Getting on Track: Setting Goals for the Year that Aren’t Totally Self-Centered

by Gregg Krech

“It must be borne in mind that the tragedy in life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal — the tragedy lies in having no goal to reach.” — Benjamin Mays


In many of the workshops I conduct we begin by having people introduce themselves to someone else and as part of that introduction share the three most important things they’ve accomplished during the past year. For some people this turns out to be a very depressing inquiry. They scan the past months searching for something important they’ve done but find that they have little to show for the past year beyond “survival.” Indeed, some participants will actually say that “getting through the year” was a major accomplishment. Most of us would like to finish the year with some sense, in concrete terms, that we’re further along the “road to a meaningful life” than we were last January. But what does that road look like and where is it headed? If we don’t give some thought to that question at the beginning of the trip, we’re likely to end up at some random destination (including one which is not very far from where we started) and then, after the fact, find ourselves dissatisfied with the direction we’ve taken.

Though we’re already checking days off our 2024 calendar, it’s not too late to step back and reflect on where you’ve been and where you’re headed.

Start with Self-Reflection
Before you grab a pen and paper and start listing goals for the year, take some time to reflect on your life. This not only gives you some perspective on your situation, but it allows you to identify goals that may go beyond your own self-interest. If our goals are purely self-centered, they are unlikely to be very satisfying in the long run. But goals which serve some purpose beyond our own happiness and welfare create meaning in our lives. They help us to feel useful and give us a sense of worthwhile purpose.

I recommend a method of self-reflection called Naikan. Naikan originated in Japan and was developed by Ishin Yoshimoto. His method asks us to consider three questions:

1. What have I received from _____?
2. What have I given to _______?
3. What troubles and difficulties have I caused ______?

You can use this framework for reflecting on a specific person for the past year. For example, you might reflect on your spouse, your best friend, your boss, a colleague at work or your mother. Yoshimoto recommended that we spend 60% of our time reflecting on the third question – the troubles and difficulties we caused the other person. This is the most challenging question and one that requires us to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. In essence, we are asking, “What is it like for my wife to be married to me?” or “What is it like for my boss to work with me?”

You can spend several days reflecting on your life or several hours. During a Naikan Retreat you would spend an entire week doing this type of self-reflection — all in all, over 100 hours. But most of us will be limited to what we can do in our own homes. So do what you can and then move on to identifying some goals for the coming year.

Write down your goals
Writing is a wonderful process for helping to crystalize your thoughts. So write down some goals and use the pages of notes from your self-reflection time as a resource. One idea that I have found useful is to identify key people who have been supportive and, after I have done Naikan on those individuals, to identify something I would like to do or give to each of those people.

For example, Steve, a colleague, went out of his way to loan me his car the week my car was in the shop.  He also let me use his woodworking tools to make my daughter’s bed and gave me a dozen tomato plants for our garden.  I’d like to schedule a weekend to have his daughter stay with us so he and his wife can go to Boston.

I try to limit my list to no more than seven people to make this a realistic goal. Once I have completed my list and have an idea for each person I have my first goal:  to give those gifts or services to each person I identified.

Some of the people on my list were helpful in important ways this past year. Others provided support many years ago. When we’re facing a challenge or dilemma and someone helps us, there is a moment when we are very aware of how important their actions are. We realize how challenging our situation would have been had they not stepped forward and supported us — with time, money, advice or practical help. But that awareness fades rather quickly as our life moves forward and we no longer remember the impact of their help. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of our memory fading. In other cases, there may be some tension or difficulty with that person that developed afterward, so we no longer see the earlier acts of support as very important.

Taking time to reflect and building a series of goals/gifts around that reflection reminds us of the support and care we have received from others and gives us an opportunity to reciprocate, at least in some small way, and show our gratitude.

Now come up with some additional goals. You may find it helpful to think about different categories. For example, you might have goals related to your family, career, finances, health, community, education, social life or spiritual development. In my book, A Finger Pointing to the Moon, I mentioned four characteristics of a good goal. They should be:

A. Specific
B. Controllable
C. Written
D. Time-Limited

Here are some other tips for coming up with useful goals:

1. Make sure your goals represent something that is really important for you to do. Sometimes people identify goals because they sound good. Perhaps you would like to write a book or take a trip to some exotic place. Then, down the road, you don’t make the effort you need to accomplish your goal, because, well . . . you’re just not willing to sacrifice the time and energy involved.

2. Setting goals is a time for vision and dreams. Don’t handcuff yourself with boundaries that stifle dreams of what you really want to do. A good question to ask yourself is, “If I could do whatever I wanted to do, without any constraints, financial or otherwise, what would I do?” This may help you to think creatively about your life and your future. Ultimately, you have to work with reality — we all do. But if you allow yourself to dream, you may find some creative strategies and paths that you hadn’t considered.

3. In addition to the question “what do I want to do?” consider the question “what is needed of me?” This question helps you look outside yourself for a role and purpose in life. We see ourselves as servants to God/Buddha/Life and we find meaningful goals by going where we are needed. Years ago I was in Thailand and had an opportunity to visit a refugee camp on the border of Laos. I thought I could help best by offering workshops or ideas to the mental health counselors in the camps, but instead I ended up getting involved with a program that helped support orphan children. The kids didn’t need counseling nearly as much as they needed toothpaste, medicine and clothing. So I went back to the U.S. and raised funds for these kids. I don’t like doing fundraising and I’m not very good at it. But that’s what was needed. In the long run, I received tremendous joy from my work and the time I spent with the children each year. Responding to the “need” that was right in front of me gave me a wonderful opportunity to do something worthwhile and rewarding.

Do We Really Need Goals?

There are some good arguments against setting goals. First, they can be nothing more than a strategy for procrastination. Some people confuse setting goals with actually working towards achieving them. Beware of using goal-setting as simply a way of putting off what you know you need to do. Second, some people take a very down-to-earth view that goals are unnecessary. Michele Pfeiffer, in the movie, The Fabulous Baker Boys, says she never makes New Year’s resolutions because, “You do what you do, right?” On the other hand, “what you do” may be different if you take time to step back from your life and reflect on how you are living. That’s why a retreat, or a long vacation, often gives you a different perspective on your life and work. And then there are those who prefer flexibility and spontaneity and don’t want to be handcuffed by clear, identifiable goals. There’s a story about Charlie Brown in which he is shooting arrows into a wooden fence and, after each shot he runs over to the fence and draws a bull’s-eye around the arrow. Lucy comes along and says, “Hey, that’s not how you practice. You’re supposed to draw the target and then shoot at it.” To which Charlie Brown replies, “If you do it my way, you’ll never miss.”

Ultimately, if you are satisfied with how your life has evolved and the direction you’re headed, you may not need to set goals. But one of the advantages of a process grounded on self-reflection is that it gives us an opportunity to look at the impact of our actions on others. We may live very purposefully, and get a lot of things done, but in the process, we can step all over people and cause a great deal of suffering. Successful people don’t always pay much attention to the cost of their success to others.

Whatever your goals and plans, life may not cooperate according to schedule. Life has a way of moving forward according to its own plans, even when those plans are a bit different from your own. So be prepared to make some adjustments, establish new priorities and have the flexibility to respond to what life sends your way. Not withstanding these inevitable surprises and unexpected events, you may still find it helpful to move forward through the year with some clear direction and one which, in part, recognizes that you have come this far thanks to the kindness of generosity of many people and things. This is a good year to reciprocate.



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