A new year is usually a welcome period for most of us. It signifies a new beginning, a new hope, and a promise of the kind of changes we want to see in our personal and professional lives—losing weight, getting fitter, getting that promotion; in short, a new and improved version of us. However, despite the fervour and the long list of goals we begin the year with, as the year progresses and the novelty of the new year fades, many of our most cherished resolutions and goals fizzle.
How, then, do we ensure that we get all that we want in life? Let’s try a different approach; an approach that’s grounded in greater awareness of ourselves and might bring us a greater sense of meaning; a more mindful approach to setting and achieving our goals.
Being before Doing
In mindful goal setting, we begin with a very different question. Instead of asking “What do I want to do this year?” we ask “Who do I want to be?” In other words, we place the being above the doing. After all, you are a human being, not a human doing. Having said that, there are many different ways in which we can define our being. According to ancient Greek philosophy, every human being has a three-fold constitution that comprises the body (soma), the mind (psyche) and the spirit (nous). Wherever you place more emphasis will determine how stable your identity, and ultimately, how lasting your sense of happiness and fulfillment.
If you are anchored to the physical world (soma) that we can touch and see, you may, for instance, attach your identity to how you look or the material possessions you might have. Every day, every hour, every second, however, the human body is changing and ageing. If we ground our identity in something that is constantly changing, it does not give us a very stable identity. If anything, it makes us feel anxious and insecure.
If you define yourself through how you engage your mind (psyche), you may define yourself according to your profession (I am a teacher, an engineer, etc.) or your thoughts and preferences (“I am passionate about animal rights or women’s safety”). While these may be more enduring aspects of our being, they too can change or be challenged. What if you were to lose your professional identity tomorrow? Who, then, are you?
In order to define our being in a way that gives us the greatest sense of peace and fulfillment, the ancient Greeks believed we ought to ground our being in the most stable aspects of our being—things about us that are least likely to change, like our spirit or the nous. Our spirit here specifically refers to the values that you most deeply believe in: honesty, courage, humility, humour or compassion. Tomorrow, my physical identity (soma) may change and I may no longer look as youthful. My professional identity (psyche) may change as well, and I could be doing something completely different from what I am doing today. But, one thing that will never ever change about me is the fact I believe in living my life with courage, kindness and sense of discipline—the values and ideals that I look up to as my north star (nous).
The question for you, then, is what values do you believe in, and know for sure that you will continue believing in, no matter the situation or circumstance? Once you get clear on the unchanging ideals and values you hold most dear, we then begin the process of setting challenging goals anchored in those values that will allow us to become a greater embodiment or expression of those values. Like if I wanted to build my arm muscles, I would engage in an exercise regimen that challenges my arm muscles, and forces them to grow. If I want to build a value muscle, I set a goal that forces me to engage that value, and, in the process, strengthens my ability to work with that value. Let me share a few examples from my own life.
Goal: 100 Days of No Sugar
A huge core value for me is discipline. Last year, when I thought about where I can express greater discipline in life, my health emerged as a key area. For as long as I can remember, I have had a huge sweet tooth. While I have always been committed to physical fitness, I have never quite been able to kick my predilection for sugar. I decided I would challenge myself to go 100 days without any form of sugar (which includes processed sugar, all sugar substitutes and even fruits) to finally end my addiction, once and for all. While persisting with this goal was by no means easy, what kept me going each day was knowing that I wasn’t just doing this for my health, but also to embody a value that is important to me: discipline. Each day without sugar was getting me closer to the kind of woman I want to be, a woman who lives with discipline. And that was a powerful vision to work towards.
Value: Mindfulness (Mindful Consumption, specifically)
Goal: A Year-long Shopping Fast
Another value fundamentally important to me is mindfulness. As I thought about how I can practice mindfulness and live with greater awareness in all areas of my life, one area I knew I was falling short in was in my consumption of clothing. My deep interest in fashion and style eventually led to a closet overflowing with clothes, many of which were purchased on a whim and never even saw the light of day. My cluttered closet was creating a cluttered mind, not to mention the negative impact on the environment. And so, I decided I would go on a year-long shopping fast, and learn to appreciate and find new ways to wear what I already have.
I’m about 300 days into this fast, and I can already see a positive ripple effect in several areas of my life. I am now more aware and mindful of how I consume everything, from clothes to the furniture in my house, to food. Again, what allows me to persist with this goal is my commitment to a foundational core value: mindfulness.
If a more lasting sense of fulfillment is what we are after, placing our being before the doing, and our values before our goals is what gives us that feeling. Success, then, is not whether or not I can check the box on a certain goal in the distant future, but how I show up each single day in the pursuit of that goal. Instead of being anchored to the external world where we can’t always control the outcomes, we become attached to a more meaningful pursuit—our inner world and becoming a greater embodiment of our values—and that is something within our control. That is what we call leading from within.
So, who would you like to be this year?