If the amount of Post-It notes I’ve written in my life were dumped into one big pile, I’m sure I could sink the Titanic with them.
Alright, maybe I’m exaggerating just a little–I don’t want to get a whole slew of outraged letters from environmentally-conscious readers. Nevertheless, I am the boss of writing little to-do goal lists and throwing them away when I’m done with them. On a good day, my desk is only full of a handful of notes. On a bad day, the number of small colored papers on my desk looks like I’ve attempted to single-handedly create a Mardi Gras float inside my office.
Of all the goal-oriented people out there, I’m quite likely one of the worst. I still have lists of goals from when I was nine (of which the chief goals were, “Be the best soccer player,” “Marry Mr. Perfect,” and “Go skydiving”) and then a modified list about every six months after that. When I arrived in California for my freshman year of college, I taped up a list of fifty places I wanted to visit that year onto my wall where I could see it every day. I was slightly hampered by the lack of a vehicle, but nevertheless, I went to almost all of those places that year.
If there was a video game out there titled “Goal Planning,” I would have beaten the game already. That is, if anyone would buy a game so utterly dull.
Setting goals is a constant learning process–and believe me, it’s no easy task. No one hands you a magical book that lists all of the goals you need to have in your life. It is something only you can figure out. Sometimes goals do not pan out, but often new ones are discovered after you chart a new trail in your life.
Setting goals not only motivates you, but can give you a great boost of satisfaction and confidence once you can check something off your list. When looking over my goals, I realize that I’m not stuck in a ceaseless grind, but that I’ve actually accomplished things and there is progress in my life.
Have I perfected the art of goal-setting? Of course not. I’ve been known to occasionally sneak out of my office and do a lap around the church parking lot on a really frustrating day, when I can’t seem to accomplish anything. It is a form of clearing my head and refocusing that is especially effective when running outside in twenty degree weather with no coat. Nevertheless, here are some key elements to setting and accomplishing goals, both personally and professionally.
Understand the Process.
A goal is a result toward that which your effort is directed–in other words, your aim. An objective is the means to accomplishing this goal. It’s a tricky distinction, but something that is important to understand. For instance, if one’s goal is to lose ten pounds, the objectives would include dieting, exercising regularly, a daily weight check, and so on. It’s crucial that you set both goals and objectives for achieving those goals. Doing so will give you a better understanding of what you need to do to accomplish the items on your list and a better method of tracking your progress.
What is the best way to start setting goals? Think about what you enjoy doing and the talents God has blessed you with. Is there a goal hidden within your biggest joys? If nothing comes to mind right away, instead focus on things you don’t want in your life. Let’s use this one: “I don’t want to spend my life working in a job I hate.” Once you’ve identified the negative, turn it into a positive goal: “I want to work in a job I love.”
I love the saying, “Shoot for the moon, and even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.” The great thing about dreams is that they are limitless. Your goals can be limitless, too, as long as you add a dose of realism. Make your list as diverse, random, and as limitless as you want. Ideally, goals are set just out of your reach–but not so far out of reach that you have no hope of ever achieving them.
I wouldn’t say, for example, that a goal of mine is to compete in an Olympic basketball competition, especially since I top out at only five and a half feet tall, but that doesn’t mean I can’t someday coach a team.
Check Your Goals.
Sometimes, our tendency is to get a little greedy when thinking toward our personal achievements. Our culture is me-focused, as well as experiential-focused–a perfect brew for the perfect storm of self-centered goals. Be willing to honestly evaluate your goals and ask yourself: “Are my goals in line with Scripture? Are they congruent with the things a Christian should aim for? Am I pointing others to Christ with my goals? Am I living the life God designed me for?”
Write Them Down.
Don’t underestimate the power of paper. Write it down. Be precise by giving specific details, times, dates, whatever you need to accomplish your goals. This gives you a tangible way to track and evaluate your progress. Plus, it gives you a good chuckle when you find your goal lists many years later.
Life can seem overwhelming when you look at your entire list of plans, hopes, and dreams. Instead, decide which of them are the most important, and give your direct attention to those goals. Pick a handful to focus on for a few months at a time. By the end of the year you’ll be amazed at how many big things you have accomplished.
During my year-long DCE internship, I had to write daily, weekly, and monthly goals for myself. My program director told me over and over again that I was completely unrealistic in what I thought I could reasonably accomplish in both a day and a year. I used to think, “Why not? I’m a hardworking, efficient person. Why can’t I do it all?” But, as the work mounted, I felt like a failure if I couldn’t accomplish every single thing I had on my plate that day at work. Eventually, I realized that the plate is never actually empty, it just continues to take on more heaps of responsibility. (Like dinnertime when you are a kid and the vegetables never seem to disappear.) I had to step back and reevaluate what was actually critical in my day-to-day routine, and focus on accomplishing only those things. I had to set my own priorities and stick to them without trying to cram in as many things as possible in a day.
Be Easy on Yourself.
It’s tough to learn that you are not Superman.
It’s easy to want to take on every little thing, especially when you’re working for a church or with youth. After all, it’s an admirable and worthy cause. Understanding that you can’t actually walk on water (even though your Boss can) is first step to realizing that you will fail. That’s okay.
You will have some goals in your life that are unfulfilled. You’ll screw up plenty, you’ll miss opportunities, and you’ll accomplish some things only to find out that they really weren’t worth the effort. We live in an imperfect world full of disappointments and failures, and you and your vision are not exempt from this.
But, you will also reach some incredible heights through properly-set goals.
Remember to Refocus.
I keep a file in my desk titled “Cheerful”. When I’m angry with the world, feeling totally unproductive, or am ready to rip my computer off my desk and throw it against the wall, I take this file out. In it, I have all of the happy and affirming letters or notes I’ve ever received from others.
When the world kicks you in the shins, remember the things you did accomplish. Plenty of people still love you. You’ll be alright–and your shins will heal up stronger for the next go-around.
Celebrate Your Victories.
Celebrate when you accomplish your goals! Yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to enjoy your accomplishments, as long as you don’t steal the credit from God, who gave you the perseverance and dedication to plow through your goals in the first place. Recognizing when you’ve accomplished something that was important to you will make you more likely to keep plugging along on the rest of the items on your list. And remember, sometimes you don’t see your goals directly accomplished, but progress is still being made in different ways.
Recently, after a retreat at our church, I tiredly sat down at my desk and started sorting through the gigantic heap of random stuff that had been dumped on my desk over the weekend. As I busily cleaned up and put things away, I discovered that someone had left a small picture on the very bottom of the pile. It was a hand-doodled message that said, “Trust in the Lord with all of your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). In a flash, it hit me: how often does God send messages like this to me, and I bury them away under other “more important” goals? I need to slow down, reevaluate my agenda, and take a deep breath. I was not created to be a mindless machine that hungrily anticipates the next set of challenges that I can conquer. I was crafted to enjoy the creation around me, to marvel in the bountiful blessings of my Creator, and to share that love with others who don’t realize how blessed they are.
Life isn’t all about accomplishing every single thing on an endless list. It is essential for us to understand that we have a God of incredible grace. He doesn’t require us to plow through life at a break-neck speed, crossing off our to-do lists and juggling the heavy responsibilities of family, work, and faith like flaming batons. He tells us to “be still” and to know that He is God. To a task-oriented person, that’s a hard pill to swallow. Yet, how clear and simple life becomes when we actually put this into practice.
Rick Warren recently summed it up well at a conference: “At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how many things have gone wrong…how many failures…if at the end of the day you love Him more and know Him better, that day was a success. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter how many things you’ve accomplished…at the end of the day if you don’t know God better and love Him more, you just wasted your day because God didn’t put you on earth to mark things off your to-do list.”
Even the greatest accomplishments and accolades pale in comparison to the eternal life we have ahead of us. My prayer lately has been that of Psalm 119:35-37: “Direct me in the paths of your commands, for there I find delight. Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain. Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word.”
Ultimately, our life goal is to point people to the Truth–that we have a faithful and loving God, a Savior who secured our eternal spot in heaven for us, and a Holy Spirit who lives amongst His people and works in powerful ways.
For that, no Post-it notes are required.