When it comes to goal setting, people fall either into the ‘set them’ or ‘screw them’ camp. Some of us are born bullet journalers or feel lost without a five-year plan, while others find it all too prescriptive and prefer to live in the now.
As a productivity coach and neuroscientist, I’m firmly in the ‘set them’ camp; I believe a degree of direction for our personal life, our health and wellbeing, our work and our careers is vital. But equally the direction needs to be the right one; true goals aren't just an Instagram hashtag or something to satisfy our need to be busy, they lead us to a happy and fulfilled life. This is something that we too often lose sight of in our quest to tick off the house, the promotion or the accolade – which in itself can be driven by the fear of what will happen if we don’t achieve the next milestone. There's even a term for it: FOMOG: Fear Of Missing Out on Goals.
I see time and again people chasing goals that they believe will make them happy, but that don’t deliver on their expectations – that longed-for promotion that doesn't, in the end, bring a sense of deep fulfilment.
Increasingly people are paralysed by uncertainty, changing jobs repeatedly or chasing work while forgetting to live. It’s amazing but time moves faster than we generally wish. Too many people live their life on the premise of “I’ll be happy when…” only to discover that the "when" keeps shifting further and further away.
If you're stuck in circumstances that might on paper be ticking boxes but that don’t make you feel like you're are living your best life, or even a healthy life, it may be time to take a fresh look at what you are striving for.
Let's start with this thought. We've all had those ‘dark nights of the soul’ where those big existential questions crop up:
* What is the meaning of my life?
* How can I be happier?
* Is this all there is to life?
* What am I here for?
I've had them myself and it can be really unsettling. At times I’ve been totally at a loss for answers, feeling uncertain of what it is I really want. Feeling conflicted about your goals can leave you feeling adrift, unsure of where to place your best efforts or in which direction to steer your life's course. But these big questions, although they may seem scary, actually provide us with vital clues for meaningful goal setting. Material goals and milestones change as we change, but the fundamentals of how goals make us feel endure for life. If we can answer those big questions with curiosity and without feeling afraid, then we're on the right track.
So how do we get to that stage? The best goals are those that contribute to a ‘good’ life, according to Positive Psychology, the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. A good life creates health, according to Robert Waldinger, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, director of the longest study on adult life and happiness. His 2015 TED Talk What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness has been viewed 24 million times.
But if things were so simple, why would so many of my clients, who’ve supposedly ticked most of their life goal boxes with great jobs, nice houses and a massive list of contacts feel so empty inside, lonely and deeply scared?
The answer turns out to be far simpler and far more fixable than we realise. What unites many of the people I coach – and you may recognise yourself here too – is one key feature, being trapped in a situation where our heart and our mind are moving apart. We've lost connection with ourselves.
It is much harder to give your heart to a company or a boss when you feel undervalued or constantly under threat. It's tough to love doing your own thing when your mind is telling you that it’s not working and you may as well quit. And for the creatives I work with, it is incredibly difficult to sustain and fuel creativity when your mind constantly doubts that your work will be good enough for your client, in whose hands your reputation lies.
At times like this, the mind runs scared and does not want to trust what the heart is telling it. The heart responds by shutting down, expecting to get hurt. Like warring spouses, they stop talking to each other. But a genuine connection between the two leads to productivity, motivation, happiness – the feeling that the stars are aligned in all that we do and that we're on the right path. The wisdom of our deep intuition and of knowing what's right for us bubbles up when mind and heart talk to each other and support each other.
Magdalena’s TEDx talk Let Your Heart Drive and Your Brain Lead the Way
I like to think of a good heart/mind connection as intuition or instinct – knowing and feeling what’s right. When we’re disconnected, we're often too much in our heads - the mind begins to run the show and we pay more attention to the latest adverts and Instagram likes of our ‘friends’ or ‘customers’ than the things that really make our hearts deeply glad – a beautiful view or a moment of connection with someone in real life. In effect, we're chasing goals that are only part of who we are; no wonder it can feel like there is always something missing and so we go on to chase the next thing in the belief that this will finally be what makes us happy.
Technology is widening the heart/mind gap too. It separates us from experiencing our own body, feeling comfortable in our own skin, and having a genuine connection with our loved ones. My clients often tell me that their relationships are going pear-shaped and they ache to recover creativity and sense of who they really are outside of their job, their social standing or their financial wealth.
My task as a coach is to help people eliminate that heart/mind conflict in order to know what their best life looks like – their true goals. Body and soul working together and we are where we’re meant to be. Feeling aligned in head and heart makes us feel happier and more motivated. In my experience, once people crack this, they go on to achieve great things, have less stress and become far more content with the big questions such as who am I and where am I going.
The true definition of ‘a good life’ is deeply subjective, but our ability to create it is massively dependent on us staying connected more with what we desire and feel good in rather than chasing whatever we’re told is the latest must-have.
So how do we use our smarts to set our compass towards life goals that are truly worthwhile for both heart and mind, that motivate to move us forward and bring us greater contentment?
Try this simple exercise to get your heart/mind compass back and discover your true goals. And I promise you, those dark nights of the soul won't seem so dark after all.
5 WAYS TO FIND YOUR 'BEST LIFE' GOALS
1. What do you value?
Get clear with yourself on one important thing: you matter and your life matters!
The day you own this belief is the day your life changes for the better because you begin to appreciate and value yourself as a valuable element in the larger constellation of life, your connections, workplace and business. A good way to do this is to write down a list of things that are better because you’re around and who benefits because you are in their life.
2. How can you add value to others?
Adding value to other people not only helps them advance but us too. By taking our minds off ourselves for a time, we actually return to ourselves with greater creativity, resourcefulness and a more positive regard for how brilliant and helpful we are. In other words, we feel empowered by helping others do well. Only a very scared or closed-hearted person waits on the sidelines and does little to help others.
Write down how you’d like to add value, to whom and why. Don’t just opt for supporting your favourite charity. Tell your boss how helpful and amazing your colleague is. Find people you can help a little every day and just do it.
3. When were you last truly happy?
Go over the last two to three weeks and pinpoint times when you felt genuinely happy and dizzy with delight. I doubt it will be a social media posting unless it’s that funny cat video that’s gone viral. If you can’t think of any, you need new goals ASAP. When was the last time you allowed yourself to properly relax and not fret over something or fully lost yourself in enjoying an activity without contemplating what else there is to do? Choose to own and practice being happy now, every day, rather than being happy "when...".
4. Who are the positive people in your life?
List the people you love spending time with. Get regular dates in the diary to see them. Nothing communicates respect and love more than the gift of our time to those we treasure, be they clients, friends, family or our neighbour.
5. How can you shape your living space?
Where and how would you ideally live in a way that would give you to the least physical, emotional, and psychological stress?
Have an ideal that you decide to work towards – try making a vision board and see how you can bring as many of the key features of these ideas into your daily life. For example, if your vision involves calm and seclusion but you live in a busy house or on a noisy street, aim to bring elements of calm into your space with a favourite corner. Resolve to make the now be in your present or change your present to match what you want as closely as possible.
For help reconnecting with who you are and where you want to be, Magdalena runs one-day practical heart and mind retreats.
The next workshop takes place on 12 April 2019 in central London and costs £99 plus VAT (early bird for the first 8 people), regular price £150 plus VAT. To Book go to www.maketimecount.com/retreat .
Find more about Magdalena at maketimecount.com .