Reflecting on some of the more difficult holiday seasons I've experienced in the past, I imagine this winter will be especially awful for plenty of people that have no choice but to isolate and weather the storm that is yet another year of viral plague and loneliness. If you're having trouble finding a reason to look forward to the New Year, I hope you can find something here that helps.
The questions surrounding the meanings we give to our existence have existed since our ancestors were capable of self-awareness, so this brief look into how we can identify our own purpose will include many questions as well as suggestions. After years of introspection on the topic of what the heck I'm meant to be doing, the conclusion I have come to is that nobody really knows what is going on. And despite this, experience and education in its varied forms do seem to provide a great many people with confidence that they have definitely found the answer to all of life's Big Questions. There's also a great many that, with the same information, have decided they might as well lie down and let The Void devour them whole.
If you decide that regardless of what The Truth is, you might as well keep yourself busy while you're trying to make sense of it all, it can feel like there are always some obstacles. Some of these obstacles might put you off setting any goals for yourself, perhaps even paralysing any progress whatsoever. It can feel easier to keep floating with the tide, until you're too far from shore and in way too deep.
The anxiety of Having To Decide can be overwhelming, especially if you're wondering whether there is any point in attempting to challenge Fate or fight against the swells of quickly passing Time. Luckily for us, the subjective plane of existence offers a safe harbour for the weary. Yes, it is OK to acknowledge your feelings and status as a human being, to seek comfort in ideas. We're going to do it, so why not pick a few good ones while we're at it?
The benefits of setting personal goals
If you're not setting goals for yourself and deciding what you want your life to look like, someone else is going to do it for you. Although the idea of never having to make a decision ever again might be highly appealing to some of us, the chances that forces outside of our control have the intention of creating our ideal lives for us are very slim.
There is no 'Secret' to success. Manifestation is psychological, not magical. Imagining that you weren't born into poverty or mental illness or a bad family situation won't change that fact. Choice is a luxury and a privilege, and most people do not have any control over their situations. But if there is part of your life that you do have control over, such as your behaviours, actions, and reactions, then you already have the power to change the course of history.
The longer you spend wasting time, energy and resources doing things that are not meaningful to you, the more you will lose confidence in your ability to make any change at all. In every moment, you are voting for what your life will look like, whether you are conscious of it or not. Don't get stuck waiting for your life to change, when (regardless of what your conditioned mind tells you) you always have a choice in every moment to make a decision that brings you closer towards the life you want.
So, what do you want your life to look like?
Wouldn't it be amazing to spend the rest of your life doing things you care about and enjoy? For a lot of us, that concept may seem so outlandish, it almost sounds like I'm about to ask you for your bank details or recruit you into a pyramid scheme, but there is no trick here and you don't need to pay for anything. All you need is yourself and maybe a pen and paper (we do sell some of those... but feel free to use what you already have).
If you haven't spent a lot of time thinking about what you want, or depression has viciously stolen all motivation and desire from your soul, you may find it easier to write down the things you definitely do not want. What has made you unhappy? What do you worry about?
e.g. "I definitely do not want to get respiratory complications resulting from inhaling black mould because I didn't have the energy to clean my bathroom for a month."
or "I definitely do not want to be forever alone as a result of my crippling anxiety"
If you have any ideas about things you definitely do not want, write them all down in a list. This might inspire you to think of things that you definitely do want, and you should write those down too. What has made you feel happy / fulfilled / content / proud?
My reflections on not wanting to get sick from mould have made me realise that my health is super important to me. It was one of the first things that came to mind, and I worry about it a lot. I could also deduce that I value cleanliness and the discipline that is required to keep things clean and orderly. The other example suggests that love, community and friendship are important to me, and I value the determination it takes to overcome social anxiety. Did you have any similar revelations? What is important to you? What are your values?
Your values will be your guiding stars for navigating the dark seas, so take some time to think about these carefully before setting sail. Setting goals or making plans without knowing why you are doing them will feel empty and pointless after a while, if not immediately. You'll lose motivation without a reason for doing what you are doing. Sometimes that reason will be 'just to get through the day / week / month' and that is absolutely valid. If possible, try to schedule some time ahead when you can rest, recover, and with a fresh mind, continue to plan your future.
You've set the baseline standard for your ideal life: the things you do not want, the things you want, the things that are important and the things you value. We want you not only surviving, but thriving! What inspires and excites you? What brings you peace and calms you?
How is this all achievable?
You already have an enormous library of innate abilities and talents, as well as learnt skills and knowledge. It could be useful to have a list that you can add to over time, which outlines things you have taken the time to learn, things that you are good at, and valuable resources you have access to. You may already have the beginnings of this in a CV / resumé as you would want potential employers to know what you can realistically achieve. But this exercise will be for yourself and it's not just about work, but what kind of environment would be good for your development and what kinds of people would benefit you to be around... All of these things should become more apparent when you are clear on your personal values, needs and wants, so be honest with yourself. What are your most developed skills and abilities? What do you need to learn or be better at?
Of course, your abilities and desires are not the only factors determining your likelihood of successfully setting and achieving your personal goals. We have discussed some of the barriers to success being environmental, social and societal. We may also have physical or mental barriers such as depression or lack of confidence. It can really feel like we're helpless and stuck when we face chronic psychological conditions, developing unhelpful coping mechanisms and thought patterns. It can be a long road to recovery and it is crucial to continuously come back to the question how can I make this easier for myself? This is not the same as looking for the easy way out - that is avoidance. What we are doing is looking for how to make the hard work bearable and effective, so that it is sustainable for you to maintain over the long term.
What are the things in your environment and situation that you can start to work on right now? If there are things that are preventing your personal growth and goal-setting, but you do not have control over them, are you able to distance or remove yourself from those unhelpful things or get help to overcome them? Choose actions and behaviours that keep you moving towards what is important, valuable and useful to you, and away from those that keep you feeling stuck. Rigid thinking is the death of progress, so if you find yourself sticking to a way of being despite it being unhelpful, you'll know it is time to make a change.
Never forget why you are aiming for the targets that you set yourself. Frame your motivations and hang them on the wall if need be. Ticking boxes is very satisfying indeed, but doing lots of things without good reason is being busy, not being productive. Keep referring to your values and overarching goals when you plan your months, weeks and days.
At times it can feel self-indulgent to focus so heavily on what you want, especially if you are part of a community or group that does not place great value on individualism. It could be an interesting discussion or thought exercise to philosophise a little on what individualism means to you, how your personal goals can benefit your community, and if your goals do not align with that of the group then what might be the middle way?
Making a plan
So now you are more clear on your needs, hopes and values:
what makes you unhappy and what you worry about
what makes you happy, fulfilled, proud and content
what is important to you
what your personal values are
what inspires and excites you
what brings you peace and calmness
And you have thought about how to overcome the barriers to your success:
the things you need to learn and get better at
how you can make setting and achieving goals easier for yourself
choosing to behave in ways that move you towards the life you want
how your personal goals can benefit your community, or at least not clash terribly with the needs of others
Now you can go forth and plan! When you know what is important to you, it is easier to come up with specific goals that will reinforce those values in your life. Choose one goal to work on right now. The tricky bit with goals is getting started and staying on track to achieving them, so be realistic. Break down your goals into small actionable tasks. Schedule in rest, self care, play, and socialising time before you schedule your tasks... unless your goal is swiftly descending into burnout. Make time each week to review your plans and move your schedule around if needed - adaptation is not failure, it's evolution!
All that is left to do is to choose one action you can take right now to create the life that you want. Take that step towards your ideal life.
I would love to hear your perspective on this topic. Have you had trouble figuring out what to do next in your life? What has helped you to overcome that? Do you agree with the points you've read here or do you have other thoughts? Please share your advice or experiences in the comments or in the Novel forum, so that others can benefit from it. Wishing you all the best with planning for the new year.
Acceptance & Commitment Therapy