goals” without having a backlog, a paradoxical way of having few to zero goals. Just do everything in the current moment.
That, though, didn’t seem inherently challenging enough. Was that all I was going to do for possibly the next forty years of my life? Read, watch movies, and text people?
Sure, that was more than I could handle at the time, but I knew if I survived intact I would presumably want more than that one day.
Could it be a physical goal? I had no idea, but I did know I had it in me to do whatever it took to get my physical stamina back. If it takes five years, I’ll do it, because what the heck else would I do?
Could it be a mental goal? I didn’t know, but I did know I really, really wanted to be able to read again and I would never quit trying. (It worked).
I did choose something. In fact, I chose a few things. I decided that I wanted to get a normal job again, and go to grad school, and that I still wanted to try for the ultramarathon.
If I lived.
These were some of my deathbed realizations: that I’m a challenge-oriented person, that challenge is what keeps me happy and motivated, and that I want to be where the action is. I want to do the obvious things, the things that are of a large enough scale to be worth my attention for the next few years.
What are yours?
I prefer posting my first quarter check-in on any day other than April 1, because it makes everything I say seem like a potential April Fool’s joke, but not this year. I’m only bothering at all because I’m thinking ahead, hoping that I will live another quarter and that one day all of this will be behind us, collectively. Five years from now we’ll be living in a different world, so let’s make it a better one and start planning.
Starting with: what theme song will you play on the first day out of isolation? What outfit will you wear? Where will you go and who is the first person you will see?
I’m going to play “Walking On Sunshine” and walk down to the beach, where I’m going to get a non-dairy strawberry ice cream. Then I’m going to get my phone screen replaced and reschedule all my periodontist appointments, because priorities.
Thinking about all of that right now is distracting me from the biggest thing on my mind, which is that I just found out I was exposed to COVID-19 and now I’m starting to feel ill. I have a phone appointment right around the time this will post, with no idea whether it’s possible to get tested in my area, how long it would take to get results, and whether I infected my husband.
This tends to have a way of putting things into perspective.
I’ve spent the last few years of my life focusing on goals major and minor, trying to transform myself from bookworm to badass. I ran a marathon, ran adventure races, climbed a rope, jumped over open flames, took martial arts and learned knife fighting, worked on my public speaking skills... only to find out that I already had the skills of hiding out in my room, reading all day, and avoiding people that I would actually need to fight the great crisis of my generation.
All that work for nuthin.
What really gets me is the thought of dying of a pandemic when I am a full body donor. Now nobody will want my organs and that is making me feel some kind of way. In the back of my mind I thought giving away my corneas would make up for never having created a legacy that would outlast me. Now it’s feeling like the time for dithering is done. Will I be more than a sad statistic one day?
The truth is, this year was going badly for us already. A month ago I thought I had a lot to complain about. In the past four months, I’ve been in urgent care three times, had an antibiotic-resistant staph infection, had surgery to remove a cyst from my chest and got four stitches, had three grueling periodontal procedures (after two oral surgeries last year), spent the night in the ER when my husband had a severe eye injury... and then we both had the flu for a week, and then we had to put our dog down. Poor Spike. We were definitely feeling like we needed to send 2020 back and ask for a do-over.
Honestly self-isolation has not just put it all in perspective, it’s been almost relaxing... though of course the perspective is changing every day. New Year’s Eve feels like nostalgia and wasn’t it just a minute ago?
In reading through the goals I posted so giddily only three months ago, I realized I had forgotten that I made decade goals as well. *snif*
Personal: This year my goal was “body transformation,” or getting back to the Healthy Weight for My Height. I have succeeded in losing 6 pounds so far this year. Now that we’re all in quarantine and the grocery stores are picked clean I assume that this is a goal that will sort of achieve itself. I’m just going to call my new decadal personal goal: Living to be at least 55.
Career: My career goal for 2020 was to learn how to do webinars and that is basically all I have been doing with my time. We’re partway through having to switch our Toastmasters public speaking competition season to 100% virtual, and guess whose team got to go first and lead the transition planning. I have now spent at least an hour on no fewer than five online meeting platforms, and I know all the tips and tricks.
For 2030, I want to be a published author... and my book is going to look a little different now than what I had in my outline.
Physical: My physical goal for 2020 was to get my weight back to 125. Allow me to be a little more specific on that and say that it appears extra body weight is a risk factor for full-blown COVID-19, it certainly isn’t doing anyone any favors, and while my main motivation is to simply survive, I am doubling down on my commitment to get my body back.
My decade physical goal is to run a 50-mile ultramarathon. If I get through this thing, distance running is one of the only physical activities that is allowed under isolation, and I’m going to be so happy to be able to run the first mile that I might just keep on going.
Home: We decided to start saving to buy a house. Since there is now literally nothing to buy but groceries, our, um, savings goals are right on track?
For 2020, I was working on automating more household chores as part of my book project. I’ve had plenty of time to do this research and I *still* can’t get the stupid hard water buildup off the shower doors.
Couples: Our couples goal was to build an app together. Not sure if this will happen, as he has been working 50+ hours a week.
Over the next decade, we had a shared goal to do more camping, hiking, backpacking, and bicycling adventures together. He had been traveling over half-time and we were missing each other and wishing to spend more time together. We have actually ridden our bikes together with backpacks on because we’ve been terrified to take the bus and we needed groceries. Um, ta da?
Stop goal: My “stop goal” for 2020 was to stop procrastinating about text messages and voicemail. Yep, another success. I’ve been in touch with people I haven’t heard from in years and realizing how much I’ve missed them.
My ten-year goal was to stop procrastinating in general. Now it seems like there’s nothing TO procrastinate and everyone in the world just got a giant reset. I talked to one of my hoarders who has been evicted at least once, and she said she “finally broke through her block” and completely cleaned out her place!
Lifestyle upgrades: Our ten-year lifestyle upgrade goal was to have a garden again. This seems like less of a hobby now and more like a civic duty. We’ve already been talking to a couple of friends and family members about putting in or expanding gardens in their space, so in a way we’re doing this virtually.
For 2020, it was a bummer to think about but my big lifestyle upgrade was “probably” going to be gum surgery. Now my fourth of four scaling and root planing appointments has been rescheduled indefinitely. I actually found myself saying recently, “Thank God I had that root canal last year.” My NEW big lifestyle upgrade for the year will be to walk out our front door.
Do the Obvious: The most obvious thing to do in my life right now was to plan around constant travel. That changed almost immediately to “zero travel for who knows how long.”
I was right about one thing though: No normal weeks.
Ultralearning: This was the first time I tried to set up an ultralearning project. I was going to learn Dutch. Then, suddenly, someone else was in the room with me basically every minute of every day and this sort of got derailed. Will I start again now that I have no excuses? Depends on how sick I get, honestly. It’s lovely to picture open borders and a reason to travel to the Benelux countries and casually speak Dutch with the people I meet.
For 2030 I had planned to learn to write screenplays. Now I’m wondering how to reinvent the entertainment industry to be contact-free.
Quest: My quest was to train for an ultramarathon between now and 2025. Now I will be delighted to LIVE until 2025 and running fifty miles seems like a testament to survival and the fighting human spirit.
My decade quest was to visit Antarctica, and I wish I was already there...
Wish: My wish for 2020 is to get a publishing deal. Our wish for the next decade is to become millionaires!
Why the heck not. Honestly why not wish for anything and everything right now.
Goals, wishes, quests, visions, and dreams are technicalities. They’re a game. You win if you set yourself up to win, such as, I wish to find a penny. Something specific. On technicalities, I’m accidentally crushing several of my goals this year.
Personal: Body transformation - IN PROGRESS
Career: Learn how to do webinars - SUCCESS
Physical: Weight at 125 lbs. - IN PROGRESS
Home: Automation project - IN PROGRESS
Couples: Build an app together
Stop goal: Stop procrastinating on text messages and voicemail - SUCCESS
Lifestyle upgrades: Probably gum surgery - IN PROGRESS
Do the Obvious: Plan around constant travel
Ultralearning: Dutch language
Quest: 50 for 50 ultramarathon! (2025)
Wish: Publishing deal!
2030 - Ten Year Goals and Resolutions
Personal: Silver Fox project
Career: Published author
Physical: 50 for 50 ultramarathon!
Home: Buy a house to live in
Couples: Camping, hiking, backpacking, and bicycling together
Stop goal: Stop procrastinating in general
Lifestyle upgrades: A garden
Do the Obvious: Plan around constant travel
Ultralearning: Write screenplays
Quest: Visit Antarctica
Two months have elapsed and I am totally not getting anywhere on my main goal for the year.
This is the important part to remember, because it’s not the nature of the goal itself that is the issue; the issue is that if I choose something for myself, then I need to know whether I am going to get it or not.
Am I making stuff happen, or not?
Is what I am doing getting me anywhere that I want to go, or not?
Am I making false assumptions as to what it takes to make my goal happen?
Do I actually know what I’m doing?
Have I been taking advice from “experts” and believing that it will work, when it actuality it doesn’t?
A month is both a very short period of time and also a really long chunk of time, depending on what you’re doing. If you skip brushing your teeth for a month, you’ll definitely notice, so will people around you, and your dental hygienist is going to tell you all about it. Same if you decide not to wash your dishes or anything else related to cleanliness.
On an academic calendar, a month is a huge chunk of a semester, term, or quarter. You can probably still pull at least a minor success out of the bag if you refocus and work hard, but skipping a month of study is making life harder on yourself.
If you’re trying to pay off debt or save for a big goal, a month isn’t necessarily going to make a huge difference. While it is one more month of stress and not yet being able to experience the victory feeling, in the grand scheme of things it’s okay. When you’re seventy, you probably won’t remember exactly which month you made your savings goal, and maybe not even which year.
If you’re doing another big project, like remodeling or landscaping, a month also isn’t going to make a huge difference. It is virtually impossible to plan well enough on a large-scale project to finish on a precise date.
I’m thinking about these things because I am trying to put my project into perspective, yet I am so frustrated with myself that this is hard to do.
What I am trying to do is to burn off the extra weight I put on over the past two years. I had a goal to lose five pounds a month, which is a very modest goal. It’s considered safe to lose two pounds a week, so I could have hit 8 or 10 pounds a month without putting myself in any kind of danger.
(Why are we actively encouraged to think of weight loss as potentially dangerous, yet we are definitely not allowed to think of weight *gain* as dangerous?)
I feel a sense of urgency about my goal, because I have a health issue that is being exacerbated by my weight gain. It’s actually been getting significantly worse. When I think about dealing with this problem for even another week, I feel almost panicky, and when I think that I added another month to my stress and suffering it makes me want to throw a brick through my own window.
My problem is night terrors. I had a couple in December and January, and I wasn’t happy about that at all. Then it happened again in February, which why wouldn’t it if nothing else changed?
Then one day my husband asked me, Do you remember what happened last night?
*cue horror movie music*
Okay, apparently I woke up screaming, tried to get out of bed, had an entire conversation with my husband, and went back to sleep. No memory was formed on my end. As far as I was concerned, I had a completely normal night.
This is the worst-case scenario, that I’m causing someone else to suffer because of my problem without even knowing I’m doing it. So, so not a great sign. I told him if it happened again, to definitely ask me about it, and I would make an appointment with my doctor.
On that note, I found a recommendation in my health records to get my weight down through diet and exercise. I just stumbled across it. Nobody called me or sent me a letter, I didn’t get a notification on the app, and no health professional mentioned it to me during any of my office visits over the past year. Officially, though, health advice corresponds with what I have already been trying to do.
Am I mad? No. Did this hurt my feelings? No. Do I want to rebel because how dare someone else tell me what to do? No.
Really it just makes me wonder, how many other people are failed when they pass some health threshold without realizing it. I wish I had known when I was younger that losing weight could help me get rid of my migraines! It makes me question the entire system. Why are so many people having so many health issues, so many issues with their quality of life, when health care costs so darn much? Is it actually doing us any good or are we just getting pushed to take more prescription medication?
I lost five pounds. It wasn’t enough to get back under the threshold for night terrors, which I had successfully beat for four years. Then I blew an entire month barely maintaining. We had guests for the weekend, went out for Mexican food, and I gained four pounds overnight. It took me two weeks to get it back off. *facepalm*
This is why I find the whole issue so distracting and frustrating. I don’t know whether it’s my underactive thyroid, or my age, or some other factor, but it seems to be much easier for me to put on weight now than it was when I was younger. It also seems to take superhuman effort and a million years to reverse the process.
What I want is a whole list of great stuff. I want to reach my goal so I can go out and buy several pairs of pants. I want to start running outdoors again without worrying about putting extra stress on my ankle. I want to sleep normally without sleep-screaming and waking my husband up on work nights. I want to “check the box” and be done with this goal for 2020.
I keep reminding myself of my goals, even as I feel discouraged, troubled, and generally irritated with myself and my glacial rate of progress.
Groundhog Day is my second New Year. First you have 1/1, then you have 2/2, right? It’s also a great way to tie in the Harold Ramis movie and themes of fighting boredom by learning all kinds of cool new skills.
I need a second New Year because January somehow always seems to be a disaster. It’s like chaos is determined to disrupt any plans and projects I might try to make. Since there will never be a perfect, uninterrupted streak of routine and a smooth supply of both mood and motivation, might as well accept it. Skip January and wait until it’s finally February.
Which it is!
I’ve done what I planned to do, which was to waffle around and come up with a loose outline of how I sorta roughly plan to attack my goals and projects for 2020.
Ultralearning: My ultralearning project for 2020 is to get to A1 level in Dutch. I am on track! I downloaded an app and loaded up the lessons, and, toughest part of all, I figured out a time of day when I can practice. Mealtimes? No, mouth full of food. Evenings? No, husband is home. I’m going to do my lessons either first thing in the morning, or while my hubby is in gym class on weekends. I already know some basic greetings and pronouns, and the app says my accent is good! Now that I’m over the part where I debate scheduling with myself for weeks, I’m having fun and looking forward to each lesson.
Personal: My big personal plan for 2020 is to Get My Body Back. (Recovering from surgery in December). New urgency behind this as I had night terrors twice in January, and one of those definitely woke up my husband on a work night. Unfair. Years of tracking my metrics have led me to the conclusion that I only experience night terrors when I: [eat after 8:00 PM] + [weigh over 135 lbs]. + [did not do at least 45 minutes of cardio training that day]. While I always feel stupid when I eat something late at night and then immediately have night terrors, I have other reasons to feel that my current body composition is not serving my needs. My “low-side compliance” bare-minimum goal is to lose five pounds a month until I hit goal, and I am on track for that.
Career: My career goal is to learn to do webinars. This may be escalated on the timescale because, due to misfortune, I lost out on a speaking opportunity. Instead I may be able to present the same workshop online. With an external deadline involved, I may be able to find support to learn what I need sooner than I would on my own, i.e. late November.
Home: My home goal is to work on automating more chores and researching methods for my upcoming book. The result of this is that the place looks great and hubby has been doing odd jobs like fixing door handles. Bustle is contagious.
Couples: The only thing I really did as a couples goal in January was to take my husband to the emergency room when he got a corneal abrasion. I did earn major wife points that night but I would recommend something, anything, else as a bonding experience.
Stop goal: My stop goal for 2020 was to stop procrastinating on text messages and voicemail. I am really proud of myself for having a perfect track record on this. It has been challenging, though, as it seems that my rate of received text messages has literally tripled since I put the goal in place. Schtaaaappppp!
Lifestyle upgrades: I put on my list that my major lifestyle upgrade for the year would probably be gum surgery. I went for a checkup with my endodontist, got a referral for a periodontist, called to clear the insurance, and actually scheduled the appointment. I keep reminding myself that the sooner I get an answer, the better, and the sooner I can put it all behind me. Also that there are few things more middle-aged than having one’s own periodontist.
In another area, my hubby and I rearranged our living room (which we often do in January) and we love it!
Do the Obvious: I put down for Do the Obvious that I should accept the reality of constant travel and No Normal Weeks. This has to be at least the fourth time I have smacked my forehead for picking the stupidest, worst slogan for my year. Let’s see, so far this year our dog almost died, my husband almost lost vision in one eye *the night before* my first big-time speaking opportunity, we both got the flu just as a major remodel began on the apartment downstairs, and, yes, he already has at least a week of travel on the calendar. “No Normal Weeks” [glares at self]
Quest: 50 for 50! I have done no outdoor running yet this year, but I have put in considerable time on the elliptical and actually walked out part of my proposed training route, visualizing how much I am going to enjoy it.
Wish: My wish for the year is to get a book deal. I have been unusually productive on the book outline itself and I feel a lot of momentum around this.
For anyone else who is thinking about resolutions and goals and plans and projects, take heart. Whatever you are working on, it’s probably best that you do it seasonally and take a few months off each year. Accept the natural rhythms of your life. Allow yourself to start at zero, feel like you have no idea what to do, have no concrete plans or structures, and just LEARN about your project from a place of curiosity. If it’s something that will continue to appeal to you enough to do it, let it draw you in and become more interesting to you.
Everything I do, I do with bumbling, fumbling, stumbling, ludicrous misunderstandings of what’s involved, missed deadlines, bungled introductions and mismatched networking, purchase of inappropriate supplies, and every other possible mistake. These are the compost of the garden of creativity. Even the most glorious botanical tourist attraction has a lot of bare branches in winter.
Your Goal Guide is a workbook aimed at people who know they want to do something, but they aren’t quite sure what. Debra Eckerling developed the concept after running goal-setting workshops and discovering that, guess what, most people don’t find the process very intuitive. If it were obvious, everyone would constantly be setting and achieving goals. This book, then, is designed for exploration, and it even has a road-trip theme to remind us to see goal-setting as an adventure.
I like to skip January when I plan my annual goals, because as much as I love making New Year’s Resolutions, I believe that January is a terrible time to try to get anything done. I set aside the entire month for poking around and doing a bit of research and experimentation on goals in each area of my life. By the time February rolls around, I finally feel ready to get started. I remind myself that it’s much more important to have my goal integrated into my life at the end of the year, when I’m likely to keep on going, than it is at the beginning, when there can be a temptation to obsess over unbroken streaks and then quit at the first obstacle.
Your Goal Guide supports this approach. Using the road trip analogy, obstacles might be like taking the wrong exit, having a flat tire, or needing to stop for gas. We expect these things, so we don’t quit and go home the first time the plan is disrupted. We also recognize that we can only go a certain distance before we need to eat and sleep, where, again, we often design our resolutions with unrealistic expectations of our physical stamina.
This book feels like the product of a lot of reality testing. The planning exercises are useful and they feel like they evolve naturally. I particularly appreciated Eckerling’s focus on research and her reminders to schedule check-in sessions. When the first month has rolled around, it’s a better idea to ask ourselves what we need, and then rework our plans, than it is to shrug and give up on our dreams.
Don’t leave your goal on the side of the road. Pick up Your Goal Guide and don’t get towed!
Give your plans a chance and give yourself a break.
Remember, everything will get done.
This year I declared that I want to learn Dutch. Why? Why not? I’ve studied several languages in the past, and I thought I would share my methods before I really get rolling.
Languages are ranked by complexity, and there are four categories. Japanese and Arabic, for example, are both Category IV, partly because they have their own writing systems. There are serviceable estimates for how many hours of study it takes to become fluent in various languages. Dutch qualifies as a Category I, and that’s why I’m comfortable choosing it as a project.
Usually when people say they want to learn a language, instead of “I want to learn this language,” they say, “I want to get the Rosetta Stone” for it. I’ve heard this from dozens of people, but I’ve never actually met anyone who claims to have learned a language this way! I single it out because it’s expensive, and with the internet, there are tons of free ways to learn any language.
There are two important questions to answer that have already come up in this post.
There are four categories of language comprehension: speaking, listening, writing, and reading. We tend to be better at some categories than others, even in our native tongue. Most people picture themselves “speaking” their chosen language.
The basic problem with this, as I have found from experience, is that the better you sound, the more fluent people assume you are, and the faster they start talking to you! They will not realize that they should filter for you, so they’ll use slang, big words, and idioms. I’m a good mimic, so I purposely talk slowly and flatten my accent. If my vocabulary only has like twenty words, then I want to make sure that’s obvious to my listener.
This is why, for my purposes, when I say “learn” a language I really mean I want to be able to read it. I would only consider myself fluent if I could listen to a casual speaker and grasp 80% of what they were saying.
Fluency doesn’t mean we need to know a bunch of obscure surgical terminology or be able to have a conversation about numismatics - unless, of course, that’s the reason we’re trying to study.
This is where most beginners could use more specificity. We think of learning a language as a bucket list type of a goal, but we don’t necessarily color in the whole visual. Who are we talking to, and what are we talking about?
When we study languages in school, we start with grammar and classroom nouns, like ‘paper’ and ‘pencil.’ We might spend a year in class, get straight A’s, and still not be able to use the past tense. We get few opportunities to listen to natural speakers having casual conversations, which is probably how most of us would imagine fluency feels.
What I’ve learned from travel is that almost all of my opportunities to practice speaking are totally predictable, utilitarian transactions. Buying stuff. Getting directions. Getting directions in order to buy stuff. Asking what ingredients are in something. I realized that I needed to spend much more time listening, like 3:1, rather than speaking. I also realized that I needed to spend about 5x more effort memorizing lists of nouns.
This is where I get around to why I chose the Dutch language, out of all others, and how I picture myself using it.
The first time I traveled to a country whose official language was not English, I was blown away to realize how many travelers there are from other countries. Wherever you go, if it’s a tourist attraction, there will be French and German visitors! I had the opportunity to try to help a French tourist read an Icelandic map, and I realized that the French I studied as a 12-year-old kid actually had a real-world application. It was more than a thing of beauty and complexity, an interesting puzzle; it was a legit code for altruism and human connection. Whoa.
I went home and picked up a bit of French and German. As I did, I pictured all the friendly French and German faces I had seen on the trail and I imagined being able to trade travel notes and birdwatching tips. It was motivating.
Adding Dutch, for a linguistics nerd like me, is a way to stretch my circle.
The reason I’m focusing on a language for my first declared ultralearning project is that I’ve felt like I have neglected an innate talent. For other people, this might be something like drawing, singing, woodworking, playing guitar, dance, or a sport like tennis or swimming. I’m pretty terrible at every single one of those things, but language is something I can get into. Also, it’s supposed to help fight dementia.
Why Dutch, just to meet backpackers in other countries? Because it’s a Cat I, that’s why, and the grammar is similar to English. Later I intend to bone up on my high school Japanese. I can still read hiragana and katakana, I’ve had a couple of quickie conversations over the years, and my accent is understandable. I’m pretty excited to take on more Asian languages - I’m just rusty.
My ultimate fantasy would be to travel in every country on Earth, and spend enough time studying in advance that I could exchange greetings with someone there in their own language. That’s not necessarily a dream of unity, though. Why should someone else drop what they were doing just to entertain me?
“HI! GUUUD MORGNIEEN” *tries to wave, instead makes rude gesture*
“Uh, hi?... Do I... know you?” *rolls eyes*
In the meantime, I’ve started my project. I’ve chosen my language and I know why I want to learn it. I can picture the types of transactions and conversations I might have.
At this stage, I assemble my materials.
I don’t believe in going out and buying “foreign language dictionaries.” I used to! I used to check them out from the public library in stacks up to my chin. Instead, I start with the Babbel app. When I feel like I know a bit more, I go to TuneIn Radio and try to find a local station. I try to sound out news headlines. The next step would be to find a language partner for chatting online, and that’s where I balked back before I became a Distinguished Toastmaster.
That’s what is so funny about linguistics. A lot of us with a great passion for languages are actually really shy about using those languages to, ya know, talk? To humans?
All right then. My ultralearning language project is to study Dutch until I can test at the A1 level. I’ll also try to find a real Dutch person who will chat with me in Dutch for a minute or two, next fall or winter.
Unbelievable! I thought when I saw this book. The great and powerful BJ Fogg has finally written a book!!! This guy’s research on habit formation is mentioned constantly by other writers, and I used to wonder how they were able to get this special access. How Tiny Habits finally got written is addressed in the book, and it’s like meta-proof that this stuff works.
Of course habits have nothing to do with how fascinating, moving, and endearing this book is.
Personally I’m pretty good at starting and stopping habits, as soon as I realize what it is that I want to do. Tiny Habits had an interesting explanation for why that might be. I often do a little dance, make up a little song, jump up and down, or otherwise physically express how excited I am that I did a small thing, like hitting Send on an email that I struggled to write. Apparently this is the key to building a habit, teaching the brain that YES, this is the right step. Then I realized that I picked up this habit from my mom and it cheered me right up.
This book is loaded with diagrams and exercises that I found truly helpful. It’s designed for someone to learn it and also teach it to others, such as a team at work. I particularly liked the brainstorming method of the Swarm of Behaviors. The lists of sample habits aimed at people in different situations is terrific, and I think the list of little ways to celebrate is best of all.
Tiny Habits is based on years of extensive research, and it’s been tested on real people with real, shall we say, situations. It works on the tough stuff, like caregiving, grief, parenting for special needs, and health issues. It also works on the more light-hearted stuff, like wanting to eat ice cream every night. Amazingly, Fogg even includes research on how to help other people build their habits.
It is no surprise that Tiny Habits hit the bestseller list. I fully expect this book to stay in print for many years, to go through multiple editions, and to help millions of people create positive changes in their lives. Starting with me, and, I’m hoping you’re next!
There’s nothing wrong with taking bold action. Life and happiness occasionally demand it. But remember that you hear about people making big changes because this is the exception, not the rule.
One of my personal themes for the last year has been to “strengthen others in all my interactions.”
Right around now, everyone deflates. Aw geez, I had all these great feelings on New Year’s Eve and now they’re gone. There was only one magic moment to make the perfect wish, but I didn’t have a tidal wave of motivation, I broke my only chance at a perfect streak, and now it’s too late for me.
I wish we all had this feeling around the entire concept of the perfect streak. Aw, gee, it sure had us all fooled. What a con job. Disappoint.
What is true is that we all have a tendency to let consensus opinion influence what we do or don’t do.
EVERYBODY KNOWS that resolutions don’t work, therefore I can only do an extremely narrow set of activities for the rest of my life no matter what.
Part of a resolution really does work, and it’s confirmed through research. That part is the ‘implementation intention.’ State the thing you plan to do. Most of us do it all the time, routinely. “I’m going for a coffee, care to join me?” “I can’t wait for the new episode.” “Going to Costco to eat all the free samples.”
All of these are clear and bright implementation intentions.
Does anyone doubt that these are going to work? Do we doubt that someone is going to go out for coffee, feeling convinced that they’ll come back with zero coffee every time? Do we doubt that someone is going to finish watching their favorite show? Do we doubt that Costco will continue to hand out free samples?
What’s the difference between these classic, common, and practical implementation intentions, and our New Year’s Resolutions?
Answer: they know HOW, they know WHEN, they know what to do if Plan A doesn’t work out, they’ll keep trying because any obstacle would feel like an anomaly, and they probably don’t have any naysayers. Unlike, in every way, all our shiny new resolutions.
I don’t know if you remember the first time you ever ordered your own meal, either from a restaurant or at a food counter. I do. It was hard! When I was a senior in high school, I decided to learn how to take myself out for lunch. I went to a cafe at the mall and I got a bagel sandwich. I sat down and ate it and read a book, and then I sat there for another 25 minutes because I didn’t understand what happened next. Do you wait until the server comes back to the table and brings you the check? Do you go up to the counter? How can you tell which kind of place is which? What do they do with your change? I felt very alone and young and dumb and incompetent, that is until I pulled up my socks and went to the counter. I FIGURED IT OUT! All by myself! I even left a tip!
The point of this is that at one point, every single thing that we think is easy, routine, or obvious was a part of the unknown.
What that means is that everything we’re unsure about today, is something we are still able to learn how to do. There are other people who know how, just like we know things that are confusing and unfamiliar to other people.
The question is really when.
When are we going to do all these great things?
The middle of January is when most people tend to give up on their resolutions. I think that’s because they realize they haven’t really made much progress yet. We often feel locked in to one single version of something, and if we can’t make it work then we think we’re just not cut out for it. Some very common examples are trying to wake up earlier (rather than go to bed earlier), trying to do one specific kind of workout, or trying to go from “zero to sixty” and become an instant expert.
It’s the new me! I wake up at 4:45 AM every day from now on, so I can run uphill in sleet and hail in the pitch dark, and then at the end of the day I cook gourmet meals entirely from scratch. Perfection or bust.
The vision that we have is a fictional character from a movie that nobody would watch.
Personally, I am useless in the early morning and I know it. I have been on the receiving end of absolutely dozens upon dozens of lectures about early rising, and always being early for things, and sleep hygiene. I don’t care because of three reasons: 1. I know what pavor nocturnus is like and I know that they don’t, because if they did they would definitely say so; 2. I’m probably more productive than this person and I have no shame around my schedule; and 3. I don’t care if other people disapprove of my habits in general. If you have the time to lecture me, that is proof that you have nothing better to do, which then automatically invalidates your opinion.
You know who sleeps from midnight to 8:00 AM? Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and moi. Billionaire hours.
The first answer to the question of when is, when do you feel the best and when do you feel the worst? What time of day are you more likely to be in the mood to do things?
Where we mess up is in punishing ourselves, trying to frame our desires in terms of willpower and motivation and moral fiber. What happens then is a series of fashion don’ts: feeling cruddy, not doing the awesome thing, and being less likely to attempt awesomeness the next time.
What works is to focus on how appealing you find the thing, whatever it is. Remind yourself what you like about it, what makes you curious, and why you’re drawn to it. Play around with it, exploring and learning before you attempt any kind of actual commitment.
Then, ask yourself, what time of day are you most likely to do this little experiment? For instance, if you want to learn hula hoop tricks, are you more likely to play with the hoop in the morning, at lunch, after work, right before bed? On the weekday or on the weekend? At a party or alone in your living room?
It really is that simple. If you aren’t sure what time of day you might do something, then you probably won’t do it until you can see yourself fitting it in somehow. No doubt you’ve always spent all twenty-four hours of every day of your life. You’ve spent them somehow. The question is when you’re going to take hold of your hours and use them toward what you want the most.
How’ve you been?
Busy, so busy!
Yeah, me too.
January is the time of year when I think about TIME the most. The way that time is passing. Everything older people used to tell me about how time moves faster when you’re older unfortunately turned out to be true.
How can we possibly “live our dreams” or have a bucket list when we’re so gosh-darn busy?
We have to.
I think it’s time for a major cultural change. I think we’ve all passed “peak busy” and we’re ready for something else.
In fact, I think we should all start bragging about how lazy we are instead!
I don’t believe that “lazy” actually exists. I’m just saying that. The only people I’ve ever heard describe themselves as lazy turn out to be doing all sorts of things. Did you realize that you can’t be both lazy and a procrastinator at the same time? Seriously. A truly lazy person would not feel bothered by not doing something and wouldn’t feel guilty about putting anything off, either. So which one is it? Are you lazy or are you a procrastinator?
I’m picking lazy, as soon as I can figure out how to do it.
The way our current system is set up, we’re supposed to Work Hard so we can earn money so we can Retire. Retirement is about relaxing and doing nothing as a reward, right?
If relaxing in retirement is so great, then why wait??
Actually I think the idea of hanging out in a recliner in front of a television is the most boring thing imaginable. I don’t really believe in retirement in the traditional sense.
What I want is INTERESTING, not “busy.” Busy is not interesting in itself because it makes us exactly like everyone else. It usually consists of work, chores, and errands.
Why not lead with our real interests? Since surely we do and think about more than just work, chores, and errands?
I’ll tell you mine. Do you think the thylacine is really still alive?? The Tasmanian tiger?
Also, do you think Kate Middleton ever secretly attacks a heavy bag and just kicks it over and over again while screaming curse words? I would.
Anyway. We all know that somehow, in between all the “busy” things we do, we have plenty of time to play with our phones. We text and look at memes and follow celebrity gossip and play games.
Which is awesome, and also a great list of things to do while pushing pedals on the elliptical.
I go on the elliptical because I’m lazy. I could be running along the beach but there’s a really steep hill on the way back to my apartment. It’s easier to just take the elevator down to our little apartment gym, the one that basically nobody uses.
Mostly I go down there and read articles about astrology. Totally true.
So busy! So, so busy!
The thing is that everyone gets the same 24 hours, infuriating as it is. Same as Beyoncé, Kate Middleton, and the high school students riding their skateboards past my apartment. Those 24 hours are the only thing we all have in common.
Are we going to make them ours, or are we going to give them to other people and their priorities?
Pretend an hour of your life is your favorite beverage. Are you going to let someone just walk up, snatch it out of your hand, and drink it right in front of you?
My green tea soy latte NOOOOOOOO
This is exactly why I set my goals and resolutions every year. It’s my little way of saying “in your face” to every naysayer or critic or bad boss I’ve ever had. This hour, it’s mine. Not yours, mine. I decide what to do with my time and you do not. So nyah.
My first boss at my first official paycheck job assigned me to scrub the baseboards. The other employees told me they had never heard of anyone having to do that at that job. Why me? I dunno. I got a better job, tripled my income, and left. My final paycheck was under $40.
Not every use of time is deserving of our attention.
We do have to do a lot of necessary but boring stuff. Life is, what, 80% maintenance? Work, commute, fold laundry, try to figure out where all these little packets of soy sauce and ketchup keep coming from, stand in line somewhere, repeat. Thus it’s up to us to fit in anything personal, to make time for anything that actually matters to us.
For a lot of people, that magic personal thing is listening to music. For others, it’s putting on makeup or watching cute animal videos or choosing new tattoo art. We fit these personal things into our lives somehow or other.
What if we could fit in more?
What if there were more of those forgotten personal things, and it turned out that we have time for them after all?
A friend of mine started drawing again after many years without. Actually two friends of mine did this in different years. In both cases, I could not believe how talented they were, and that nobody knew. Why on earth would you ever give that up? What, not even doodle while you’re on the phone? Not even while you’re out to dinner and there’s a paper tablecloth?
Most of us associate these talents and interests with our school days. For some reason we think it’s normal to sigh and give up.
It’s true that most of us give up lounging on our beds, reading song lyrics, talking on the phone for hours, and all the other fun things we did in high school. We get home at six instead of three, and where are we supposed to find those extra three hours a day?
But then how do the statistics keep coming back that the average American spends five hours a day watching TV?
We certainly don’t need to stop watching TV if that’s what we really love to do. I doubt, though, that we should keep claiming that we’re so, so busy if that’s the main reason we aren’t living our dreams. We should instead proudly proclaim that we’re indulging ourselves, relaxing quite recklessly in defiance of social norms.
There’s time, there’s time for all of it. You can learn a new language while you commute. You can play your favorite 100 albums of all time during your shower, week by week. You can “catch up on laundry” while binge-watching every show you ever wanted. You can draw during lunch. You can even train for a marathon if you have 4-6 hours a week. Not only is there plenty of time for you to put your own fun first, but if you have kids it’s still true. Kids like fun best of all. Set a good example.
People have the wrong idea about this whole “new year, new you” thing. We feel it as pressure. Like the only way to do it is to eat a lot of celery while filing paperwork. Instead it can be a form of rebellion, of reclaiming time for yourself and your own choices in the face of that exact same social pressure. So society wants me to be busy, so so busy? I’m just going to retire early and start telling the truth about my life. The truth is that I like to spend part of my time wearing silly socks and making elaborate breakfasts, just for myself. I’m not busy every single minute and I’m done pretending.
How about you?
The biggest problem with New Year’s Resolutions is that they get miscategorized. If you want to win at this game, you have to be clear about the rules. What does I WON look like?
The whole thing is much easier when you look at it as a game and approach it with curiosity, or hilarity if you can manage it.
Typically it looks like this. Someone blurts out a resolution on New Year’s Eve, and then quits by the middle of January because they couldn’t manage a perfect streak. Each time they feel guilty and dumb for trying.
The only things we should have a perfect streak at are all hygiene-related!
Like, go ahead and skip Duolingo - I don’t care what that owl says, unless it’s a barred owl in which case watch out - but please don’t skip washing your hands or brushing your teeth, mmkay?
Okay, let’s say the goal is to choose something fun and entertaining to do over the rest of the calendar year. We’ll use my friend Ed’s idea from 2018, which was to “ride more roller coasters.”
How does Ed know that he has kept his resolution?
What he has done is to set an “implementation intention.” He is going to ride “more” roller coasters. He has a clear vision in his mind that he and his wife are going to drive over to an amusement park, buy tickets, and get on the ride. (At that point, willpower no longer applies and the rest of the resolution happens on its own).
Technically, if Ed and Mrs. Ed rode zero roller coasters in 2017, and one in 2018, then he has kept his resolution because one is “more” than zero.
In actuality, this roller coaster deal happened throughout the year and became a fun, memorable series of dates.
This was a successful “resolution” but it could also reasonably be considered a “quest” or a “mission” or a “project.” It could even be an “experiment,” the purpose of which was to overcome the fear of roller coasters.
(That’s called exposure therapy, and it usually works for most people, just like public speaking did for me).
The idea here is to find a way to explore your intent and desire in a way that is not punishing or shaming, because what fun is that? How does it get anyone anywhere? If it really is important or interesting to you, then you would probably want to figure out how to set yourself up for success. By the end of the year, whatever it was that attracted you would be satisfied in some way.
A regular part of your daily routine?
A memory and interesting story?
Information that taught you that it wasn’t what you thought it was, and now you no longer want to play the bagpipes after all?
Certainly an escape clause should be built in. You want a way to release yourself from your internal contract. A learning experience is not failure; in fact, far from it. Every learning experience gets you closer to the ideal vision of what you want for your life - and do not want!
A friend of mine has made a resolution to stop making assumptions about other people’s intentions. He had the insight that he tends to tell himself stories about what other people are thinking when they do or say certain things. This type of projection is stressful, and often wrong. This is a great example of a resolution, because it is meaningful to him and because it will take time to get it down. If he’s right, it will improve his life and there would thus never be a reason to quit doing it. It’s a resolution without a specific timeline or destination, which makes it poorly suited as a traditional “goal.”
Meanwhile, someone could have a goal of returning their ancient overdue library books from three years ago. That would be a clearly defined “goal” that also counts as a resolution. They would know when they were “done” and they would also have kept their implementation intention. (I did this once for a client and the librarians emailed me because they were so curious how I got ahold of the books). This same hypothetical person could make another resolution to “only check out digital books” so they never again have an overdue book, yay!
One of my resolutions for 2020 includes a “project.” I am learning about new ways to simplify, automate, or eliminate household chores. Built-in motivation, right? I have no idea how much I am going to learn or how long it will take me to explore this, which is why it’s a project and not a goal or a resolution. Another person might have a cooking project, or something like making raised garden beds, turning their garage into a music studio, or building a treehouse.
I also have a “quest,” which is to train for a fifty-mile ultramarathon over the next five years. If I were able to do this within three years, that would be amazing. I also wouldn’t be disappointed if it took me longer. The idea is to be fit enough to do an ultra at age fifty, so performing this magic trick at an even more advanced age would actually be an improvement over the original vision.
I have a traditional style of “resolution,” which I call a “stop goal.” I only frame stop goals when I realize that I’ve been doing something to drive myself crazy and annoy myself. One year it was to stop leaving tissues in my pockets and then running them through the washing machine, so that little shreds of wet tissue would disperse themselves throughout all the clothes. Years later I am six-sigma successful at this. This year it’s to stop procrastinating on listening to my voicemail on the rare occasions when I get them. Perfection is not the aim for a stop goal; it’s actually liberation from an easily preventable form of self-bothering.
Even if you only do it once, that’s one less time than usual, one less time of annoying yourself for no reason.
Probably the reason so many of us quit and give up on our “resolutions” is that we pick the preachy ones. Quit biting my nails, stop smoking, Lose Weight, save money. If we had any idea how to do these things, we definitely would have done them already. It’s not our fault if we don’t know what to do on day one.
This is why I believe that it pays to set aside two months to be streak-free, goal-free, and thus failure-free. December is for deciding what to do, and January is for starting to learn how to do it. The more clarity we can get on what we want, how it looks and feels, and how other people have generally made it happen, the more likely that we are to keep our resolutions. Because we want them, they are fun and interesting, and we like them!
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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