I just spent an hour cleaning out my journal and as a side effect, reviewed my goals and to-dos for the past six months. Some I accomplished, many not, and I felt a perplexing mixture of pride and defeat. I then recognized something rather obvious about my “to-dos” and it struck me as important to remember:
Some goals are to be DONE. Checked off, completed, high-five, wahoo!
Most are constantly in need of DOING.
It takes courage and intense focus to take a big step: start or grow your business, paint a wall a new color, sign up for a class, start a book, get married (or divorced), buy a car, plan an adventure.
But the real struggles come with the goals that require constant maintenance, those that must be done regularly, in perpetuity, forever, never get to take a break…. Many aren’t even worth an “honorable mention” to the world outside one’s own head. This is the arena of the start/stop of resolute habits: eating for health, exercising, daily flossing, weekly desk clearing, weeding, paying bills on time. To my mind, many of these are not worth the worry and self-loathing that they incite. Rather they stem from, and contribute to, toxic perfectionism.
It could be lovely to move through each day, and without thinking simply put things back where they belong, do sit-ups and walk in nature a bit, and find the time for all the niceties. But having a neat desk or ideal weight cannot be the ultimate measures of a meaningful life (please the gods, let that be so!). They can either support, or detract from, the exciting ideas. Unfortunately, this category also includes the very big deals, the ones that can build or destroy the chance for your dreams to come true. These are habits can endanger your basic well-being, or connect you with what you want most, and the pressure of facing them doesn’t ever go away for long. Life will keep bringing these back to choose again and again and again.
- To stop: smoking, eating compulsively, drinking alcohol/taking drugs, or spending more money than you make.
- And to start: conscious breathing or meditating, getting outside, writing down thoughts, keeping promises to self and others.
These are not a cookie-cutter listings: we each have our own knowledge of what our inner selves know is “right just for me.” We only have to follow our self-loathing or peace of mind to know what is what.
This big problem with these chronic life changers is that they do not have the built-in power of a newly minted commitment. Anything that requires us to refocus on them daily too often morphs them from new habits into dreaded chores: we lose sight of the pain they caused, and have not fully received the joy they bring. At the beginning it is easy to love the new behaviors. Then we get overconfident, skip a day, then two. Soon comes the horrifying moment when we cannot imagine how we every managed to maintain the routine, the ability to say “No, thank you”, or to look forward to a walk every day regardless of the weather.
This isn’t your fault, really. This is 100% human conditioning, undoubtedly encoded in our DNA. The brain cannot sort and prioritize automatically: it wants to forget the pain of living the old ways, and think that everything is fine. This is why we rely on daily reminders, readings, encouragement from others, and tangible rewards. Or else our brain moves to the next immediate source of pleasure, even if we know it will ultimately cause more pain. Why in hell would anyone who has managed to quit smoking ever think she can just smoke one and be okay? Why would she want to smoke just one?
Many who have never benefited from support groups wonder why people continue to attend twelve-step meetings when they’ve been abstinent for a decade or more. “How do you think I’ve stayed sober?!” is the standard response. At Weight Watchers the other day, the leader showed us her fat photo, and announced “I’ve been within five pounds of my goal weight for over ten years. You want to know how? I’ve been coming to meetings and writing down my food both as a participant and as a leader, consistently; and I know that without it I wouldn’t have been able to keep if off.” Not everyone has to attend a group meeting. For some of us it takes a courageous act of getting on the scale every day, or getting a dog so we have to walk. Maybe we make a promise to a grandchild who asks us to quit smoking, and we “do it for someone else.”
Do whatever it takes. Because then you’re free to go for the lovely goals and dreams.