How to Be with your Goals

by Brian Brittain on January 13, 2023

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I set personal and professional goals. Some explicit and some implicit. “Humans are a goal-directed species” (Elliot Jaques, Ph.D. in Human Capability). I encourage my clients to set goals. That is the starting point for development, keeping our attention, behaviour and resources aligned on essential life goals.

However, during the first two years of Covid, I did a deep personal assessment and development dive into my current reality, what kind of life I wanted to live, and how I wanted to show up for that life. After all, I am down to my last third. Lots of inner work, meditation, readings, adult development course taking, and writing went on during those years from 2020-2022 as I sat alone in my room. The most important realization of that journey is that I am happiest when I am present. Present for whatever happens. Whether I was washing the dishes, on a hike, listening to my wife or a friend, or watching my favourite Netflix series, it didn’t seem to matter. If I was fully engaged in the present circumstance, I felt happy. What also occurred to me was that I am unhappy when brooding about past events or anxiously anticipating a future that will make me happy.

This confused me, as it contradicted my goal setting and pursuit of those goals. How do I think about and intend my future and simultaneously be in the present moment? Does this mean I should abandon setting goals for the future and passively react to each new moment? This has taken another year for me to see how to successfully work on my goals and live in the present moment simultaneously.

My ah-ha moment happened when I saw that the problem wasn’t with setting goals or designing the ideal life but was in how I related to these goals as I lived my life from moment to moment.

We live 99% of our life in the process. Achieving our goals is so fleeting—a wonderful feeling, but it doesn’t last as we move on to living in the process toward our next goal. The problem is that we don’t live our life within the process, which would mean being fully engaged in each moment as it arrives and unfolds. Instead, most of us (as I said earlier) are feeling guilty or regretful about the past or anxiously longing for or anticipating a future that we think will deliver happiness (if only…a promotion, successfully launched children, eliminating debt, getting physically fit, solving a sleep problem, etc.) When our minds are preoccupied with the past and future, we dance over the present rather than live the process. When I live like that, distracted by thoughts and negative emotions about the past and future, I miss living now. Consequently, I am often miserable and generally feel like something is missing.

During Covid, when most things stopped, I was faced with the question of how I could puncture the project of seeking happiness (more clients, more travel, better health, more money, less fat, less wine) in a future that never arrives. What thankfully occurred to me was that as long as I stayed present in the moment, I was already just fine as I was and could still get better. I understood how I could hold both notions simultaneously as truth. How I am now and what I have here is enough. Things are fine today, and I can still work on evolving them. As opposed to—my life is not good enough, and as soon as I get more of this, or get better at that, then I will be adequate or happy.

Today, I have my intentions for 2023, and I organize my life around many of them, but it has become more accessible and more fruitful for me to live toward the realization of those intentions or goals, by living fully engaged with each moment. My happiness is a function of how I live now and not based on something specific happening in the future. Now when shit happens, I adjust the goal and respond to what is new without judgment or regret and whining about how unfair it is. Well, most of the time.

So set your goals while realizing that life has its own random, unpredictable agenda that we have no control over and that your fulfillment comes from how you live now, as you respond wisely to each new occurrence and not from some ideal future that may never arrive.

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