Did you have goals in 2020? Did they go to shit?
We all had goals but also had to relinquish a lot of them. Relinquish, reframe, recreate.
The most tangible goals I tend to have are fitness related. The normal goals for running and triathlon are races—breaking 3 hours in a marathon, finishing a swim race not-last.
And obviously that didn’t happen in the pandemic. It was, again, obviously disappointing. But somehow I still managed to train: I replaced my commute with exercise—biking, strength work and yoga in the living room, running consistently without pressure. It kept me grounded; it gave me a boundary with work; it gave me essential mental health time.
When the year turned, I looked back and felt proud of all of that work, but I had nothing to mark it. Nothing to point to for anyone else. No races. No PRs. No milestones. Just consistent work. Just an overall feeling of being stronger.
And it still felt good.
But in other areas, I wasn’t able to get that sense of satisfaction. I’d get overwhelmed at the idea of a big personal project, start working on it briefly, and give up without a line of sight to accomplishment that other people could recognize.
Why was I okay with my fitness accomplishment and not okay with everything else? I had still accomplished a lot—I was metaphorically stronger in other areas of my life—but didn’t get the sense of satisfaction of a job well done.
It has made me think about how I structure my goals.
A good friend of mine and founder of Goal and Grind has a framework for cultivating goals in four areas: personal, professional, health, financial. I’m realizing I’ve always been solid at the ‘health’ (fitness, strength, eating a lot, sleeping a lot) bucket there, but somehow I don’t mentally translate my approach to setting and tackling fitness goals to my other three areas.
I still feel great about how I’m doing in those other areas most of the time, but for some reason my frame for thinking about them isn’t as sophisticated.
This is partly because fitness is so grounded in those milestones and in the clear, structured process of getting to them. But in 2020, I was also able to translate the structured process into a rewarding daily habit that made me feel strong instead of the external goal of a race or time.
So why wasn’t I thinking that way about my other goals? Why wasn’t I feeling accomplished for meditating every day, for starting and continuing a daily writing practice? Why did I think about my professional goals in such a vague, distant way even though I was doing work for them every day?
As we turned into the anniversary of the pandemic, I started thinking about those other big goals and why they seemed so overwhelming. And (thanks to lots of long conversations with my spouse and friends) I eventually realized I needed to translate my approach to fitness to everything else.
For running: I do a little most days, take my recovery seriously, mix in other types of exercise, build gradually over time, work hard on the hard days, and don’t worry too much if I have an off day.
For everything else: I tend to act like I can accomplish whatever it is by pushing extremely hard for a short period of time and feel disappointed in myself if I don’t get it done.
But in fact, for everything else, whether it’s a big creative project, a long-term work goal, a mental health goal, a savings goal: I should also do a little most days, take my recovery seriously, mix in other kinds of work, build gradually over time, and don’t worry too much if I have an off day.
Easy to say, obvious now, but weird to realize in the moment.
So I started rethinking how I saw my goals. Setting the achievable daily goal to just do a little bit.
I started a habit tracker in the beginning of all this, March 2020: a simple table with rows of check marks. And that has become my milestone.
To be honest, I made it when I realized I wasn’t brushing my teeth in the mornings.
I used to brush my teeth the last thing before I left the house to get the train to work. Then I’d meditate and read on the train (two other things I’d started to neglect). I’d see friends at a happy hour after work, maybe go to a volunteer meeting too. I no longer had my commute and outings to tie these good habits to, so I neglected them.
I needed another way to get them back. So enter habit tracking! I still sometimes forget to brush my teeth after coffee in the mornings, but now I know exactly how often I remember. I mark when I’ve socialized, when I wrote, when I took vitamins, had good boundaries with work, meditated, engaged in activism, exercised, cleaned the litter box, read, did something creative. I ticked off the things each day that made me feel better, the things that moved me toward the person I’m trying to be. A goal, even if it may be a little intangible.
So I’ve also started to see those checks as a more holistic accomplishment. There might not be a milestone—that big overarching goal—but there is the daily work. There is the progress toward a thing by doing a little each day.
So it’s been a year without goals. But it’s also been the year of moving towards goals anyway.
The year of doing something creative most days. The year of conscientiously connecting with friends with letters, phone calls, texts, emails, when you can’t see them in person. The year of writing in a journal every day. The year of having boundaries with work when it’s in your home. The year of learning to honor my habits, and not just the fitness ones, as accomplishments.