Letting go of goals

It’s that time of year when goals set on New Year’s Eve go bye-bye.

I asked a few people about their New Year’s Resolutions this year. All of them said they don’t make resolutions anymore; that New Year’s Resolutions don’t work so why bother. I interpret that to mean that New Year’s Resolutions do little more than evoke a sense of guilt and feelings of failure for giving up again by mid-January.

Some people continue with the tradition, either with a sense of humor or with the heavy presence of disappointment looming in the not-too-distant future. Who needs that?

Skip the resolutions; skip the goals. Set an intention.

I spent New Year’s Eve with about 200 other people at Against the Stream Meditation Center in Santa Monica. We each lit a candle, set an intention, and stated it out loud (optional) for the new year. It was the first time I did anything like that.

Here’s what I learned: Setting an intention differs from making a resolution or setting a goal in three important ways.

The tone of setting an intention

Listen to the words. My intention is to… Ahhhh….my intention has wiggle room…space. The words sound soft, pliable, forgiving. There’s a subtle difference in tone, cadence, and, well, intention from this and I want to… or I will

Bam. Bam. Bam. Like keys on a manual typewriter, an Excel spreadsheet, or track and field hurdles, goal statements tend to sound harsh, limited and limiting, driven, cold, superficial, heavy-handed. Makes me feel like I want to shake the words off my skin and out of my head. Which is what most people do.

  • I will lose ten pounds by Valentine’s Day.
  • I will find a job I like within the next six months.
  • I will put a profile on a dating web site .
  • I will find someone to spend the rest of my life with…or marry…or have children with.
  • I will stop [an unhealthy habit].

Not to say that goals are useless or unachievable. They have their place and some people do very well with them. Presidential candidates have to set goals to get where they want to go. So do professional athletes, corporate leaders, artists of all flavors, and anyone who wants to do anything measurable in the outside world. Goals are great for graduating high school with a 4.6 GPA, finishing college or grad school, or selling ten thousand widgets.

Uncertain future

Setting goals disregards the possibility that the real future may not be the future you imagine. Setting goals disregards the very real human limitation of control, or lack of control, over uncertainty. The future could unfold in a more spectacular and happier way than you imagined. Or the results could turn out completely different from anything that you could have imagined for yourself.

As an example, you may know people who say they want to get married. Internet dating sites attract people with such goals. The people on these sites tend to feel that their biological clock is ticking (grasping) or they have to act now to avoid permanent singlehood (aversion). They usually have a long list of what the person they want to marry looks like, acts like, thinks like, and does for a living. From the Deepak Chopra article 5 Steps to Setting Powerful Intentions:

Intention is much more powerful when it comes from a place of contentment than if it arises from a sense of lack or need.

The people I know of who have set a similar goal, usually don’t have long or intimate relationships. Instead of setting a goal, these people might consider setting an intention.

What would an intention sound like? I intend to live more fully, to open myself to emotional intimacy, to love with abandon while holding space for a LTR (long-term relationship). It’s a subtle difference and may be imperceptible to anyone who is goal-driven or clinging to an idea.

Goals are future directed in an insistent way; intentions happen in the here and now and become integrated over time. Intentions allow space for anything to happen. With an intention instead of a goal, you open yourself to living a more meaningful life now.

Deepak Chopra recommends that you:

Relinquish your rigid attachment to a specific result and live in the wisdom of uncertainty.

Heart, passion, insight, kindness

You might recall from Change and the Elephant or if you went on to read The Happiness Hypothesis (Haidt, J., 2006) that the part of us that sets goals and makes New Year’s Resolutions, the rider, has little chance of affecting change if the emotional self, the elephant, is not considered.

So I ask: Where’s the heart, the passion, and the emotions in goal statements? Where’s the space and flexibility for being human, the forgiveness if things don’t happen exactly the way you stated the goal? Where’s the consideration of other people’s wants, needs, intentions? Where’s the space for fear, anger, risk aversion, love, attachment style, and just plain old laziness?

Unlike goal statements, setting an intention considers your emotions, your strengths, and your limitations.

Take one of these for a test drive. My intention is to…

  • let go of my fear of dating
  • let go [period]
  • pay attention to myself when I feel sad, or lonely, or anxious, afraid
  • be kind and gentle with myself
  • savor each pleasant life experience; marinate in the goodness in life
  • notice the goodness in others
  • express gratitude
  • let go of expectations and control
  • celebrate being me
  • show up in a more authentic way in my work and personal life

Intentions can be used for practical matters too. My intention is to:

  • earn more money
  • socialize more
  • take better care of my body
  • remember to smile
  • forgive more quickly
  • practice [whatever you’re practicing] every day

Take some time to think about what you really want. Consider your feelings, your place in life, your circumstances, what you want now, not five years from now. Then set an intention that feels authentic.

When you have one you like, repeat it to yourself whenever you think of it. Then, let it go.

Deepak Chopra suggests that during daily meditation, assuming you do meditate every day, you “…plant the seeds of your intention.” Then

…let it go—simply stop thinking about it.

Let the marvelous alchemy of life take over. Your subconscious will remember; your elephant will feel seen and heard; and you’ll give your seed of intention the space to grow.

The outcome? Smile as you watch it unfold. 🙂

Anxiety…it’s everywhere

Anxiety. You know it when you feel it. From mild discomfort to immobilizing panic, anxiety is a fear-based response to a person, place, thing, or experience. Sometimes, though, anxiety seems to come out of nowhere. One minute you’re fine, the next trembling or frozen or worse yet wondering if you need to get to an ER for medical treatment. Anxiety can be based your biological makeup–some of us are more responsive than others–caused by a medical condition, or felt as a side effect of some medications. Anxiety can be the symptom of another psychological issue, or simply another word for stress or overload.

Stress, Anxiety, or Fear

When you say, “I’m anxious” do you mean “I’m stressed out about getting all of these work projects done on time,” or “I’m afraid to tell my boyfriend I don’t want to see him any more,” or “I’m anxious because I am worried I will run out of money when I’m 75”? The effects and symptoms might be similar, but for the purposes of this article, let’s differentiate the three feeling states.

Stress is a response to over-stimulation, too much work, too much traffic, too long a to-do list, or too little down time. Ignoring stress and hoping it will go away on its own can lead to burnout and physical problems such as elevated blood pressure and other cardio-vascular health threats, unhealthy eating habits, sleep disturbance, relationship conflicts, and a profound dissatisfaction with your quality of life. You can reduce stress by changing lifestyle habits. Read more about stress at NIMH.

Fear is an emotional response to real or perceived danger. Fear elicits the fight-flight-freeze response. During this state, the body releases hormones, cortisol, adrenaline, and about 30 others as it gears up to protect itself or shuts down to protect itself. When you are hiking and see a rattle snake, you might feel fear and consider avoiding the snake or running away. You might freeze and not be able to move or think. Most people won’t fight with a snake. You’ll notice a heightened sense of awareness, a focus on the dangerous stimulus, and something like an electric current running through your nervous system. That’s a natural response to fear. When the threat is gone, so is the fear. The hormone levels and body returns to homeostasis.

Anxiety is worry or fearful anticipation of a future threat or what if thinking. Ask “Is the sky going to fall, Chicken Little?” and CL will anxiously run in circles saying the sky is falling. There is nothing real to fight or run away from, no object or situation to avoid because it’s “what if.” In other words, there is nothing you can do to protect yourself from the future threat. You are in an unsolvable state of fight-flight-freeze holding the bag of hormones, fear, and worry. You may be able to reduce worry by changing your thinking. “The sky going to stay where it is, CL.”

Anxiety might follow a recent loss or change in living conditions, health, or relationships. You might read about or see a story on the news. Or you might just wander into worry territory. Scientists don’t fully understand anxiety and continue to study its possible causes. Some forms of anxiety may be biological or genetic and require psychiatric evaluation and medication.

Symptoms of Anxiety

Therapists use the term “normalize” when we frame a person’s responses and symptoms within the context of a situation. If you feel anxious, and you want to normalize your feeling, remind yourself that we live in the Age of Anxiety. The environment we’ve created for our human existence can feel like it exceeds our capacity to adapt. The result is an unpleasant set of symptoms that are called stress or anxiety. You feel worried but may not know why. Or you feel afraid and know why but cannot stop feeling scared. Without some form of awareness and intervention, everyday anxiety can grow until it interferes with your ability to function. Why wait that long?

You might not recognize symptoms of anxiety or stress, so here is a list of the most common:

  • Feeling powerless
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
  • Mind racing.
  • Irritability
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
  • Jumbled, bizarre, rapid, slow, methodical, obsessive thoughts
  • Memory impairment
  • Disassociated from reality

Body sensations:

  • Feeling “nervous,” jittery, or on edge
  • Restlessness. Can’t sit still.
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Stomach discomfort, nausea, diarrhea
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Muscle tension
Morning anxiety

Many people feel a sense of panic or anxiety when they wake up in the morning. According to research, cortisol levels are highest at that time. We’re not sure why, but some thoughts are: your alarm jolts you out of a deep sleep instead of gently nudging you from light sleep state; your alarm would cause fear or stress whenever it goes off; you feel anxious during other times of the day but upon waking, the feeling is more obvious; you would rather stay in bed than get up and go to work; sleep is an escape from real worries you have while you are awake.

What can you do about stress, fear, anxiety?

You don’t need this article to learn what to do to reduce stress or anxiety. The internet, family, and friends will give you plenty of well-meaning advice:

  • Exercise more.
  • Eat healthy foods. Eliminate caffeine and carbonated beverages.
  • Smile.
  • Add self-care to your daily routine.
  • Practice gratitude.
  • Spend time with the activities, pets, friends, and family members you like.
  • Turn off the television, smartphone, tablet, and computer.
  • Spend time in nature.
  • Meditate.
  • Journal.
  • Sleep more restfully.
  • etc.

Ahhhhhh!!! That list can add stress rather than take it away, especially when you think “I should…” So, instead, let’s slow the process down.

  1. Take an objective look at your habits. Which ones cause you the most stress, worry, or fear?
  2. Pick one habit that you think you can change without a lot of effort. Change can mean eliminate, modify, or add.
  3. Practice your new habit for a week.
  4. Look back on the week. What was that like?

Let’s see what that looks like with Jake, a 35-year old software engineer.

  1. Jake says that the habits that cause him the most stress, worry, and fear are: eating fast, eating drive-through fast-food at most meals, working too many hours every day, commuting to and from work in rush hour traffic, fighting with his girlfriend, finances, and because he’s worried about getting laid off, he doesn’t get enough restful sleep.
  2. Jake wants to change all of these habits at once so he has no stress, but he’s willing to practice changing one habit for now. So he chooses to slow down his eating, which he usually does driving to or from work.
  3. Jake made a promise to himself that he would eat breakfast at home every day for a week and even though he’s not willing to cook for himself, he is willing to bring takeout food home and eat there while listening to calm, gentle music.
What could happen?

We can imagine three outcomes. 1) Jake would not be able to continue this new habit for the entire week. 2) He would continue the new habit for a week and learn that it made no difference in his stress level. 3) He would do this for a week and notice a  big enough change in his stress level to continue this experiment for another week.

If he didn’t continue for the week, he could try again the following week, or pick up mid week and continue trying until he made it through a week without a break. If he learned that changing this habit did not change his stress level, he could move on to another experiment, such as using sleep hygiene to improve his sleep. If he noticed a big enough change in his level of stress, he could continue until this practice became a solid new habit and then add another stress reduction experiment to his week.


The point is this: life is an experiment for each of us. If you approach your life and your challenges with the curiosity of a scientist doing experiments you can learn what will work for you, not what works for most people or what authors of articles, your mom, or your best friend think will work for you. When the process of change is slowed down, you give yourself an opportunity to truly experience the results of your experiments.



Change and the elephant

What happens when you hear the word “change”? Do you smile? Jump for joy? Throw your arms in the air and shout YES? If you’re like most people, probably not. You are more likely to break out in a sweat and head for the nearest exit.

When I think of change, I think of Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor (The Happiness Hypothesis, 2006) of a rider on an elephant. Think of the rider as logical brain; elephant as emotional brain. Rider is desire to change; elephant is old habits. When rider and elephant live in harmony, changing direction happens seamlessly. The elephant and rider turn left, turn right, in sync. Change and the elephantWhen there’s discord between rider and elephant, changing direction looks more like:

“Go this way,” the rider commands with enthusiastic energy.

The elephant says, “Not today.”

Decisions to find a new job, stop addictive or impulsive habits, thoughts to let go of a relationship or to start a new one, in other words, change, haven’t got a chance. Like New Year’s resolutions.


David is 25. He graduated from a four-year college two years ago and has been working part-time at a job he knows is not his life’s work. David lives at home with his single mom and sister because he can’t afford to pay rent and his student loan. He spends hours watching YouTube and playing video games (his old habits). David wants to “move on” with his life, move into an apartment of his own, and meet a woman he can develop a long-term relationship with (new habits). He knows that the apartment is going to take some time. So, he’s decided to focus his energies on meeting someone to date. He’s thought about taking a class to learn Italian, or cooking, or salsa dancing. He’s thought about joining a Meet-up for volleyball or bicycling, or just hanging out. He’s looked at online dating sites.

David has thought of many viable ways to meet women. But, he’s not willing or able to take action. “I’ll get around to it one of these days,” he tells his younger sister, who has taken an interest in his dilemma and made one suggestion. “Just do it,” she says.

Well…sometimes, taking action is not that simple.

The risk of change

David wants change. But David doesn’t want to risk losing the comfort of old habits, such as giving up some of his video game and YouTube time and the comfort of his own company. Like warm jammies on a cool day, old habits are familiar and feel good. For a while. Until you want to change.

We can speculate, based on our own experiences, the risks involved. In terms of the rider and elephant, the rider is only thinking about how cool change will be. But the elephant knows that risk means there’s a chance that the outcome will be different than what we hope it will be. Not different in a good way, as in better than expected, but different in a bad way.

“…there is one person in each body, but in some ways we are each more like a committee whose members have been thrown together to do a job, but who often find themselves working at cross purposes” (Haidt, 2006, p. 5).

For David and his desire to meet women, the committee might sound like this:

  • “Meet strangers? Are you kidding?” says  the introvert.
  • “No way you’re doing that!” says the stern parent.
  • “That sounds like so much fun!” says the playful child.
  • “Remember that time in elementary school when those kids made fun of you? Do you want that to happen again?” says the wounded child.
  • “No one wants to meet you. You live with your mom! ” says the critic.
  • “Stay home where you’re safe and comfortable,” says the helicopter parent.

You can see how internal discourse can lead to inertia.

The good news

There are several strategies you can try for any change you want to make. Be curious. Think of this as an experiment.

First, become aware of the committee members’ messages. We all have inner voices. Listen to yours. Hear what you’re telling yourself.

Next, evaluate each message. Some are useful; others unhelpful relics from your past. Jot the messages down in your phone or tablet while you’re waiting for your food order at your favorite take-out place. Seeing these messages in black and white can help you decide which ones to keep and which ones you want to replace with more useful messages.

Third, plan ahead. Practice your worst nightmare. Let’s say that like David, you want to meet new people. You’ve gotten yourself to an event where you know no one. You see small groups of people talking with each other. You walk up to one of the groups and no one invites you into the conversation. So you just stand there.

What if, instead of standing there, you planned ahead to say, “Hi. I’m new here and I don’t know anyone. Can I join your conversation?” A little awkward maybe, but you can come up with your own words. Smiling and feeling calm in challenging situations can help too. Now imagine the same scene, but the group opens up and people say they’re really glad you came and want to get to know you. People sense when another person’s mind and body are relaxed. They also sense when mind-body is tense.

Consider the reality of meeting someone new. Some people are friendly and welcoming and some people are snarky and cold. Some people only want to talk about themselves; others have nothing interesting to say. Some people are fun; others not so much. Some people have their own unresolved issues. The kids in elementary school did hurt your feelings. You do have to be aware and somewhat careful about who you develop a relationship with. You never know who you’re meeting.

With change, we generally think about how the change will make us happier. We expect to do better, improve our quality of life, move up, expand, acquire more.

Yet, when the elephant or the less enthusiastic Committee Members and old habits take over, we back away from change.

Tone down the critic

With awareness, you can work towards adjusting the volume of the committee members. Turn up the encouraging voices; turn down the critics and doubters. Be patient with yourself, your committee members, the rider and the elephant. And practice. Change does not usually happen overnight.

“Go this way,” the rider commands with enthusiastic energy. “Everything’s going to be just fine.”

The elephant responds accordingly. “Okay. Maybe,” she says.

Remember this: you may have to persuade your elephant with kindness, compassion, patience, and peanuts (Haidt, 2006, p. 38). With as much awareness as you can tolerate, and all the support you can find for yourself, see if you can jump in and try (again). Start small. Mindfulness is effective for developing awareness and calm, as is therapy, support groups, self-talk, and education.


*David is a fictional character; photo from canstockphoto.com.

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis. New York: Basic Books.

Jonathan Haidt’s web site