A blog post about goals around New Year’s is definitely cliché. Millions of people are thinking about goals and thousands of those millions have blogs wherein they post their thinkings. So what is different about this post and why should you read it?
One, I’m not a professional. I’m someone who has struggled to put together an effective system for goal setting and, after failing over and over again, have finally found something that works for me. Two, the way I set my goals is probably different than most you’ve heard, though I haven’t cared to compare my system with anyone else’s. I don’t know if my process is entirely unique but whether or not it’s an amalgam of other systems matters not to me because it works. In short, I don’t know to whom do I owe the credit for coming up with this system. Keep fresh in your mind that this is goal setting as it applies to me and you’re free to interpret—add and take as you may. I truly hope this helps you achieve your goals this year, even so, results may vary.
The Perfectionist’s Common Experience with Goal Setting
My personality is one that demands excellence, precision, and perfection from myself—an impossible amount of perfection. That trait is a double edged sword. It’s like walking on the blade of a razor; it’s a long way down on both sides if you mess up. This perfectionist tendency works against you when setting goals. We perfectionists want to accomplish so many things all at once because our faults and failings are glaringly obvious to us. We know exactly what’s “wrong” with us and what needs to be “fixed.” At the New Year we set a laundry list of goals and are excited to finally be perfect this year.
Typically my experience as a perfectionist at New Year’s has been this: Day one ends with flying colors. Come day two, I mess up on item 17 on my laundry list of goals. The day progresses and the cognitive dissonance is suffocating. I become profoundly frustrated. The perfectionist emotions are overwhelming and my mind spins off into blah blah or la la land. Day three, I don’t care about anything or anyone anymore because I failed. The following 362 days are mediocre at best and filled with the constant itching to be perfect.
What happened? My ambitions outweighed my reality, resolve, and resources. We perfectionists have to plan ahead to avoid these massive downers after miniscule failures. The good thing is that we are always filled with an incredible amount of emotion to be better and do better. At least we start! Some don’t get that far. We should congratulate ourselves for both the desire to progress and actually starting down the path.
Goal Setting for the Perfectionist
This is where it gets personal. I understand my personal ambitions and have learned to channel them. To plan and set my goals I will always find a quiet, peaceful, emotionally safe place (not in front of a TV with ESPN on or at a family gathering) and I’ll carry along a journal or notebook to write in.
Step 1. I start with a simple prayer. You can’t pray too much. I feel that’s the best way to prepare me emotionally to clear my mind, feel at peace and get the inspiration I need. You can pray however you feel appropriate. I pray the way I was taught. (If you aren’t religious, that’s okay. Just find a quiet place and spend a good amount of time thinking, meditating, or pondering about what you want to accomplish in life generally and I believe you can have the same results).
Step 2. Think… Ponder… Brainstorm a lot. (Make sure you have scheduled a good deal of time for this. It can take anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours). Fill your notebook with anything and everything that comes to mind: all your faults that you want fixed; your ambitions and visions for life; the things you want; potential rewards for success, etc. Write until you absolutely can’t think of anything else you desire and your mind falls silent. Get it all out. This is critical to the perfectionist psyche. Get it all out.
Step 3. Categorize your list. These categories are open for your interpretation as you see fit. Keep in mind while categorizing your list that we set goals to ultimately improve and progress as human beings not to please demanding spouses or bosses or coworkers or parents or friends. Your goals need to mean something to you if you are to achieve lasting change and progress. As long as your goal means something to you, a difference will be made in your life and inevitably the lives of others around you. You will feel fulfilled, joyful and happy.
Here are the five categories that I use:
- What will make the biggest difference in my life AND is important to me?
- What will make a big difference in my life but is NOT important to me?
- What is important to me but will NOT make a big difference in my life?
- What would be nice for me, but just doesn’t matter?
- What is completely self-critical, unimportant, or expectations of others and not your own.
After you have categorized your list, Category 1 will innately become more important to you because as perfectionists we naturally want perfection and fast. Why is this step so important? Benefit from step 3: your mind is now settled on what’s important. This makes it easy to let go of the stuff that just doesn’t matter. Your laundry list will go from an inordinante amount of items down to just a few. [If you are an extreme perfectionist and really need to let go of some things write category 1 on a new piece of paper and burn or shred (destroy) the other pages. I’ve had to do this and it’s amazing. Adult supervision strongly encouraged ;) ].
Step 4. Determine which of the items on your list in Category 1 (items that will make the biggest difference in your life AND are important to you) you want to accomplish first. This is where you can involve urgency. Which is most important? Critical? Is there a time frame or due date? Which will be most fulfilling to me or will have the greatest affect on others? Rank the items according to your perception about how important or urgent they are.
Step 5. Select the TOP GOAL. Circle it. Underline it. Draw flowers around it. Whatever. Mentally accept, select, and resolve to do the first goal on your list. This step makes achievement simple. In doing this you need to tell yourself that the items left on the list will be accomplished next so that your perfectionist mind is appeased. You may blow through this goal in a few weeks and you’ll move rapidly on to the next one. You’ll be surprised at how many goals you can accomplish in a year if you tackle them one at a time. Even two goals can be overwhelming. Keep it simple. Keep it powerful.
Step 6. Set a plan to accomplish item ONE. (In my mind, item 1 of category 1 is my goal and this is my plan to accomplish my goal). This is where you’ll need to draw from your own interpretations of traditional goal setting techniques, but there are common guidelines of course. The SMART acronym applies here. Your plan needs to be:
S – Specific
M – Measurable
A – Achievable
R – Realistic
T – Timed
Stretch yourself (use your ambitious tendencies), but make sure that your plan is realistic and achievable. You do not want to set too lofty or ambitious of a plan. Doing so will only end in a burned out mind, body, and soul. It’s important to set time intervals: daily, weekly, monthly, how long? Due dates? Rewards? And be specific! Know exactly what you need to do and how you are going to do it and how long you have to do it. This plan can be simple but it needs to lead you down a path where the environment, mental and physical, will aid you in accomplishing your end goal.
Step 7. Affirmations. This may sound fruity, but I promise you this works for perfectionists. ACCEPT THE END GOAL AS PART OF WHO YOU ARE and remind yourself everyday, several times a day, about your new self. This will give you an incredible amount of motivation and resolve to follow through with your plan.
A Simple Example From My Life
I apologize for using myself as an example, forgive me. For as long as I can remember I have wanted to keep a daily journal of my thoughts, feelings, and actions. I didn’t want to be the once a week on Sunday type of guy. But for years I failed over and over and it baffled me. I would write for a week or two weeks straight and then I’d miss one day and wouldn’t pick up my journal till months later. This bothered me. How could I develop the habit?
Last July 15th, I sat down to do one of these exact planning sessions. I called this my D-Day, or Decision Day. I knew exactly what I wanted to do so it didn’t take me long. I settled on journal writing as the item that would make the biggest difference and that was the most important to me at that time. I set the obvious plan of writing in my journal every single day before I retired for the night. But what I did differently this time was to add the affirmations of step seven… and that has made all the difference.
Previously, when I had made “bold” efforts at developing a journaling habit I didn’t really believe that I was a journaler or feel like one. The result is that each night I was forced to make an official decision as to whether or not I was going to write. I had the capacity and the resolve to make that decision for only a few days in a row until one day I was too tired and decided to write the next morning… three months later I pick up my journal to write that entry. That’s not good enough for a perfectionist.
This time was different. I set my goal and made these affirmations: “Seth Ellsworth writes in his journal every day. Seth Ellsworth is an avid journal writer.” I said it over and over again until I really believed it and repeated it for several days thereafter. Result: on that D-Day I made my decision and I haven’t had to make that decision again. Journaling isn’t a big deal now because it’s part of who I am and what I do. Best part: I’ve been able to maintain journaling while focusing on other important goals and benchmarks. Make the decision once and then just be who you are and your goal becomes a piece of cake because it’s no longer a big deal.
A word of caution: Don’t kill yourself if you misstep, but be quick to forgive yourself and maintain who you are. It’s okay to adjust your goals too. Just reaffirm. It’s critical that your goal, in this case, be achievable and something that you’ll want to maintain. Be sure not to set end goals that are highly dependant on the decisions and choices of others. There are lots of ways you can personalize this. Use your judgment. Some end goals are a one-time achievement. This process will work just the same. If you need extra help to be consistent, I’d suggest going down to the store to get a poster calendar that shows all of 2008. Cross off each day as you go along and the motivation to keep the streak alive will be powerful if the goal really means something to you.
Be careful about what you accept as part of who you are. Only focus on one goal at a time. You can accomplish many goals in a calendar year. Follow these steps and you’ll surprise yourself at what a perfectionist can accomplish! Be cool.