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. 🙂