As we approach the new year, this is the time when we think about New Years’ resolutions. What do you want to be different in your life this year? Do you want to lose 15 pounds? Invest more in your marriage? Discipline your kids better?
Unfortunately, the problem with these resolutions is that they’re usually thought up on a whim. We could have just looked in the mirror two days before January 1st and decided we wanted to lose weight, or had a particularly hurtful argument with our teenager the night before. If we want to make lasting resolutions that aren’t just forgotten by the end of January, we need to set reasonable goals that fit within a larger version of our future.
In short, we need to understand our why. Why do we want to lose weight? Why do we want to stop our bad habits? We need to create a vision or mission for our lives if we expect to follow through on any of these goals. This is a form of self-care because as you begin to know yourself and your greater vision, you are able to make choices in alignment with your desires for your future. It can help you leave behind the pressure of the urgent in favor of prioritizing what’s important.
Why is purpose important?
In Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, he coins a phrase called the Stocksdale Paradox, informed by a conversation he had with Admiral Stocksdale, who was a prisoner of war in the Vietnam War. When asked how he survived the prison camps for seven years, he answered that he had to both face the reality of the situation he was in, and also hold that in tension with hope and vision that he would overcome.
Similarly, Victor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, speaks about how he survived the concentration camps in World War II. He names that those who were most likely to survive were those who had a purpose to move toward.
When life gets difficult, it can be easy to lose sight of our vision for the future. This lack of purpose can lead to hopelessness or apathy about what’s yet to come, which can easily morph into depression. Alternatively, when you are living out your purpose, you can find yourself in a state referred to as flow by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi. You might recognize flow by feeling "in the zone". When you find yourself in this state, you can find hope and connect to something greater than yourself.
How can I find my purpose?
For most of us, we aren’t born knowing our purpose for our life. This develops over time as we discover our passions and our gifts. But what might be some ways to facilitate that exploration and understanding?
Imagine your funeral.
Okay, so this one might be a little bit morbid. Imagine that you’re at your funeral. What do you hope people are saying about you? Make a list of the qualities you’d hope to have describe you, and think about how your life reflects those current values. As you uncover what you truly desire to be remembered about you, the values important to you become clear.
List your gifts, talents, and skills.
What are you good at? What do you enjoy? What have others indicated are your gifts? What skills do you have? The place where your greatest passion and talents meet is where you will find your purpose. These give us a sense of intrinsic motivation, where we do work that we love just for the sake of it. This intrinsic motivation drives goals more than external motivations, and it also improves our mental health.
The reality is, you can’t tackle all of your goals at once. If I could, I’d be a master baker, a proficient knitter and crocheter, and a sewing maven. Sadly, I am none of those things. But I am becoming an increasingly skilled therapist by working on that particular area because I know it is a priority for me. Choose one area to focus on, perhaps that has to do with your vocation or your most important value.
Start big and then narrow down.
I’m a big culprit of losing the forest for the trees, so it’s helpful for me to think about my life in terms of a long-term vision, then narrowing it back to the present day. Start with goals you hope to achieve five years from now. Then ask yourself: what can I do in the next year to prepare for that five-year goal? Once you’ve identified that, look at what you can do this month to meet the yearly goal, and what you can do this week to meet the monthly goal.
For example, let’s say you want to run a marathon in the next five years. Maybe that means at the end of this year you want to run a 10k. This month you want to be up to running 2 miles straight without walking. This week you need to go out for two 1-mile runs.
Studies show that depression leads to setting vague goals that are difficult to follow through on, which feeds back into the depression. Breaking these goals into smaller chunks makes them more manageable. Find that first small step you can take to move toward your goal. Each step you take can help you to gain momentum.
Create a routine that implements some of these goals.
Schedule these goals in to your calendar! Adding these activities to your schedule makes you more likely to carry them out. If you struggle with depression this can be a great way for you to break out of the funk. As you begin to achieve more simple activities that move you toward your larger life goals, you will feel a sense of agency and control over your future.
Check in with yourself on a regular basis to make sure you’re living into your goals.
How many times have you set goals for yourself and then immediately forgotten about them? Instead, display them somewhere prominent where you will see them on a daily basis. Set an appointment with yourself to review these major goals each week or month. Do a quick assessment each month to see where you’ve done well with your goals and what changes you could make to improve.
Have patience and don’t beat yourself up!
Change in habits to align with our values is a slow, long-term process. Cultivate patience with yourself to prevent spiraling down into depression if your goals go unmet. Give yourself grace to make mistakes, and use that as an opportunity to troubleshoot and see what’s in the way of your goals.
Stay accountable with a friend.
Do you have a friend who’s hoping to change some of their habits this year? Use this person as a resource and hold one another accountable for exploring your purpose for the future. Talk with them about your vision. Discuss your weekly review of your goals or your monthly assessment with them. Having a friend to talk about it with can make all the difference!
My hope is that as you set this intention and begin to make changes to align your life with your values, you’ll experience a sense of achievement and purpose that you wouldn’t have felt otherwise.
Do you struggle to keep to your resolutions? Maybe you feel purposeless, or like you don’t really know what you’re doing with your life. If you’re looking for more clarity and hope about your vision for the future, I’d love to help. Restored Hope is a therapy office serving the Ann Arbor area of Michigan, and I offer counseling services that help you sort through some of those messy questions in life. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 today or fill out my form to schedule your first appointment.